Kwesi Botchway: Creating Art, Creating Community

May 23, 2024

Season 4 | Episode 6

In this episode of Creative Development with IFC, Makhtar Diop interviews Kwesi Botchway, an inspiring young artist from Accra, Ghana. Influenced by both African and Western art traditions, Kwesi's bold and colorful portraits have earned global acclaim for their profound depiction of blackness and afro-impressionism. In a compelling discussion Makhtar and Kwesi discuss the challenges African artists face, the need for better infrastructure, policies and support, and Kwesi's efforts to mentor the next generation.  

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Makhtar Diop: Welcome to Creative Development with IFC, I’m Makhtar Diop the Managing Director of the International Finance Corporation. Today it's my pleasure to welcome Kwesi Botchway to my podcast. Kwesi, an inspiring young artist from Accra, Ghana, is making waves in the global art scene earning acclaim from the Financial Times as one of the most thrilling painters to emerge. His portraits, described as bold representations of the Black experience have graced galleries in cities like Accra, London, New York, Frankfurt and Brussels. Kwesi is also the founder of the WorldFaze Art Studio, a cultural center and artists residency space, supporting up and coming artists in Accra. Kwesi, welcome to Creative Development with IFC. 

Kwesi Botchway: How you doing? 

Makhtar: So let me start with the beginning. I'm sure that as good Ghanaian parents would have done, they would want you to go study law, medicine, economics, engineering. But you know, they were, I understand, very supportive in your choice in having a career in art? Tell me a little bit about your upbringing on that standpoint? 

Kwesi: I mean when it comes to art, I will say it's an inborn thing, right. And I will also like to say a big thanks to my mom for encouraging my passion and talent. I know every parent would like to see their children successful within the traditional careers. But my mom actually encouraged me to partake on my passion and also followed my dreams, ‘cos I was drawing everywhere. I was drawing with charcoal on the walls on the sofas, and you know all that. So, I think she just felt like, oh, this is what this guy wants to do. So, I mean, why not encourage him? And I think my mom was the first person who took me to a street artist to learn, and also help me understand my craft. So I think with that step, it really helped me in finding myself and knowing who I am as a person. And I think from then I've been able to channel my energy on art and how I can use art as a tool to also inspire people and because I also see art as like music, you know, people listening to music, and we have people also listening to art.

Makhtar: No, that's great. I mean, Ghana, in a way, is a place where a lot of creativity, great intellectuals, great artists have been coming from the land of Ghana. But let me just quote you, you say “I believe colors are characters, they have attitudes”?

Kwesi: Colors, are like emotions, when you look at them, they kind of impose their emotions to you, depending on how you also feel. Right, so as an artist, using color to communicate to my audience, I also put myself in that state of understanding the color and also how it can affect the viewer positively. Do you get it? For me, I look at color differently. And when I'm in the studio, it's more like a ritual session, because it's like, you are talking to colors here and there. You know what I mean? Like the colors also talk to you back, directing you how to use them and all that.  

Makhtar: It’s interesting, you know, you've been influenced by Impressionism, which is Monet, Renoir, Cezanne. All these great painters from the French tradition. And you brought your Blackness - the African side of it because you had African American impressionists like Horace Pippin and others who went also to use African American tradition to mix it with Impressionism. But, you know, in terms of Africa as a continent, you are among those who pushed the frontier. So tell us, how did you discover Impressionism, was it just by chance? Or just in your studies? 

Kwesi: Well, it was within my studies and what I've realized, or what I experienced, as a young artist, I realized that the Western culture have a huge impact on African Studies, right. So as an artist, I was thinking of how I can deconstruct, how can I make my subject have, you know, the influence of African influence on my practice, because at the end of the day, we are trying to talk to the people, you know. We are trying to talk to Africans, we are trying to talk to Black people. My focus was actually to elevate the Black body because of the microaggressions I’ve experienced towards people with dark skin. You know, in Africa, we have names that we call people with darker skins and all that and I feel like this is what pulls people into skin bleaching. You know, because they don't, they're not conscious of who they are. There are some people who don't know why they have a dark skin, you know? Because you can't be in a country where it's full of sun and you want to bleach your skin. Do you get this? Because they're unaware of what they have, you know, so I feel like it's better to create a visual perception that would change the mindset or bring understanding to them to know that okay, this is the reason why I have dark skin, I need to cherish it, because that's all I have. That was the ideology around the Afro-impressionism.

