Kumasi Realism, 1951-2007

An African Modernism

December 2013 9781849040877 500pp


Western approaches to Africa’s visual culture have until recently separated ‘traditional’ from ‘modern’ as if the two categories had no common ground, and as if only the former was authentically African. Yet ‘tradition’ is also an active process of handing on, one subject to evolution, development and history. This book explores a burgeoning body of West African artistic production that draws upon photography, advertising, graphic design, European art history and Ghanaian history and culture. As such it constitutes an envisioning of a local modernity centred upon Kumasi, a vibrant trading city at the centre of local, national and international networks, whether historical, economic, political, educational, religious or aesthetic. The art described here, whatever its immediate purpose, reflects and interprets this intense and unique local context. Among the Ghanaian painters discussed are E.V. Asihene, Grace Kwami, E.K.J. Tetteh, Ablade Glover, Ato Delaquis, B. Offei Nyako, Atta Kwami, kari’kacha seid’ou, Bob Acheampong and many others whose practice was college based. Kwami also discusses the art and lives of Kumasi’s leading sign painters – King Samino (King Samino Sign Art Services), Alex Amofa (Supreme Art Works), Kwame Akoto (Almighty God Art Works), Isaac Azey Otchere (Azey Alberto Art & Sign Service), and Isumaila Moro (Iss Hi-Tech Prints) – thereby exploring the interrelationship of two entwined traditions, two art worlds of modern painting centred at either the university and/or the signpainter’s workshop.


‘This is a brilliant and engrossing investigation into one of the more recent phenomena in the artistic heritage of one of Africa’s great cities. Atta Kwami’s systematic — yet deeply affectionate — documentation of an African modernism as it developed in Kumasi from the mid-twentieth century is both an intellectual tour de force and a visual feast. Kumasi Realism will help to ensure that the Black Star takes its rightful place in the world’s artistic firmament.’ — Chris Spring, artist and curator of the Sainsbury African Galleries at the British Museum

‘To describe this as an essay in art history misses the point. It is instead a magical celebration of the visual worlds which illuminate Ghana’s idiosyncratic second city and the master of ceremonies is the distinguished artist, Atta Kwami. This beautifully illustrated book takes the reader through the intricacies of the relationships between creative production and the galaxy of influences which make up the dazzling collages, the “artworlds” of the featured artists and designers. Kumasi is the inspirational star of the show — traffic jams and royal palaces, web-designers and goldsmiths, smart phones and strip-weaving. This is a great way to think about what modernism looks like in an African context.’ — Richard Rathbone, Professor of African History, School of Oriental and African Studies, London

‘The so-called great divide between an African modernism and continuing traditions of art-making still perplexes and unsettles many. Kumasi Realism is a substantial contribution to the debate, all the more so for being written by one of Ghana’s leading practitioners; an artist of international standing, but whose focus here is firmly on the local. Atta Kwami is able to offer a detailed and comparative analysis of artistic production in Kumasi, while at the same time producing a substantial historical review of the ways in which visual culture developed along various paths to produce, “an evolving local visual modernity.” This is an important, generous and beautiful book.’ — Will Rea, Senior Lecturer in African Art History, University of Leeds

‘Kumasi Realism offers an invaluable look at the interconnected art worlds of the academy and the commercial street. Through thick description, Kwami encourages a more capacious view of visual modernity, highlighting linkages between painting, photography, advertising, graphic design, and art history and challenging stale distinctions between high and low, academic and folk, tradition and innovation.’ — Elizabeth Harney, Associate Professor in the Department of Art, University of Toronto and former curator of Modern and Contemporary African Art, Smithsonian Institution


Atta Kwami is a painter, printmaker, independent art historian and curator. He trained and taught in Kumasi, Ghana and in the UK, where he was a Visiting Fellow at the Cambridge/Africa Collaborative Research Programme, Art and Museums in Africa (2012/2013). His work appears  in major collections including the National Museums of Ghana and Kenya; the V&A Museum, London; the National Museum of African Art, Washington, DC.; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Newark Museum, USA; The Chazen Museum, University of Wisconsin-Madison; University of Michigan Museum of Art; and The British Museum.

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