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Oscar Korbla Mawuli Awuku Uses Art to Redefine the Narrative on Indigenous Ghanaian Culture

Oscar Korbla Mawuli Awuku Uses Art to Redefine the Narrative on Indigenous Ghanaian Culture

Oscar Korbla Mawuli Awuku - Yonga Arts - Afrocritik

“What I try to do is to illuminate the past and to modify it into something more acceptable in contemporary spaces. In the end, I believe my art has its impact in changing the narrative of who we are as Ghanaians and Africans in general.” _ Oscar Korbla Mawuli Awuku

By Somto Paul

Oscar Korbla Mawuli Awuku is a multi-disciplinary creative artist born and raised in the golden city of Accra, Ghana. He deftly channels his creative juices through a plethora of mediums such as photography, cinematography, canvas painting, sculpting, and body painting, developing wholly symbolic and esoteric bodies of work. 

He is the founder of the creative company, Yonga Arts, which explores the diverse and enigmatic nature of the art of body painting. The general theme for his concepts, particularly those of his Yonga Arts brand, is a little something he refers to as “Anansinism” — his very own artistic movement that fuses Anansi (a Ghanaian term for spider) web patterns with Adinkra symbology (an ancient Ghanaian ideographic writing system), inspired by the mythical Ghanaian folklore character, Kweku Anansi. 

Awuku’s art is drawn from his experiences growing up with his mother in Ghana. All of which has charged him to create a body of work that stalwartly celebrates women. He also employs his talents in addressing issues of the declining rate of indigenous practices in contemporary African culture, and in educating the younger generation on subjects such as the impact of colonisation in Africa and the need to integrate ancestral traditions with the modern world. The creative shared with Afrocritik the concept of “Anansinism”, and discussed the eccentric and homely elements that make up the uniqueness of his works. 

The interview below has been edited for length, clarity, and readability.

Tell us about your early years. What was growing up like for you and what aspects of your childhood led you on your pilgrimage to becoming an artist?

Most of my younger years were spent with my mother — and siblings — because her marriage with my dad fell apart.  The experiences I shared in her home spurred my determination to develop an oeuvre that relishes and exalts the graceful nature of women. And the Anansinism movement was ignited by the tales I had read of Kwaku Anansi.  

Oscar Korbla Mawuli Awuku - Yonga Arts - Afrocritik
Oscar Korbla Mawuli Awuku

One of your most esoteric and vivid art styles is the creative body painting that surrounds your brand, Yonga Arts. Is there a reason you are so engrossed in that very genre? Also, tell us about the artists who have roused your interest in the illustrious world of arts and crafts.

In my earlier years as an artist, I mainly practised painting on canvas. My interest in body art spurred after high school, sometime in 2017/18 when I was opportune to work on the video shoot of the song “Nana” by Becca featuring Sakordie. There was a request for the kind of body painting that nudged me to research distinctively African patterns. While online, I came across artists like the Nigerian, Laolu Sebanjo, and I wanted to emulate his work. I found that quite challenging though, so I scrambled for elements that were more indigenous to me. I did some more research and I found that the body painting genre is very vast and that while it did not have a very contemporary feel, it was something rooted in African history. I pondered on how I could imbue it with my unique touch while equally infusing it with indigenous prints. And that was where my body painting journey kicked off.

Retribution Of The Soul - Oscar Kobla - Afrocritik
Retribution of the Soul

You established that the patterns encompassing your brand and artist movement, Anansinism, are inspired by the folklore character, Kweku Anansi — regardless of its primary recognition as a trickster and a concoctor of mayhem. Can you give us a bit more insight into its concept and share with us how it is represented in your art?

Trickery is the most dominant of Anansi’s many qualities, but I choose to focus more on its positive attributes. Looking deeply at its characteristics, you’d find that its occasionally double-dealing is a device it uses to draw attention to itself.  While reading Anansi stories, one would find that it is sort of overlooked by other characters, so it draws attention to itself by using its wits to outsmart others present in the folkloric setting. 

One thing quite common among creatives is that they face obstacles that frustrate their inventive processes. Sometimes it is a sort of creative block that obscures room for imaginativeness, and other times it is an avalanche of criticisms that don’t seem to be all that “constructive”. What are the most difficult challenges you’ve faced as an artist, and how do you overcome them?

As a creative, you can’t escape a block. Whenever I experience one, I like to pass the time on social media, looking at what other artists have up their sleeves, and I piece together ideas from what I find. I also like to indulge myself in lengthy conversations. Something might be said at that moment that would ignite inspiration in me. 

Away from the long-drawn-out conversations and the diverse nature of other people’s masterful pieces on social media, are there any other wells where you draw inspiration from?