Makthar: That’s great. You refer to a lot of the themes that back in the 60s were quite strong with the mouvement de la négritude - before the 60s - the Festival des Arts Negres in Senegal in the 60s, but also a lot of big cultural events in Ghana and Nigeria. We are at a time where we need to celebrate our Blackness, what is Blackness?

Kwesi: Whoa I mean, Blackness is a word. But Blackness, to me, is a collective of people who are descendants from Africa. Black people, we have gone through a lot of situations. I mean, let's talk about slavery and colonialism and all that.  So, for me, as an artist, what drives me is to create images that would change that mindset that will elevate people of color, you know, because if you actually live in Africa, you would definitely feel what I'm feeling because it's different. You know, when you travel to America, it's also different, there are levels, because a lot of people here in Africa don't really even see like slavery as a thing, you know.

Makhtar: You emphasize something that a lot of people are saying is that the way Blackness is a seen in the continent maybe is not emphasizing some of the elements of history that people can refer to in the US or in the Diaspora in general. How do you plunge back in history to find inspiration in your current painting?

Kwesi: You know it's all about trying to find the missing puzzle piece. Because me as an artist, I'm also looking at how the people that I'm creating the work for -  how are they going to consume it? And how would the work also help them to shape their mentality? So for instance, in Ghana, I had my first solo exhibition here in Ghana called Dark Purple is Everything Black, you know, because I was trying to use color in a conceptual way to let them know who they are as a people. That's why you will see the like, the purple strokes on my paintings, because these are colors that are strong, important notes to the work. Because I'm trying to let them see how superior we are as people. You know, I'm not saying other races are not superior, you know, but I feel like we, as people have really looked down so much upon us. I know, we have some Black people who also have that kind of high esteem who know who they are. But, you know, when it comes to Africa, it's totally different. That's what I'm trying to correct.

Makhtar: The colors you're using in your Afro impressionism are very different than the colors you see in the paintings of the French impressionists and I think that it reflects, in a sense, the color, not only the skin, but also the light, and the colors that you can see in the continent, which was very different from what the French Impressionists were describing, when you look at also, the painting of the African American impressionist, of different color but which is closer to the colors you are using in  your work, is it something that you also feel?

Kwesi: I drew my inspiration from back in the day where mostly African paintings were black. You know, they have like, these black paintings with long legs, you know. So I took that I also added a bit of impressionism, which is the use of strokes. You know, impressionism is actually the use of stroke to stimulate light on forms. So I use the strokes, and then I also make sure I use a color that would define what I'm trying to do, right? So let's say, I'm trying to tell you, Makhtar, you are great person you are royal you are you are whatever you are, how can I put it in colors, you know, without just using words? So I decided to do a lot of research, finding that purple its a color, which is connected to royalty, superiority, and all that, you know, I also did a research on how the purple color was found in Africa. So the purple color has a connection to you know, with Africa as well. So I thought it's very important to use purple in this context. You know, so that's how I came about using black and purple and making the eyes red because in Africa, you know, red is like something that is very intense, and I want my subject to look not funny, but also serious, you know, like, kind of wild and, you know, superior.

Makhtar: Let's turn now what you're doing now in Accra, because you have a resident studio, a residency space called WorldFaze, which is always something that artists are struggling with. Tell us a bit about is the space that you put together. 

Kwesi: Okay, so WorldFaze is a studio, I created, in 2011. It's hard for artists to find space in Ghana. And I think that has been, you know, a problem for artists to also practice and build your career. So I'm like, okay, good. I need to create a structure that would also help artists to stay within the space, create a community where artists will meet up, discuss things, share ideas and all that. You know, to also contribute to our art ecosystem. I mean, I'm excited because now we have so many spaces coming up. We have Amoako Boafo who is also, you know, having his space we have in Ibrahim Mahama who also has a space. So I think the artists that are coming up now are also seeing the lack of infrastructure within us, and we're also trying to fill in the spaces so that the next generation will also not struggle like we did. 

