Artist Cornelius Annor. Image Credit: Beyond The Black Canvas
By Akworkor Thompson
At the end of last year, I was lucky enough to meet the next in line of Ghanatta College of Art and Design graduates to collaborate with Gallery 1957. At the time, young Ghanaian painter Cornelius Annor was hidden away in what looked like a boarded up store in the galleria of the Kempinski hotel in Accra, Ghana. In fact, this was one of the few residency spaces owned by the gallery and Annor was one of two artists that I met who were preparing for shows at the beginning of this year. Although our meeting was over a month ago now, I am still able to vividly reconjure the feelings I felt when I left the real world and was introduced to his magical space. Behind those closed doors, Annor was truly creating something phenomenal that the world will now be able to bear witness to. The exhibition titled A Family Affair opens to the public January 27th 2021 at Gallery 1957.
Being a frequent visitor of the gallery I was stunned to only now discover this space of whimsical wonderment that had become Cornelius’ studio, his home from home. After being greeted by his warm welcoming smile, and tall yet unimposing frame, dressed in what I can only term 'an iconic artist attire'- culturally specific, toned down by western jogging pants, splashed generously with paint - I entered the candy store.
Cliche! But I honestly felt like the children from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate factory entering that confectionary heaven. My senses were immediately alight, and I didn’t know where to look first. I remember having to take a moment to compose myself so that I could strategically scour and be better able to take it all in.
I moved around the space almost haphazardly apologising for my excitement. Annor just chuckled, which put me at ease. He was appreciating my appreciation of his craft. This wasn’t the most organised of spaces, but everything was purposeful and played a pinnacle role in creating the enchantment that is to be viewed between January 27th and February 28th 2021 at the gallery.
Settled inside the space, totally invigorated by the energy, my gaze floated across the walls grinning uncontrollably as I met the faces of family. Flattened on the surface of the building wearing acrylic paint smiles, laughs, giggles and enjoyment, were my uncles, aunties (you know the ones that changed your nappies as a baby) and my dear grandma, still radiating regality, while relentlessly reminding me to have unrelenting pride in my rich Ghanaian heritage. Lulled by their familiarity, I felt swaddled by the spirit of the space and soon settled into conversation with Annor. He showed me around with a grin on his face that almost matched my initial stimulation of mouth muscles in size but, possibly just outdid mine in terms of excitement. He seemed genuinely elated by my awe and just kept introducing my eyes to more of his multisensory depictions of the Ghanaian family.
Feeling like it was the only way to not combust from all the excitement, I suggested we sit down to have a semi-structured conversation. Not an interview, but something more relaxed. We discussed his journey into the art world; his affinity for Leonardo Da Vinci; his introduction to black global artists; and the ways in which he used mixed media to bring to life his depiction of the Ghanaian family centred around unity, love and a mutual respect between generations.
The whole time we spoke, I tried with every fibre of my being to not become distracted by the bounce of the highlife and roar of laughter that was escaping from the painting Let’s Dance. The protagonist of the work was a total embodiment of infectious enjoyment. He wore an unsaturated top crafted from a flattened fabric transfer, contrasted by the brighter more textured glued on fabric of the woman’s dress. This accentuated the expression on his face as he was entranced by the polyrhythmic drumming of the cowbell whilst emitting the smells of his cologne mixed with his perspiration which then collided with the aroma from the spicy jollof rice that lingered in the air. Everything about this piece made my spirit sing.
Talk to me about your journey into art.
For me it was easy. My dad is an artist - he's a sculptor. You could say I was grown into an art family, so it was easy becoming an artist. I attended Ghanatta College of Art and Design between 2008 and 2011. I studied Visual arts with a focus on painting. When I attended Ghanatta I became fascinated by Leonardo da Vinci because he was doing what I wanted to do. I wanted to paint figurative paintings. I got inspiration from him and also from Rembrandt and throughout my school days worked hard to sharpen my skills to one day be like them. I painted pictures of what I could see like market scenes and anything else that was around me. Interestingly though, while I was attending school, I never knew we had black Masters around the world. I thought the world of Art revolved around Leonardo da Vinci and and Michelangelo. However, after I left school I did a lot of research and that is when I noticed we had a lot of black Masters. Discovering this changed things a lot for me, it was at this point I felt like I was getting inspiration for myself - that looked like me. I continued to do research on the internet about Contemporary Art and that introduced me to Derek Fordjour who I had some chats with on Instagram. He taught me a lot about the Contemporary Art scene and helped me realise that there were a lot of black artists that I could look up to and draw inspiration from.
So let’s look at what you’re doing now, this residency, talk to me about it.
The series is called Family Matters. The name Family Matters came into my mind when I decided to settle down and get married. I grew up not being too close to my extended family after some challenges we had after the passing of my father. So when we were getting ready to settle, I knew that I would need people to back me to get married because here in Ghana you need your family to represent you. Family is a big thing.
With this series, the idea was to portray African families positively to a Western audience because it’s been enough, for too long artists have been portraying the African family negatively. So I wanted to give my work a positive energy, show the unity of families and love, and also what brings the generations together.
Talk more about this body of work, what materials are you using?
My work is mixed media. I use acrylic paints. I also use fabrics and photos of my family. A technique I'm using for this particular collection is fabric transfer. I want there to be a conversation between the two different types of materials- (the transfer which is flat and unsaturated and the actual fabric which is bright, textured and creates an impression of movement. ) Also, the fabric I use is part of my personal family collection: my wife's, my auntie's and my mum's. At first I was just depicting my family but then I started to add in references from other families so then I decided to use the fabric of my family so that even when I was drawing figures from other families I still had mine in the image through the cloth. The idea of my work is to also flatten time space and location because I don't want to only depict images of my family, I want to also depict that of other families. I want everyone to see their family in this.
And the title, was the double meaning intentional? I mean, it’s multifaceted, because on a superficial level you're saying family matters, it's important to you. However, if we take matter to be a noun, then the title could be referring to the fact that it is created using your family matter: the material collection from the woman in your life and the family photographs.
Yes the title is intended to have this double meaning.
Can you talk more about the process of titling not just your collection but also the individual works.
Sometimes I have the title before I produce the works but other times it's when the work is done that I will think about the title. This work is titled Obla yoo which means young lady in the Ga-Dangme language. It's an image of my auntie from when she was a young lady. But even now she still has a young energy. When I wanted to produce this work I made a little investigation about what she was like when she was younger - she loved this kind of style of dressing and today she still dresses like this, like a young lady.
In another one of the paintings the family are playing oware. It’s titled, It takes two because it doesn't take more than two people to play it. Part of the idea of my work is not only for the materials to be having a conversation (the fabric and the transfer) but I also want my work to have a conversation with the audience, like you, when you were trying to figure out or more so trying to imagine you and your family in the piece. That's the kind of conversation I want to create.
How important is it that you paint African figures in a positive light?
It's really important to me because I would like what I am creating right now to reach people of the highest stature so that they can see the positive imagery of Africa or Ghana because most of the positive images of black people focus on the African American story. I wanted to create positivity around here too so people can change their view about our beautiful continent.
Do you feel that it is your duty to be part of the change?
Yes. I've taken it upon myself, and other artists also have, to create images that portray the positive side of black people. It is therefore really important that my work reaches that height. Therefore, I'm working towards that. This exhibition is the start!
I notice in your work you maintain naturalistic skin colours. Why have you decided to do this rather than be part of the trend around subverting race by using abnormal colours like purple, blue or charcoal black?
That's me - that's the identity that you'll see in my works, even back then when I was painting in school and after school, just painting random pictures- that's my identity, I don't want to lose my identity.