I love movies, a lot! Movies are amazing pieces of art that nourish my mind. I also love to swim, and I enjoy visiting serene spaces; vast lands with minimal buildings that provide allowances for me to completely relish nature.

With your canvas paintings, particularly your portraiture projects, the faces of your piece’s subject are always masked and they give your pieces a very esoteric feel.  This has also become your trademark. Is there a distinctive reason for your choice to mask your painting’s subject?

The masks are quite personal to me. Back in Accra, whenever I got to visit my grandmother, there was this festival where masquerades were revealed and celebrated. I was terrified of them and would usually hide under my grandmother’s bed. The masked figures initially haunted me, but going into high school and learning about our culture, history, and artefacts, I realised that these things aren’t meant to frighten us. Instead, they possess some sort of relevance and can help us: sometimes, spiritually, and other times, with our health. After learning all that, I asked myself, “Rather than being scared, why don’t I appreciate and change the narrative that these artefacts pose?” So I like to integrate the mask because I want to re-educate people on how they perceive our indigenous artefacts.

Purple Shoes - Oscar Kobla
Purple Shoes

When looking at your paintings, we noticed that you employ a lot of bright shades. What exactly influences your colour choices?

I believe that colour has its way of creating its mark on the soul, so I like to opt for what is more vibrant. Here in Africa, we see colours for what they are, and we enjoy bright colours. When you study costumes and traditional attires, you notice that they are decorated with vibrant, bright colours. And because of our inky skin, we are inclined to go for colours that make it stand out. Purple is one of such colours, blue and yellow too. I pick colours that will make the subjects of my paintings stand out more. Also, I strive to use colours that draw the attention of viewers.

When you are in the middle of crafting a project, what are those aspects or steps that frustrate you the most?

Well, I’d say I only get frustrated with the processes surrounding canvas painting. I’m mostly in a boxed space with just the canvas and it can grow to be exhausting at rocket speed. I sometimes have to abandon the painting to go to sleep or to watch a movie, and the thought of having to go back and paint is draining. 

Oscar Korbla Mawuli Awuku - Afrocritik
Oscar Korbla Mawuli Awuku

You often give your works remarkable names. Some of them include State Of Mind, Tribal Insight, and Veneration. Do these names come first and serve as the foundation on which your pieces are developed or are the names inspired by what your pieces turn out to be once you’ve completed them?

Sometimes, particularly while I’m involved with body painting projects, I have a concept and then I shoot, but other times, something comes to me while on set and we just shoot. When I’m at the post-production stage, I get ideas and I’m like, “Oh, okay. So this resonates with this, and I can actually title it this”. From there I can craft a small story that sort of resonates with the imagery. 

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What role do you believe art plays in the society?

I believe art is a powerful tool that has a way of invoking emotions and aiding psychological turbulences. Art is an element that has been present for a long time, and its effect on people is something I believe we cannot really define. It has its way of drawing people to it and connecting with them uniquely. 

How impactful do you think your art is?

I just hope to educate people on African culture, empower the next generation to appreciate our art more, and to also challenge the narrative that we Africans don’t have a history. So what I try to do is to illuminate the past and to modify it into something more acceptable in contemporary spaces. In the end, I believe my art has an impact on changing the narrative for Ghanaians and Africans in general.

Sometimes, we create art to tell stories and express our deepest sentiments. But at this age and time, we are forced to focus on finances and how lucrative the business of art is for our survival. How have you been able to balance these contrasting worlds: the will to express and the need to survive?

When I started as an artist, I had a lot of support from my family — my aunts and uncles. They supported me up until I could find a decent footing and build a sustainable income from sales. So I only ever focus on creating the stories and expressions I wish to convey and pay very little attention to the financial technicalities. I believe that when you have the pieces ready, the sales will somehow find their way to you. 

Have you had any exhibitions, and are there any in the works?

I had my first exhibition in 2020 at The Melrose Gallery, in South Africa. It turned out great for me and it inspired me to have more exhibitions. I have also exhibited my works at the Museum of Science and Technology, Ghana; and in Villa Karo, a Finnish gallery and Art Residency in Benin Republic. I’m still on the lookout for other opportunities with other galleries. 

Every creative — even though they refuse to admit it — has a favourite out of all the pieces they’ve birthed. Which of your pieces is your favourite?

I wouldn’t like to pick a favourite because I could have one for a moment and then I paint something new that I end up falling in love with. And then that cycle goes on and on. But I’d say that my pieces in the Melrose Gallery have to be the most interesting to me mostly because they are viewed by a vast audience. 

Somtochuckwu Paul is a writer who crafts content that explores various aspects of the human experience. He is the brainbox behind “Memoirs of a Contemporary African”, a monthly newsletter through which he shares intriguing narratives from his unconventional life journeys with ever-curious readers.

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