Studio Visit Conversation With Emmanuel Aggrey Tieku
1. Could you start by telling us about yourself and what art is to you?
Hi, I'm Emmanuel Aggrey Tieku. I'm 28 years young and full of colour, I was born in Cape-Coast, Ghana and a contemporary textile abstractionist, eventhough I like to experiment with other media. I came into contact with art when I was two and I've loved it since. My works involve texture, abstraction, installation, colour, sculpture, painting, form....my works are characterized by folded Upcycled fabrics (dead white man's clothing which is a slang used to represent textile waste in Ghana) woven together, dyed, applied with a series of bold, unyielding colours as undercoats and overcoats to form a complex image of boundaries and freedom in the backdrop of identity, culture, individualism, consumerism and sustainability. I have a degree in Civil Engineering and currently pursuing my Masters in Environmental Engineering and Sustainable Building Technology at the University of Genova, Italy. I love people and culture. I love the story that is being forged right now about the black people and their culture and I just want to be a part of this history, documenting it as it should be told to future generations. I love Waakye and Rice balls as well.😊...Ummm...I'd love to travel around the world to see it first, and engage the people with my work.
2. How did your art journey begin and at which point did you decide to take it? Serious or professional
My art journey began as far back as Nursery, when I was just two. I was intrigued by colour. We would make prints on paper by dipping our hands in paint and mine always stood out. Then in Grade 1, my teacher who is also an artist and gifted painter taught me how to paint, separate colour, align colour, tint and shade. I have been painting since then. I branched into charcoal, then pencil, and then to pen and back to paint but I think my professional journey really began in 2013 when I visited Nubuke Foundation and saw the art over there. I decided that was it, I was in and I haven't looked back since....but there are times when you decided to do something but would still be in preparatory stage until your time comes. Choosing to be something does not mean you are yet at the reach of your maximum potential to exhibit that candour in it's purest form. You have to be refined and refinement takes time.
3. Who are some of that artist you look up to first in Africa and beyond?
Uhhh...this is difficult...
I will mention a few...In Africa, I look up to Amoako Boafo, Ibrahim Mahama, Serge Attukwei Clottey, El Anatsui, Aboudia ...These are all artists who have changed conversations about what is art as well as representations of black identity. Beyond Africa I'd say Anselm Kiefer who does large scale abstract paintings, Frank Stella, Kerry James Marshall, Sam Gilliam, Agnes Martin, Jackson Pollock, Norman Lewis.
4. What keeps you inspired?
People keep me inspired. For me, people are like layers of an onion. You keep peeling and there's still more to discover. I am fascinated about the human character, possession of soul and heart. I want to know what love is, what life is, what pain is and what it means to be joyful. And then the other part is being able to help others in need. I think about children on the streets when I work. I think about villages without access to clean water. I think about children who have been abandoned by their fathers. These thoughts give me the strength because I draw hope from them, and dream of the day I can contribute my lot to society and help as many people as I can before my time comes.
5. How has your roots or upbringing influenced your art?
Ummm...a lot. ..I grew up on a plantation, and off the plantation in Cape-Coast, I saw a lot of colour and textile worn by women. There was a different cloth for every funeral. I was intrigued! On the plantation where I lived for more than a decade, I got to see a lot of green, colour and the wild. I had so much experience with nature as a child that I believe it is and has been the only moment in my life that I've felt truly free. The seasons were bold in their coming and the flowers bloomed together. It is evident in my use of bold colours and my preparedness to launch into the unknown with my colour pallet. No colour is too dull or bright for me, because colour can exist in different frequencies and still maintain it's significance, illusion and effect on the human soul. I am attracted to textiles because I've seen it all my life and has become the token of expression that I can reliably depend on .I feel like all those experiences in the past were handed down to me as a custodian to tell stories with them.
6. Earliest memory of art?
My earliest memory of art was when I was 2 years old and in nursery. I got sick as a child so I didn't go to school till I was 2, but I remember us dipping our hands in paint and making prints on paper. My teacher always remarked that I was an artist because I made the finest prints. Then I met our art teacher, Mr. R. C. Obeng, an incredibly gifted painter in Grade 1 and he taught me a lot about art and painting.
