Atta Kwami: Maria Lassnig Prize Mural
In partnership with the Maria Lassnig Foundation, Serpentine presents a public art mural by the late painter, printmaker, independent art historian, and curator Atta Kwami (1956 – 2021).
With a career spanning 40 years, Kwami’s practice brought together painting, architecture, sculpture, and education. Born in Accra, Ghana he trained and taught for 20 years at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana. Kwami lived primarily in Kumasi and later in Loughborough, UK, keeping a studio in both cities and drawing inspiration for his paintings from both global and local art histories and traditions. His compositions of geometric strips, stripes and grids particularly connect to Northern Ghanaian wall and house painting, street vendor kiosks, commercial sign painting, woven textiles, Ghanaian music, and jazz.
Alongside making paintings, prints and artist’s books, Kwami also became known for painting constructions – kiosks and archway sculptures – that were conceived as expanded three-dimensional paintings within outdoor spaces. The commission originates from a painting on canvas that Kwami reworked in his studio in 2021, shortly before his death – making this the final, landmark public work of his pioneering career. Designed in dialogue with the North Gallery Garden, the mural Dzidzɔ kple amenuveve (Joy and Grace), 2021-22, embodies the artist’s vibrant palette and fluid abstract painting style. Its title is in Ewe, a West African language spoken by Kwami, and its composition characteristically plays with the colour and form improvisations distinctive to Ghanaian architecture and strip-woven textiles found across the African continent, especially kente cloth from the Ewe and Asante people of Ghana.
The mural is painted on wood – the surface Kwami used for outdoor constructions – by artist Pamela Clarkson, Kwami’s widow who shared a studio with him for over 30 years, and designer Andy Philpott, his friend and collaborator on constructions in Amsterdam, Folkestone and Loughborough.
For more information please visit Serpentine Gallery.
by LUCIJA ŠUTEJ, Studio International*
The artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries and the director of the Maria Lassnig Foundation explain the significance of the Maria Lassnig Award for mid-career artists, and discuss the work of the 2021 recipient, the late Atta Kwami
The Maria Lassnig Prize is awarded biennially to a mid-career artist in association with different institutional partners – previous partners include New York’s MoMA PS1 and the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau in Munich. In 2021, the associated institution was the London-based Serpentine Galleries, with the latter’s artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist together with Peter Pakesch participating in the jury selection. Atta Kwami received the award in 2021 and his public art commission executed by his widow is on display at Serpentine’s gardens.
I spoke to the curators over Zoom to discuss the importance of the award and the work of the late artist. The following is an edited extract of our conversation.
LUCIJA ŠUTEJ: The Maria Lassnig Prize was inaugurated in 2016. It was created with the aim of supporting “mid-career” artists and operates biennially in association with an international institutional partner. Why mid-career artists?
PETER PAKESCH: That was something we decided early on. Even for Maria Lassnig, it probably would have been very helpful at that stage of her life to have had a strong boost. Also, there are lots of prizes for young artists and prestigious artists, but there’s nothing in between. And it is a very interesting phase for artists between the ages of 40 and 60, who maybe have still not achieved the acknowledgment they should have. Therefore, we decided to go explicitly for mid-career artists.
I think, so far, there has been a really interesting selection of artists – Cathy Wilkes in 2017, Sheela Gowda in 2019, and now Atta Kwami. For all of them, there was huge interest when we announced the prize, and it was very helpful for them to build their work. Wilkes did the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2019, Gowda had well-acknowledged shows all over Europe. And Kwami’s presentation at the Serpentine has been very well received.
