Atta Kwami: The Distinguished Ghanaian Art Icon Whose Legacy Lives On

by Duke Magazine

Atta Kwami was a Ghanaian painter and printmaker with brilliant geometric works that evoked the architecture and textiles of West Africa and explored themes of migration and assimilation. Long a giant in the Ghanaian art world, he in recent years won international acclaim as his work became more widely known. Kwami was also a noted art historian and curator devoted to preserving Ghana’s art history. His 2013 volume Kumasi Realism, 1951–2007: An African Modernism stood against the notion of “authentically” African art as embodied only by traditional styles and instead traced a through-line from ancient to modern West African art, positing the latter as flowing from tradition, rather than rejecting it.

Kwami was born in Accra, Ghana, in 1956, to a musician father and an artist mother. Having grown up playing with his mother’s paints and textiles, he studied painting at the College of Art at Kwame Nkumrah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, from 1976 to 1980. After spending a few years teaching art in southeast Nigeria, he returned to Kumasi in 1986, teaching painting and printmaking at his old alma mater, where he would remain on the faculty for decades before ultimately dividing his time between Kumasi and Loughborough, UK.

He continued his practice, making vibrantly colored, gridded works whose structure he described as a “smokescreen” for the creation of something new. He described himself as sometimes entering a trance when he painted, or as entering a conversation with other artists or his materials. He began creating freestanding structures that recalled traditional celebration arches in some instances and others the hand-built wooden vending kiosks that lined the roads in West African towns. Placed in atypical locations, for example under the chilly gray skies of southeast England, these representatives of Ghanian street-art traditions appeared cheerily welcoming and conjured a strong sense of place.

Kwami’s work is held in major collections including those of the national museums of Ghana and Kenya; the British Museum and the Victora & Albert Museum, London; the National Museum of African Art, Washington, DC; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum, both in New York. He additionally received many honors and awards during his career, including Philip L. Ravenhill Fellowship at the Smithsonian Museum, Washington, DC, in 2010. In 2008, he was named the inaugural Thoyer Distinguished Visiting Scholar at New York University, and in 2012–13 he was a visiting fellow at the Cambridge/Africa Collaborative Research Program, Art and Museums in Africa.

Earlier this year, he won the prestigious Maria Lassnig Prize. He was at work on the public art commission component of the prize, an installation that was to go on view at London’s Serpentine Galleries, accompanied by a monograph, next year. He died on October 6, 2021, at 65.

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