Makhtar: That's excellent. It’s not an easy task.

Kwesi: You’re right.

Makhtar: One of the things that we are hearing more and more is that African artists want to have more exchange among themselves, more residency across countries, more cross fertilization, among the different cultures in Africa? What is your take on that?

Kwesi: I think it's always the best. You want to learn, and also give what you have learned back home... You know, and I think it also helped the industry, because what is going on in Africa, it's definitely different from what is going on in America or even in Europe. So it's always good to have that kind of exchange, you know, because it's always broadened in our mind as people and know what is going on around us. If we will only be in our field, and just do what we what we are doing, we will not learn.

Makhtar: A lot of artists that you meet in Africa, particularly painters, are complaining that there are not enough benefactors in Africa. If you compare to Europe, Asia, other parts of the world, we learned from, from experience of history, that often the great artists benefited from a benefactor who will help them in the early stages of career, to be able to express all their talent. What is your view on that?

Kwesi: In Africa, we we don't have much education on the art market. You don't know your worth. Someone coming to you trying to buy you. But one is because you're also in need. Do you get what I'm saying? You are in need. So you definitely fall in that trap. It’s because our economy is not strong. And also, I believe we don't have better structures for creatives in Africa. It’s not functioning, you know, because if it's functioning, everyone will benefit, and no one will come to you and want to rob you, too. I think it's just about the structures. I've lived in Europe, and you can tell the country itself, it's surrounded by creatives. The country can't function without creative people, from architecture from, from artists, for musicians, you know, and these are people who makes a country a country. You know, and I feel like Africa, we are losing it and we are losing our culture. We are losing our everything. Because Africa, we have so much we have we have everything.

Makhtar: You are an accomplished artist, now known internationally. But, at some point, you are not that person that famous painters that you are today. If you are to look back and look at today, the young people the young painting in Ghana who are getting on the market and trying to follow your steps, what will be the advice you will be giving them?

Kwesi: I think things have changed. I think there is some sort of gradual change. That's what WorldFaze is doing. We are more focused on building the artists to understand what they are doing and also understand how the journey works. You know, because if you don't understand how the journey works, one: you'll be frustrated, and you would always be caught in spaces that you might not or you shouldn't be.

Makhtar: But how do you help? How do you, you, you will advise them to better understand the market. If I was a young artist, I come to you. And I say, Kwesi now you are a big name. Me, I'm just starting my career, but I want to be able to move on and be able to take to go to the next level, what would you be advising them?

Kwesi: So sometimes I end up advising artists on how to also create their CV portfolios and all that, you know, because it's also very important. Sometimes I give them advice, if what they're doing is right, I give them okay, see, you have to create an artist statement, you have to create a biography, you have to create a body of work also you know. You have to make a statement. How to put the voice into something or a work for people to consume, it's also… another work on its own. So sometimes I end up advising and I also collect. If what you're doing is very nice, and I like it, I will collect, you know, and just add it to my collection.

Makhtar: Now that's good, I think that what it goes for is also to our structure, which allows them to be able to, to build that market to find, you know, resources to bridge a period of creation or period where they can go to the market. At IFC, we're trying to push creative industries. And we are currently working in the sports sector where we will be increasing our investment. We are looking also in the music industry, and particularly on buildings, infrastructures, the studios, the ecosystem for people to be able to develop in that space. We are working also in the movie industry, because we believe that all these forms of art are job creating but also is a way to diversify the economy and use a lot of the assets as a continent. We haven't yet gotten to painting a more complex area.

Kwesi: Painting is very complex.

Makhtar: We would like to build a relation with you as an institution to learn more about this market and what are the challenges and the opportunities that we will be able to have to bring the private sector to look at it as a way of, you know, creating wealth in Africa and diversifying the using the potential that exists on the continent. So thank you very much. Thank you so much for the pleasure.

Kwesi: Yes, thank you. Have a good day. Thank you. Bye.