It is also one of the ideas of the prizes to work with the help of partners. They are all institutions that were close to Lassnig. There is the MoMA PS1 in New York, where Maria had her last show in her lifetime. Then there is the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau in Munich, which has an amazing collection of her work. And, of course, the Serpentine Galleries were super-important for her, and Hans Ulrich was always very close to her. So, it naturally makes sense. And there will be other institutions in the future: at the moment, we are in discussion with the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. It is important for the foundation to link places and people with Maria’s work and legacy.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST: The 2021 jury of the Maria Lassnig Prize felt that Atta Kwami needed to have more visibility in the UK. And it is exactly what Maria Lassnig Prize is about – not only young artists, but also artists in a middle or later part of their career, who need more recognition. That is what Maria Lassnig wanted. The jury unanimously felt that Kwami would be a great candidate. And, luckily, he knew about it during his lifetime: he got the prize and the press wrote about it, he saw the articles, and he knew that we would do this project with him.
LŠ: Serpentine Galleries partnered with the Maria Lassnig Foundation on the third edition of the prize. Could you tell us more about how the partnership was created?
HUO: Maria Lassnig was one of my close friends for probably 25 years or so. We met when I was a teenager, in 1986. I was 18 when I went to see her. Our first collaboration was in 1993, when we did The Broken Mirror with Kasper König. We felt that Maria should be internationally more known because she was, at that time, only known in Austria, Germany and Switzerland – only in the German-language space.
The way I met her is also interesting. I visited Rosemarie Trockel when I was a teenager and she was then in her 30s, a young artist. She said that it was great that I visited all these young artists locally, but she suggested there were pioneering artists, particularly women, who hadn’t had the recognition they deserved. She said that one should just go from city to city and ask who were the pioneering female artists there who needed more recognition. Who was the Louise Bourgeois of your town? The first city where I applied this was Vienna. I asked all the younger local artists I met: “Who is the pioneering female artist in the city who needs more?” And, literally, everybody said Maria Lassnig – the artists adored her. I rang her up, and then visited her and we spent a day together.
I realised that she had this practice as a writer, and I edited the book of our collected writing – so that kept us busy for several years because it was a very complex endeavour. That’s really when we developed a deep friendship and she started to send me these long letters, which ended as an exchange of letters and are now published as a book. In these letters, we talk a lot about photography and the fact that painting goes where photography doesn’t go. She was, in that sense, not satisfied with photography. She felt painting could go much further and it could go into the neurons. We talked about her teaching as she was teaching younger artists and was always supportive. Before she passed away, she appointed Peter [Pakesch] to be the director of her foundation, and I’m on the scientific advisory board.
Peter and I started to consider, together with people such as Matthias Mühling, director of the Städtischen Galerie, what we could do to honour Maria. Of course, her foundation is about making exhibitions. We did her exhibition at the Serpentine South Gallery in 2008, which was her first solo museum show in the UK, and it was instrumental in getting her work known outside the German-speaking space. The Maria Lassnig Foundation, of course, has a mission to produce books as well as exhibitions, but Peter and the rest of us felt it would be nice to think about younger artists and how to support them. Specifically, mid-career artists as Maria received recognition rather late. That’s how this idea came about: it was really Peter’s idea. A great idea – to do shows, always with a different institution and their curators.
The jury is formed of us – the Scientific Advisory Board, the local curator of the partner institution and, this time, Melissa Blanchflower and Rebecca Lewin, our curators at the Serpentine Galleries. Melissa also curated the mural. There is also always an artist as part of the jury, which is very important: this time it was Albert Oehlen.
LŠ: Atta Kwami was a prolific artist, whose diverse practice encompassed painting, print, sculpture, installation and architecture. He won the Maria Lassnig Prize in 2021 and sadly died the same year. How did his work speak to you during the selection process?
PP: We had very profound discussions where we considered a great number of artists for the prize. During these discussions, it became more and more clear how unique the position of Kwami was – his interest in artists from different situations, his view of global art, and a lot of young positions he took. He uniquely combined western and African modernism and tradition, and his work can be seen as the talking point on the different histories of modernism.
I was strongly inspired by his personal history – the history of his family, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, where he was educated and later taught, and all of these concentrated in his work. I am very happy that we were able to choose him and that the piece has been so well received. It is tragic and sad that he is no longer around, but still I believe that prize was very important posthumously for him and, hopefully, we can position his work in the reception of African contemporary art.