7. How does your faith affect your art?
I think faith and religion have this complex relationship with art. I am a Christian and have been since I was eight. I decided to be. But deep into my art, I realize some of my ideas of freedom and expression, individualism and identity are somewhat at friction with what I believe, but in the end I think there is peace of mind if I just create. I love to create what I see with my soul, my mind may be binary on ideas, but my soul won't. I create best when I'm free.
8. Do you have any major interest outside art or painting?
Yes, of course! I love engineering as well. I'm a Civil engineer by profession and I already mentioned pursuing my Masters Degree in Environmental Engineering and Sustainable Building Technology which I'm almost through with. All life form is art in a way and I see Engineering as art too. Maybe I'll pursue architecture because of what I constantly think about when it comes to building with local materials. Together with my friend from school in Italy, we are designing some new homes with local materials for the natives from his village in Ethiopia that were caught in the Ethnic conflict. I'm excited about it! And oh...I love cooking.
9. What would you say is the biggest challenge facing artist from the continent?
I think the challenge is in two folds, first with the artist and then the culture. The artist- I think the main challenge is self- belief. The thought that an artist who is black and from Africa isn't enough haunts many artists and prevents them from reaching their true potential. Larry Ossei Mensah said something like this when we spoke the last time he was in Ghana; " The young black artist must see themselves as "enough" to want to go through the process with their work and be proud of whatever comes out of it, but they must challenge themselves everyday to be better". The other is our culture's acceptance or ideology of who an artist is. About 95% of Ghanaian homes would not allow their children to become artists. They prefer them being a doctor, engineer or some other white collared job. It is really hard to push through if you are an artist or decide to be....but thankfully we have a community of artists with pacesetters like Amoako Boafo, Kwesi Botchwey, Ibrahim Mahama, who are building institutions to help young artists nurture their talents and skill.
10. How was the feeling like having your first exhibition and what was the name of it?
Ummm...I'm yet to have my first exhibition(artist winks), well, mostly because I was much more focused on completing my Masters degree in Environmental Engineering ...but for now, I'm engaged with some galleries in London, USA and Ghana on possible exhibitions and residencies this year.
11. What's your vision for change in the creative industry.
Ibrahim Mahama once said that a time is coming when art would no longer be seen just as a commodity but an instrument in the hands of men and women to wield the change they desire. He was talking about institutions, legacies and community engagement. I think it's the kind of vision I dream of. It's the kind of change I desire to see especially in my part of the world; that art could be more and through it, schools can be built, histories can be preserved and the future generation nurtured into greatness.
12. What challenges in particular have you faced?
A few challenges 😊....the first is the challenge of wanting to be different in an institution that prides in copies of originals. The art world is full of copies. The other is with collectors determining what your work should look like or if you're stayed enough in the system to be collected. Some collectors even feel superior to the artist and the danger therein is the artist feeling like they're being done a favour. My third challenge, which is quite personal is having people look at my work and asking "what is this?" ...I don't know how to respond. It's art!
13. What's the biggest top you have for anyone wanting to start career in his industry?
Ummm, I'm young and still have a great deal to learn from those who have gone way ahead of me, but one thing that stands out and what I think anyone wanting to venture into my profession or any other could bite on is focus and commitment to your vision. It may take time, but focus never disappoints.
14. Lastly , are you currently working on any new project, what is next for you?
Yes, I'm working on a project called "I COULD BE WRONG, BUT I'M FREE ", a series of 30 paintings questioning certain aspects of my culture and people. It questions traditions and boundaries set by our culture as a people that may not be relevant to us today and invites us to break free from the stereotype and launch into the unknown, to completely be ourselves and unashamed. This body of work is very personal to me because I feel a breaking within myself and I must first experience that freedom of being before I can effectively communicate that to any other person. It is quite easy to trudge along with what popular culture dictates, but maybe we can be willing and daring enough to break loose to find freedom, not acceptance.