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Ablade Glover: the celebrated Ghanaian artist who saw an empire stripped down, as his palette knife told a thousand stories

Professor Ablade Glover tells Turbare exactly why crowds excite him, as the legendary figure passes the baton to a new generation of artists, showing at his Accra gallery

Author Will McBain Mon 12th Oct 2020
Ablade Glover in his studio in Accra, in front of Profile and Red Forest pieces.

For the people who lived through it, the 1950’s were exhilarating times for vast swathes of West Africa. Empires were being stripped down and colonialists expelled by independence movements; self rule was being established, and an artistic flourishing was emerging from Dakar to Calabar.

Professor Ablade Glover, a seminal figure of the renowned West African generation of modern twentieth century artists, was at the vanguard of this African renaissance. Owing to a meeting with the first democratically elected President of Ghana, the revolutionary Dr Kwame Nkrumah, Glover was awarded a scholarship to travel and study abroad in 1958 in Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK, where the former colonial power was licking its wounds after two world wars and the loss of dominion.

Glover studied in Newcastle on a generous grant provided to him by the new Ghanaian government. While he was there, he also grew accustomed to the burgeoning London nightlife that was being energised by a generation of African and Caribbean migrants, many of whom had helped the UK in its efforts to defeat the powers of Nazi tyranny.

With his studies finished, Glover returned to Ghana to teach art in Winneba, but he returned to a country embroiled in subterfuge, insurrection, and a few failed promises. Glover was also a man whose character and love for large crowds was now too big for a sleepy town by the coast.

“I’ve not even seen a pallet knife, and I’ve never tried before! So I pick it up and I realised ‘Yeah, hey, it really registers your feelings’.”

-Ablade Glover

“I liked the teaching and the school but the town was a dull place. A man newly arrived from London has some life! So I moved to Accra to get some more life, but that was a time when there was a lot of upheaval in Ghana. People were trying to overthrow the Nkrumah government and there were a lot of bombs being thrown here and there; a lot of politicians were being imprisoned and there was no end to it. So that’s why I wanted to get out of the country, and I applied to Newcastle again to continue my studies.”

It was during his second stint in England’s north-east, that an art teacher picked up certain qualities in Glover’s demeanour, that he thought would ideally suit him to using a pallet knife to apply thick paint on to canvas. In so doing, the Ghanaian’s artistic identity would undergo its own revolution, and this metamorphosis would eventually spawn a plethora of imitators trying to capture the way Glover depicts the flurry of emotion emitted by sprawling crowds, in his legendary vivid palette.

“This man turned to me and said “the way you want things happen as you do, you need to use a pallet knife,” says Glover in conversation with Turbare. “I’ve not even seen a pallet knife, and I’ve never tried before! So I pick it up and I realised ‘Yeah, hey, it really registers your feelings.’ Immediately you register it, or you take it away. For me, that kind of spontaneity that happens, and therefore the accidents that happen, was great. And that was me, there was no turning back then.”

Glovers works explore urban subjects – market places, lorry parks, shanty towns – demonstrating the natural connection of the traditional African and modern Western Styles. His kaleidoscopic use of colour, and the textural qualities in his work, are redolent of brightly coloured Ghanaian textiles and fabrics. Whilst the milieu of early morning or late afternoon thronging crowds, in downtown marketplaces, are evocative of the energy permeating throughout Accra, Lagos, and many other West African urban centres.

“Crowds excite me! It’s the movement and the colour change. The colour moves, and that is Ghana.”

– Ablade Glover

“Crowds excite me! It’s the movement and the colour change. The colour moves, and that is Ghana,” says Glover. “The movement, and therefore the colour movement, it’s so exciting when there is no end to it. I like people, and the crowds and the movement of the crowds, and so on, and the pallet knife registers and takes it away if it doesn’t answer to your feelings. Take it away, with a pallet knife and scrape it off. So it’s not invasive or dangerous, and that is what I think is the central point of Ghana.”

Glover’s admiration and respect for women is apparent throughout his work. “Women are the bulwark of our nation,” says the artist. “They can carry their babies and still do work on the farm, they bring the goods to market, and when the men leave them for other women they still support their families. They’re particularly great, great souls, in spite of all the perils, they go on and on.”

Ablade Glover’s art is not only a reverence to women’s beauty and resilience, but also a statement of power after colonial exploitation, gender repression and economic exploitation, as in his paintings, women become the heroic figure prevailing against the everyday struggles of modern urban Africa.

Ablade Glover’s career has spanned over seven decades and women have increasingly filled senior positions in almost all aspects of Ghanaian life throughout that time. Yet his spectacularly arranged canvases continue to tell a story of survival of the Every Woman in an eruption of colour; but they also tell a story of home.

Now with Africa’s art market growing in recognition and liquidity, Mr Glover continues to show Ghana’s best emerging contemporary artists at his gallery in Accra, and introduce new visitors to the power of art from Africa.

“When we talk of African art most Western people think of masks and that type of thing, as our drawing and painting is not well known, but I’m very happy that I got the opportunity to tell the world. Now when people see contemporary art from here, they show real excitement and say “Wow, that’s something great”. Africa is moving and it’s not stagnant just sitting there. There is a very vibrant contemporary art world.”

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