HUO: The work spoke to all of us before and we were all passionate about it, particularly since Peter’s exhibition at Kunsthalle Basel. We all felt that it would be so timely to finally make him known in the UK.
His work always spoke to us through these amazing colours and there is some kind of hope in them. The work of Kwami emanates hope, particularly in these difficult times, and his idea of the power of art to heal – to heal society, to heal people and not only people but also all species, it connects even to plants. The mural is connected to the garden house of the English landscape designer Arabella Lennox Boyd, and when you visit, you see the plants growing alongside the colours of Kwami – it is very beautiful! His work is a communion with nature. And in our time, it’s so important to go beyond the colonialist separation from the environment and to have a more holistic communication with nature.
LŠ: Was the mural decided as commission from the start, or did that come from a conversation with the artist?
HUO: Yes, we decided that with Kwami. With Peter and our curator Melissa, we visited him. He was so passionate about public art and, because of our desire for it to be longer than an exhibition and to last for a year, we agreed on a mural. He was very motivated to do this mural and the book – he was strongly involved until the very end. Kwami made the work, but he couldn’t realise the mural and that is when his partner, Pamela Clarkson Kwami, who is also a wonderful artist and printmaker, executed the mural following his instructions and his vision.
We decided to do a mural because of his interest in public art, but we also saw this beautiful connection with the Zaha Hadid [Serpentine Pavilion] building. There will be a very big book, his first big monograph, which we’re currently working on. And, of course, after the first visit, we recorded more interviews with him, also to be featured, but the book will also include a lot of different writers: it will involve his teaching, and David Adjaye has already written an essay, as has Melissa [Blanchflower].
LŠ: Could you recount your first encounter with Kwami and his work?
PP: My first encounters with art from Africa started with Clémentine Deliss’s show Lotte or the Transformation of the Object at the Grazer Kunstverein in 1990. It was one of the first shows that dealt with African popular culture and contemporary western art. It was a super interesting and pioneering show that showed different fields of art and geography. Then there was her big project of historic shows called Africa95, organised at various locations. [As part of Africa95], she also curated the show Seven Stories about Modern Art in Africa, at the Whitechapel Gallery. Deliss introduced me to Kwami in the late 1990s, when we did Tempolabor in Basel. I became more and more interested in his work and, in about 2000, I did a show with him at Kunsthalle Basel. After that, I was in regular contact with him. He was such an interesting artist, and I was so happy that we could give him the prize.
For Kwami, art was a life form; life and art were very much linked together. Art was related to education and to the situation and the politics in western Africa. There were so many dimensions to his work, and they were all concentrated in his paintings and his pavilions and architecture. His kiosks were 3D paintings. There are influences of Ashanti and Ewe fabrics – the strict ornamental textiles that are part of the life of people and rituals. There is a complex situation when trying to understand his practice – you’re facing his paintings and his three-dimensional paintings (kiosks) and prints and there’s a lot of writing he has done. On the other hand, his practice is completely interwoven into the categories of everyday life. This is especially interesting if you see his architecture – he does pavilions that can be used. We had such a pavilion in Basel, and it ended up with a collector who is using it for events and that is completely in the spirit of Kwami. There is also a blend between high and low, making everyday situations valuable and he is so innovative out of traditions. He links cultures: his work is not about separation but integration and finding a specific and very universal language.
HUO: Before ever meeting him in person, I came across his work for the first time through Okwui Enwezor and the Johannesburg Biennial [he curated in 1997]. Kwami was part of that show.
The second contact happened during the exhibition which Peter organised at the Kunsthalle Basel, which was the first monographic show of his I saw. It was very interesting because he combined his abstract paintings with his kiosks, the more architectural spaces. Then, a few years later, I made the first studio visit because I suddenly realised that I never knew that he lived [some of the time] in the UK. I thought he lived [permanently] in Ghana. And a friend told me that he was in the UK. So, I asked Peter to connect us, and I made a studio visit. I was very excited about the visit because he was an amazing painter, who like Paul Klee makes the invisible visible. But it also became clear that he had so many more dimensions to his work. He was also a great scholar of Ghanian art, and he was, in essence, an archivist, but he was also a curator. And he was an architect, because his work always has these architectural components.
