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Serge Clottey: the artist who built a real life yellow brick road

The unconventional artist Serge Clottey tells Turbare he used lockdown to develop his painting style, as he continues to lead his GoLokal collective in shining a light on Ghana’s environmental and gender debates

Author Will McBain Mon 12th Oct 2020
Serge Attukwei Clottey in front of tapestry at his 'Current Affairs' exhibition during Brighton Festival, 2019. Photo: Brighton Festival

Serge Attukwei Clottey and his GoLokal collective are back to work post-lockdown, with the grassroots group of Accra citizens busy constructing recycled creations, to contemplate philosophies of migration, immigrant identity, and material culture, into thought-provoking new forms.

The early months of lockdown this year were tough on Clottey, who is an artist who believes it crucial that his works have a close relationship to his community before it is experienced abroad. In the La district of his hometown, roads have been carpeted with giant yellow tapestries that resemble the fictional “yellow brick road” of Wizard of Oz. Clottey periodically carpets the road as “a rebellion against the country’s property rights,” as many communities can’t prove land ownership due to a historic lack of proper documentation, and are therefore targets for exploitation.

Serge Clottey is an unconventional artist who operates without a straight narrative around his work. An ecosystem of ideas are brought to life which range from recycling plastic waste, to gender roles in Ghanaian society, to colonial trade routes between continents. Yet as time slowed down this summer, and his friends and colleagues were told to stay at home, Clottey sought new and improved ways to express himself.

“The situation kind of helped me develop a lot of ideas around my painting technique, and now that things are getting calm, I’ll be able to open a studio where my guys are able to come and start some work, but also this year helps us to understand and value time, and for us to value the working relationship we have,” Mr Clottey told Turbare.

As galleries reopen and collectives enjoy reunions, thoughts of migration and belonging still weigh heavily upon the artist who studied in Brazil, and who has traveled widely throughout his career. He now enjoys critical acclaim at his feet, and installations showcasing his work exist all around the world, but Clottey says issues of belonging and place must continue to be explored.

“We need to support ourselves, and we need to help establish the market and also sustain the market, in the interest of promoting Africa.”

-Serge Clottey

“I think that migration is something that’s unfinished, and it’s certainly not something that’s going to end anytime. It’s our lifestyle, you know. But we need to know the history of where we’ve come and gone to be able to stand strong and protect our properties and family.”

Clottey is a member of the Ga tribe, saying it’s his belief that the Ga people migrated from ancient Israel and are one of the so-called missing tribes. Traversing the Sahara desert according to that particular tradition of belief, the Ga people made Jamestown their territory, a fishing village within Accra (a village that’s home to the highest proportion of boxing gyms found anywhere in the world, and inspiration for British-Ghanaian artist Godfried Donkor’s mythologising of local boxers as historical martyr figures).

Clottey’s family migrated to La, but claim land in Jamestown was stolen from them, land which the Clottey’s seek to have returned. The 35-year-old artist’s work has been imbued with the reality of historical injustice; from the start of his artistic career gaining the attention of Western collectors and gallerists by using Instagram, and other social media to showcase his work.

His collective operates metres from the coastline where millions of Africans were uprooted and enslaved during the centuries-long Atlantic slave trade, and his 2015 Kufuor Gallons series announced the artist to the world’s stage. His Slave Ship 1 creation displayed the artist’s talent for building up layers of meaning. Graphic marks were superimposed on the patchwork grid to resemble tribal fabrics, where they also alluded to the famous diagram of the Brookes slave ship.

The Kufour Gallons series displayed what Clottey calls ‘Afrogallonism,’ which originated after the artist’s decade-long work with the ubiquitous 25 litre yellow containers, that are repurposed and cut into the patchwork pieces that help define Clottey’s work.

Imported from Europe containing oil, they became especially useful at the turn of this century, to carry and store water for those struggling with the country’s regular water shortages during President Kufour’s early years leading Ghana at the turn of this century.

Serge Clottey's assistants at work
Serge Attukwei Clottey’s assistants at studio in Accra.

Now GoLokal encourages cleaning-up efforts and provides revenue opportunities as the workshop pays $3 (£2.30) for every kilogram of Kufuor gallons collected. Roughly 3000 gallons went into the ‘Yellow Brick Road’ project, and thousands more have gone into making many of Clottey’s other aesthetically gorgeous pieces.

Clottey says that a growing art community in Ghana has the power to hold its leaders to account, as more artists make political statements alluding to impending economic challenges, ecological disasters, water shortages and gender rights in the country.

In the Ga tradition, a mothers’ belongings are locked away for a year after her death, and then distributed to her daughters and other women in the family. As Clottey was his mothers only child, he challenged this tradition. Feeling like important memories were being taken away, the artist famously dressed up in his mother’s clothes, carried her bags, and walked through the streets of Accra, and now performs in them with GoLokal, honouring both his mother and the wider community of women who are central to Africa’s family structure.

People from Accra are listening, and are welcoming the creations and opinions of one of the world’s most distinctive living artists, yet Clottey has still bigger plans and believes his art, and other art from Africa has the power to redefine how the continent is perceived both at home and internationally.

As the art market grows, Clottey welcomes the diaspora buying his art, but hopes they will also use their skills and experience to improve Ghana and help businesses grow in the West African nation.

“It’s not like they are collecting just because they want to have a piece of Africa in their home, or to promote Africa, there’s a business motive behind that. So Africans are realising that they need to embrace who they are, and how far they’ve been able to rise, but I also think we need to support ourselves, and we need to help establish the market and also sustain the market, in the interest of promoting Africa.”

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