Kofi Setordji is a multidisciplinary artist, born in 1957 in Accra. Largely self-taught, he is arguably one of Ghana’s most successful artists, widely exhibiting his work internationally. Setordji is also an active member of Nukube, a foundation for the promotion and preservation of Ghanaian art and culture, and also runs Arthaus, an artist-in-residence program on the outskirts of Accra, where he assists promising young artists, organises workshops, and publishes an art journal. Setordji is the first African to receive the Rockefeller Foundation Creative Arts Fellowship. As a selection of his work is to be exhibited during the upcoming edition of ART X Lagos, the artist shares his perspective on art, on history, and on the importance for Africans to write their own stories.
You make use of multiple materials, from wood and metal to stone, terracotta, and paint to create your artworks, which comment on historical, social, and political issues. How do your mediums lend themselves to your subject matter?
I am an artist 24 hours a day. I tend to look for materials that resonate with the ideas I would like to explore. So, if I want to talk about the fragility of life, I ought to use something like terracotta. Once the terracotta falls, it breaks. I look for specific materials that will relate to the idea that I want to talk about. That’s how come I use a lot of materials.
You are best known for Travelling Memorial of the Rwanda Genocide or The Star of Memory, a multi-dimensional installation that you created in the memory of the countless anonymous victims of the genocide in Rwanda. Why did you choose to ‘’comprehend the incomprehensible’’, as Rhoda Woets writes about the work in the African art journal in 2010?
Yes, I try to “comprehend the incomprehensible.” I was just born less than two decades after World War II started. The Holocaust of the Jews by Nazi Germany started the war. I am extremely interested in the Holocaust because the Jews do not call it genocide – they call it the Holocaust because they want to make the memory of the genocide active in our lives. Every year, there are lectures, seminars, and the likes to commemorate it.
In 1994 when the Rwanda Genocide was happening, I was amazed that it was not even reported in the Ghanaian press. Rwanda is just five countries across from Ghana in the east. In 3 months, 800,000 people died and the whole world watched on. Nobody intervened. The analogy that I am making here is that the lives of Africans matter too. We allowed 800,000 people to die and then, we say, “In 1994, 800,000 people died in Rwanda.” We compress 800,000 lives into one sentence, and I said, “No.” It is not fair to the people of Rwanda or those victims. I wanted to tell their stories and treat them like human beings.
I am happy that I did so, because the Museum of Abobo in Abidjan has ordered a small part of that installation for a permanent show in their collection. If we do not talk about our problems or reflect on what we are, who do we want to do so for us?
How do you think your work responds to the current political upheaval in Nigeria, following the #ENDSARS social movement against police brutality? Additionally, what do you think the role of ART X Lagos is to comment on this event and others that contribute to the sociopolitical landscape in Nigeria?
Well, my work presented at ART X Lagos is not responding specifically to the Nigerian problem. This said, as an artist who reflects on his environment, politics is one of my main subjects and the work I am showing at ART X, titled Masqueraders, is about that very topic.
In Hands of Fate, you explore the legacy of the humanist and Pan-Africanist ideals of the leaders of the 1950s. You urge Africans to take hold of their destiny, to be actors rather than passive spectators in their own history. As someone immersed in the contemporary art scene in one of the first African countries to become independent, how do you see Ghanaian artists, including yourself upholding this legacy?
I am an individual, but I see myself coming from the human race – as having an affinity to the human race. I am a world citizen. I come from Africa. I come from Ghana. I come from an ethnic group. I come from a family. Because of these connections, I comment on human suffering wherever I see it.
Now, I have been watching how African countries depend on the west in terms of grants for anything we want to do. Why should we go and collect someone else’s tax money to fix our lives? I am always against it. We are rich enough to be able to do things for ourselves. Even if we do not do it to the level that we think we can do, we can start it. When I was growing up, my mother always said that, “when you want to carry something on your head, you first have to lift it half way so that somebody can push it to your head.” I do not think African states are doing that at all. Africans living on the continent should decide what we want to do with our lives.
You are a founding member and an associate director at the Nubuke Foundation for Contemporary Art and Culture in Accra, Ghana, and you run Arthaus, a global residency for practicing artists. As a mentor for young creative people in Ghana, why is it important to you to showcase the work of young artists from Africa?
I am a multidisciplinary artist. I see things from multiple perspectives, but I do not see young people practicing that way. What I want them to know is my way of thinking. That is why I do what I do. We must give back to society and I think I have reached a place now that I want to give back to young people. Especially because African countries do not see the need to incubate creatives.
Your most recent group exhibition, Prête-Moi Ton Rêve, or lend me your dream, travelled to a total of 6 African countries from 2019-2020, tracing the route where colonialists envisioned a railroad that would ease the movement of British settlers. Why was it important that your work was included in this exhibition?
I am incredibly happy to have my work in this exhibition because it is being shown on the African continent. I think it is high time that we celebrated our own and that is one of the reasons why I accepted to be part of it.
ART X LAGOS – 2-9 December, 2020.
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