Kwami was an artist who engaged and collaborated a lot with public space to bring art to the people. He also worked with textiles and was a printmaker and made books. I was fascinated by all these dimensions. I also found out that he came out from initially painting boats on the shore. That made me think of Milton Avery, who has a show right now, at the Royal Academy – the way Avery handles paint is incredibly interesting in relation Kwami, how he lifts it from the palette directly to the canvas. And Kwami told me that Avery proved to be a really big influence on him. Another influence was textiles, not only in Ghana, but also in the Far East and India. He studied the history of African textiles and that was a major thing about his abstract painting, and it led to his painting. So, that first encounter was really magical, and I recorded a long interview with him on that occasion.
LŠ: As you mentioned, Kwami was also a curator and educator, and these activities were reflected in his artistic practice.
PP: When he was growing up, he was influenced by the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi and, of course, his mother was very important. His family were also very much involved in musical projects between Ghana and Britain. But on the other hand, he was shy, reclusive and modest. He would not make much of a fuss about his work and this is why it is necessary to kind of point again at him and show how important he was.
Kwami wanted people to interact with his work such as his pavilions. In Africa, kiosks are on the street, and you can buy drinks and food from them – they are an integral part [of life there]. They are built in creative ways with the influence of popular culture and architecture. Kwami continued this dialogue by translating paintings into three-dimensional paintings or kiosks. He was interested in putting paintings into urban space, using existing forms and phenomena and transforming them into his artistic sphere.
LŠ: Kwami’s practice as an active educator was parallel to the work of Maria Lassnig, who also supported fellow artists and peers. How do you see the impact of his legacy and his work on the next generation of artists?
HUO: Kwami’s influence is immense in Ghana and far beyond Ghana. Roberta Smith from the New York Times said that Kwami has the most flexible and abstract vocabulary of a painter today. I think, in a way, that incredible flexibility and fluidity, in the language of abstraction, inspires a lot of artists. But we also live in a time where there is a resurgence of interest in public art. When we have art in a museum or a gallery, there is a door – a threshold. I think artists today are very interested in communicating directly to the audience and reaching people who otherwise would never go to a museum.
It is interesting to compare the trajectory of Kwami to the trajectory of the late Lebanese painter Etel Adnan, who died at the age of 96 last November, and received much attention towards the end of her life. Adnan, similarly to Kwami, had these radiating colours in abstraction, almost like mandalas. But like him, she was interested in the paintings migrating outside the exhibition space and going to society. So, she did murals and, ultimately, she wanted to be an architect. What is interesting is that Kwami also had this aspect of architecture in his work – I mean, the kiosks are really architecture. Just before his passing, he built kiosks in Folkestone as a part of its triennial, which is dedicated to public art. Kwami’s colourful kiosks can be used and they were integrated in the city.
I think that’s something a lot of artists are interested in – how these abstract colours can migrate into society. It is a bit like when Vladimir Mayakovsky talked in the earlier part of the 20th century of this idea of art growing into society via streets and squares. And let’s not forget that more and more biennials and exhibitions are curated by artists.
Kwami had this fluidity of practice from painting to public space, architecture, curation to art history. I think that’s also very relevant and so his influence is big. That’s also why we want to do this big book, because we think that his practice needs a dedicated publication to remember him.
*read original Studio International article, 28 october 2022
by Jonathan Jones, The Guardian*
The Ghanaian artist was just starting to receive the acclaim he deserved, winning last year’s Maria Lassnig prize. His widow talks about the daunting task of completing his joyous final work
Atta Kwami’s last work is still wet in places from its final retouchings by his widow, who painted it from his design. I sit next to her in the garden of Serpentine North by the many pots of colours she has been using to complete her late husband’s mural. “Our main worry was, ‘Is it an Atta Kwami?’” says Pamela Clarkson Kwami, herself a painter and printmaker. “If you went too far it became a kind of caricature.”
