by Max Blue
As oil drilling and growing volumes of discarded plastics pose an increasing threat to the environment, one repercussion is water shortage. Drought, a familiar strain on California, hit Ghana in the early 2000s. The response of Ghanaian president John Kufuor was to create water distribution centers, providing potable water in yellow plastic jerrycans nicknamed “Kufuor gallons.” Once a symbol of the water shortage, the discarded jerrycans now pose their own environmental threat, blocking city sewers and endangering coastline wildlife.
In response to this crisis, Ghanaian artist Serge Attukwei Clottey has spent the last 20 years collecting Kufuor gallons and turning them into art. The tapestries, as Clottey calls them, are made of hundreds of small yellow plastic squares cut from Kufuor gallons, stitched together with twisted wire. Clottey’s third solo show at Ever Gold [Projects], Adesa We, features 11 of the artist’s signature wall hangings, as well as three charcoal drawings and one bronze sculpture.
The exhibition’s title translates as “storytelling home.” For Clotty, who considers his work activism, weaving is an act of storytelling. The tapestries carry more than just personal narratives of the individuals who have used and discarded the Kufuor gallons; they also deliver a message about climate change and the political struggles it is igniting across Africa.
There is an irony implicit here – that one must convert the material remnants of a crisis into art to have it recognized. Still, Clottey’s sentiment is admirable in that he manages to kill two birds with one stone. The sale of these works to westerners, he says, is a method of “returning these objects to their Western origin,” while simultaneously supporting his local economy – the artist’s studio employs hundreds of people in Accra to gather the jugs, a group of assistant activists known as GoLokal.
This theme of decolonization is implied in Daily Dispatched 8. Here, Clottey has left labels on the repurposed plastics, which are printed in English, making a not-so-subtle statement about globalization and colonization. It’s Clottey’s most overt attempt to bring the conversation about global issues full circle, but it’s a little too obvious to land as hard as he might like.
The largest tapestry on display, Act of kindness, is the centerpiece of the exhibition. Clocking in at 16 by 22 feet, it hangs in the center of the room, viewable from both sides. Even this is small for Clottey, who recently installed a massive tapestry at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, and another draping the facade of the Vestfossen Kunstlaboratorium art center in Norway. Such works prove that for Clottey, bigger is better: their scale alone forces viewers to consider and contend with the sheer amount of plastic at his disposal.
Titles like Become your Behavior underscore Clottey’s agenda, suggesting caution about patterns of heedless consumption that have produced global warming. Other titles, like Critical Care and Act of kindness feel more like statements of purpose than reprimands.
Where the work falls short is in its redundancy. Besides being similar in appearance, Clottey’s tapestries also recall the works of two other contemporary Ghanaian artists, El Anatsui and Ibrahim Mahama, who use bottle caps and fabric, respectively, to create large-scale installations and wall hangings.
Clottey’s modest offerings in other mediums set the show apart. The single bronze sculpture on display, Afrogallonism Ebony Portraits Series, VII, 2019, is a cast of the top of a Kufuor gallon turned on its side, the handle and spout creating the eerie suggestion of a human face or a traditional African mask. The symbolism here is direct and disturbing: the masking of one environmental crisis (the shortage of water) with one of its proximate causes, petrochemical waste.
Three drawings on view employ a similar visual strategy; in these, robed figures wear masks reminiscent of Kufuor gallons. This imagery reaches an extreme in Mother Tongue wherein the face looks like a gas mask, and in Mr. Vulnerable,a portrait of a seemingly unmasked face, making it vulnerable to both ends of the crisis Clottey contends with. These works add much-needed variation to the show and prove that Clottey needn’t be pigeonholed by the material and the methods that have garnered him so much well-deserved attention.
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Serge Attukwei Clottey, “Adesa We” @ Ever Gold [Projects] through February 29, 2020.
About the author:
Northern California native Max Blue is a writer of criticism, fiction and poetry. He has studied art history and photography at the San Francisco Art Institute and creative writing at the University of San Francisco. His writing has appeared in Art Practical and Digital America, among others.