The marketplaces of Accra, with their clashes of colours and symphonic bustle, serve as potent inspiration to Larry Amponsah’s paintings — less in terms of subject matter, perhaps, than his overall collage-like approach to the art form, which has him splicing figures from old fashion magazines as well as from the barbershops of London.
The Ghanaian artist is marking his first UAE solo show at Lawrie Shabibi gallery at Alserkal Avenue. The exhibition, The Soil From Which We Came, is running until February 17, and features large-scale paintings brimming with mixed imagery that are collated like collages. The works focus on contemporary black culture and identity with an awareness of global interconnectivity.
Collages of brambles, flowers in bloom and vegetables form backdrops to people modelled with features seemingly ripped from advertisements and other media. From a distance, the works seem to be just that — scraps of overlaid images from fashion magazines.
As viewers draw closer, however, Amponsah’s technical prowess as a painter shines. His process revolves around meticulously arranging the compositions from smaller collages, before digitally manipulating them, enlarging them and painting them on canvas.
Amponsah earned degrees in painting from the Royal College of Art in London, Jiangsu University in China and the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana. He has since been shortlisted for the 2019 Dentons Art Prize, and won the Be Smart About Art Award that same year. He is also currently a Trustee of The the Kuenyehia Art Trust for Contemporary Art in Ghana.
“Collages came naturally to me,” he tells The National. “I grew up in Ghana, which has the most beautiful market scene. My grandmother had a shop there and I would spend a lot of time with her. She sold children’s clothing, elaborate ones worn for Christmas and other holidays.”
Amponsah didn’t really consider the impact Accra’s market scene had on him until he became an artist.
“I was able to sort of contextualise that [market] space and the kinds of things that were happening there, and borrow those ideas for my practice,” he says.
“Marketplaces are like collages. There are hundreds of cars going to different places. Even the layers of sound, everyone’s shouting and calling out. Also, the colour clashes. People are sharing spaces, bumping into each other as they go about their daily business, negotiating and just trying to survive. It’s all about the things we do just to be able to find greener pastures.”
The lushness of these envisioned places makes its way to Amponsah’s canvas through a medley of greenery. Radiant blossoms, berries and produce are arranged in jagged forms. Purples, yellows, pinks, oranges and reds diced and assembled in a way that is visually compelling, yet aims to break the tenets of traditional painting.
“When I was doing my masters [in the Royal College of Art], I was interested in pushing my practice to a point where I could be proud of it,” Amponsah says.
“I wanted to see my practice create a space in the history of painting, which required me to go on a journey of experiments and excavations. I experimented with collage in lots of forms.
“As a trained painter, you miss a lot,” he continues.
“There are these set rules in terms of the ways in which colours should be applied. There are complementary colours, analogous colours and those that don’t sit with each other. In the marketplace, it’s different, and that’s what was interesting to me as well.”
Then there are the models in Amponsah’s canvases. The larger paintings are among the most recent of his works and came as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Various movements in art history were spurred as a result of crisis, the artist says, and for him, it provided the chance to shift his practice.
“I knew that there was an opportunity for me,” he says. “But I didn’t know what to do. I had plenty of magazines that I had collected from libraries. Magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and those big fashion-house magazines. These are the people that shape our interest in imagery. They shape the way we want to dress. They shape our interest in where we’re going to eat or where to fly to for our holidays. They are shaping us.”
However, when Amposah began rifling through the magazines, searching for images he could collage, he found a glaring lack of black representation. This was a creative hurdle, especially given how he wanted his work to reflect black culture, identity, politics and history.
“They were old magazines, dating between 1990 and 2005,” he says. “The earlier ones had almost no black people in them. They were the ones I had more of. I thought about what to do and went back to some of the things I studied as an artist.
“I realised I can borrow something from photography. When you photograph something, it actually captures something upside down and also in the opposite colour. When you look at the negatives, it reads black as white and white as black.”
Using digital means, Amponsah began scanning and inverting the colours of scrapped magazine imagery. “If they were white people, I would flip it,” he says. “The simple act of doing that helped me a lot.”
At first, Amponsah began making miniature collages, having no access to a studio during lockdown. The primary motive was to make thousands of them, though he didn’t know to what end.
“But one day, I was making work, and I was thinking, OK, so most artists make sketches before they produce the work. So how do you then transform these collages into sketches? And what are the possibilities that will emerge from the sketches?”
The large paintings that sprung from the sketches feature models posing as they would in a fashion publication. Some hold up purses to their chest, others have a jacket flung over one shoulder. Some evoke affability, others enigmatically peer from under lowered hats. The faces of these models have been created as the sum total of many ripped features. Amponsah says he spent considerable time arranging the faces so that they would conjure emotions he had in mind.
“All the faces you see are carefully and deliberately constructed,” he says. “Sometimes, it takes me even longer to figure the face than anything else.”
Off-centre of the exhibition space stands a sculpture that resonates thematically with Amponsah’s paintings. A human figure with a collaged face looms from a flower arrangement in an installation that brings the artist’s world from out of the flat canvas and into three-dimensional reality.
“You can just walk around it, and feel it be with you in this space,” he says.
On one wall of the exhibition space, dozens of small square canvases are arranged in tile-like fashion. The project, which Amponsah began “long ago”, also features faces, but unlike the models that were conjured as a result of the artist’s “sampling” of magazines and fashion imagery, these are based on people he met and photographed in barbershops in London, before giving their portraits his idiosyncratic collage treatment — this time while incorporating actual printed photographs.
“These came from studying barbershops and the haircuts that people get,” he says. “In Ghana, yes, but now that I live in London, [it is] most of the black barbershops of African and Caribbean descent. I spent time there looking at people who walk in and out, the kinds of conversations they have. The interests they share and the things they disagree on.”
In the concluding alcove of the exhibition are a series of paintings that reflect on black history and politics. The figures in the paintings stand similar to those posing in the next room, and also look back at the viewer with collated faces. Beside each of them is a pillar designed with Greek influences. Each, however, displays a different object.
“It’s not so much about the figures in the works,” he says. “It’s about what is placed on these columns, and the representation of the columns historically. They are a symbol of power, autonomy and perfection. They go back to Greek architecture, but even in England, it’s only important buildings that have these columns. Banks, courts, parliaments and so on.”
One column presents a set of stacked books with titles on their spines that point to different aspects of black history. The books, Amponsah says, are fictitious and are ones that he wants to write himself.
“It’s just my way of directing people towards my ideas,” he says. “Once you read a title, you begin to imagine what they contain. They all point to a certain theme that I’m driving at, particularly blackness and the kinds of atrocities and the injustice many of us have been subjected to historically. Some of them celebrate successes that emerged as a result, such as the unity between black and brown people in spaces that are in the periphery.”
The second of three paintings features a column with a snow globe placed on top. While often conjuring dreamy settings, Amponsah’s snow globe contains a dark reality. A black man has his hands up in the air as a white policeman points his pistol at him.
“Snow globes are often places you want to be in,” he says. “But here, it’s the opposite. It’s a place nobody wants to be in. I made this work after George Floyd died. Beside the column is a guy who is cool, educated, knowledgeable and doing well. It speaks about how we still manage to emerge out of these sorts of situations.”
The final painting, and its column, features an hourglass. “Hourglass is time itself,” he says. “All you need in life actually is time. Patience affords you to think better. It’s a moment of reflection.”