Kwami was a Ghanaian painter and art theorist with a generous, joyous abstract vision whose working life looked set to move into a new gear when he won the Maria Lassnig prize in 2021, an award for a “mid-career” artist that includes a public art commission for London’s Serpentine gallery. Kwami was born in 1956 and spent years teaching and researching before he could afford to paint full-time: a perfect recipient for this anti-ageist art prize. However, Kwami had cancer. He died last October just as his work was beginning to receive the acclaim it deserved – and with his design for a mural at the Serpentine yet to be realised.
Yet here it is and it is glorious. There’s something truly vital about Kwami’s big painting, a dance of rectangles in red, yellow, blue and many more interfolding planes of colour, against a grey bank of early September clouds. It was even better in the sunshine earlier, I am told. It will be great in all weathers, I’m certain, changing with the light and taking on new intensity as winter comes. For this is a painting that promises something: rebirth, redemption, freedom, justice … anyway, good things.
“I was thinking last night of the words that describe his work and you don’t want to say them because they sound naff,” says Clarkson Kwami. “One of them is joy and another is hope. You squirm slightly at the idea of it. But that is a terribly courageous thing to present to the world, isn’t it?”
Speaking to her I start to wish I’d met Atta Kwami. She fights back tears a couple of times yet presents him as objectively and unsentimentally as she can. “He could be a handful. He was very ambitious, and ambition is a difficult thing to deal with sometimes.” But they worked intimately side by side, them against the world: “I’ve been with him for 30 years and we’ve shared a studio and worked in the same space. He was a bit like an exile in his own country when he was in Ghana, partly because of his personality and partly because of the way he was working, which wasn’t necessarily in line with what anyone else was doing. It meant that we had each other and not many other people. We had each other as our main critics.”
The loneliness she sees in Atta Kwami’s life was the price he paid for his originality. As an art historian, he worked out his own idea of modern Ghanaian art that didn’t confine itself to what his widow calls “the academy” but instead embraced this west African nation’s bubbling array of popular art forms. “He took from a lot of indigenous stuff but without being patronising. He really adored the canoe paintings.” These are the traditional hand-decorated sea-going canoes of the Fante people, which are not just ethnographic museum pieces but still in use. He also studied “the northern murals that the women paint – that is amazing. There was one woman and she painted abstract shapes. Atta asked her where she got them, and she said, ‘I sit on the roof and I look at the cows.’”
He loved this easy merging of art and life, the creation of abstract designs from nature, which has been a triumph of African art for centuries. Kwami’s Serpentine mural with its blocky rectangles pays homage to the patterns of Kente cloth, once worn by Asante and Ewe royalty, today more widely available. Yet at the same time it embraces western modern art, paying homage to the pulse of Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie.
“He loved paint and so he loved Mondrian,” says Clarkson Kwami. Just as Mondrian delighted in jazz, he found it natural to mix high culture and street art. “He didn’t make distinctions. He found that someone like Almighty God (Kwame Akoto) was really quite innovative.” Almighty God or God Almighty is a witty pop artist of the streets whose signboards such as a painting of a smoking dog with the legend Stop Smoking for it Kills Gradually have brought bold imagery to the streets of Kumasi since the 1970s.
For one of his last projects, Atta Kwami created in Folkestone abstract versions of Ghana’s brightly painted street kiosks. The popular arts he celebrates are resources of optimism, survival, hope: those words his widow admits it’s hard even to say out loud. Her act of love and memory has made his message ring out in a London park. Maybe there should be more versions of this artist’s inspiring work, all over the world.
For Pamela Clarkson Kwami, painting it from his designs and with her intimate knowledge of his work was a way of keeping him close. “Have you seen The Repair Shop? They take things that are sort of meaningful and they get them repaired, and they say that’ll remind me of my grandfather – and I thought, well I’m so lucky …”
Looking at the calming, warm vision before us she feels she got it right. “I think he would have been pleased with it.”
Atta Kwami’s last mural will be unveiled at Serpentine Gallery North, London, on 6 September.
*read original The Guardian article, 5 September 2022