by Lawrence Gipe
In drought-stricken Ghana life is measured a gallon at a time. It is not something you get from opening a tap. It’s transported from purification facilities in five-gallon plastic “jerrycans,” then strapped to trucks or, more commonly, balanced on human heads. The 40-pound containers are ubiquitous in much of sub-Saharan Africa where 300 million people struggle without clean running water.
For Accra-born artist Serge Attukwei Clottey this essential, utilitarian item also resonates with cultural, anecdotal and autobiographical meanings. The word jerrycan itself echoes with the rumblings of colonial misadventures. Originating with the German’s military metal prototype carried by the Afrika Korps, the container was copied, mass-produced and nicknamed by the British after WWII. Seeing how Africans struggle with this object, imported from Europe,” Attukwei says, “it has become symbolic in our lives”.
And so, over the course of 15 years, the artist has cut, stitched together, melted, stacked, and arranged the discarded cans into wall sculptures and sets for performances and videos. He’s even founded a tongue-in-cheek “movement” with a blog called AfroGallonism that provides details on performances of his that focus on the link between capitalism and water crises.
In Hand to Mouth, Attukwei’s West Coast debut at Ever Gold’s newly opened Minnesota Street location, he continues to explore this material in a series called Kufuor Gallons. The name is a politically loaded term that refers to the containers used during epic water shortages that occurred during the term of President John Kufuor. The tapestry-like wall hangings he makes from them are comprised of his signature plastic squares cut from the cans; ten of them dominate an installation that includes floor sculptures and video. Their quilt-like physical structure is based on fabric and clothing patterns. Embedded within them are traditional and communal rituals, evidence of which the artist documented movingly in a previous exhibition in Accra called My Mother’s Wardrobe.
The strongest of the Kufour Gallons series is Slave Ship 1. It displays the artist’s talent for building up layers of meaning. The graphic marks that are superimposed on the grid resemble tribal fabrics, and as a consequence the famous diagram of the Brookes slave ship doesn’t spring to mind until you read the title, after which point it’s impossible to see the piece as decorative.
Other works don’t resonate as purposefully. That is because the shadow of the celebrated Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui, who makes similar looking works from aluminum bottle tops, and whom Attukwei acknowledges as an influence, looms over the proceedings. One might also be forgiven for being a tad weary of the trash art genre, which has been getting a decade-long workout in pop culture and fine art circles from Wim Delvoye to San
Francisco’s own garbage-to-art program, Recology. Finally, there’s a critique of commodification in most of this production that remains unresolved – the kind of nagging irony that would send Žižek into a tizzy. In other words, it’s fine for artists to raise awareness of waste through their gallery-bound artworks. The risk, of course, is that they’ll be purchased by the same brand of imperialist that’s perpetuating the problem the work decries.
A video loop entitled The Displaced is the most eloquent of the works in Hand to Mouth. Within its entrancing 11 minutes the artist touches on issues of colonialism, gender, loss and exodus. Wall hangings similar to those on display make cameos as symbolic props that, in the video, deliver a deeper, more personal narrative than those on view — suggesting that object making, by itself, can’t convey the breadth of Clottey’s vision.
Serge Attukwei Clottey: “Hand to Mouth” @ Ever Gold [Projects] through April 30, 2016
About the author:
Lawrence Gipe is an artist, art professor and writer living in Oakland. His painting and drawings have been shown in more than 50 solo exhibitions in the U.S. and Europe.