African Modern & Contemporary Art

Ablade Glover on Ghana’s Art Scene and His Own Pioneering Work

By Adriana La Lime
Ahead of the upcoming Modern and Contemporary African Art sale on 15 October, which features five of his paintings, Adriana La Lime speaks to the renowned Ghanaian artist Ablade Glover, who recently celebrated his 85th birthday with an exhibition of new works at his London gallery.

Adriana La Lime: Could you tell me about your 85th anniversary exhibition?

Ablade Glover: From 1970, I started having these 'birthday exhibitions’ with October Gallery – we had them in 1975, 1980 etc. For me, these exhibitions are quite significant as they mark my periodic evolution. There have been some shifts in my practice, which is natural. For example, I see a shift in colour, particularly in this exhibition. I sometimes say that these exhibitions liberate me, giving me the courage to do certain things that I would not normally do in the studio.

In the beginning of my career, I would mix colours and then apply it to the canvas. Then I progressed to mixing the same colours, so I would work with varying tones. I am now doing something which surprises me: working with contrasting colours. The colours I am putting on the canvas now almost look crazy together. When I stand back now, and I look at the work, I can see the evolution. There is a shift, in that I am experimenting with new colours, but the subject matter stays the same. The crowd has been my love. I will continue to paint the crowd movement and the crowd spirit.

AL: I imagine being in Ghana is central to your practice as an artist?

AG: I suppose so. I don’t think I would like other crowds, like the London crowd for example. You don’t see this spirit everywhere. People are so orderly! It is simply amazing. I need to study crowd movements more. I hope that I have a few more years to go to understand the crowd psychology!"

AL: Could you speak a bit about your education and the beginnings of your career?

AG: I was sent to Central School of Art and Design to study fabric design and printing. The government had plans to build a textile factory and so I was training for this. However, when I went back to Ghana after the course, they hadn’t started the factory.

When I was at Central School of Art and Design, although I was studying textiles, I was also taking drawing and painting classes. Because the factory wasn’t finished, the government sent me to a training college where I would train art teachers in how to teach art to students.

During this time, I wanted to return to Britain to do a course called 'Art Education' and I was in touch with the University of Newcastle. I was admitted to the program but there was no way to get another scholarship and return to Britain. That is when I met a woman named Mrs. Dubois who helped me along my way.

At the time, I was looking for someone who would help me open my new exhibition. Mrs. Dubois offered to help me, and she went so far as to introduce me to the President! When I arrived to meet President Nkrumah, he said that everything had been arranged for me to return to the UK to study and the following weekend I was going back to Britain. Once I finished that program, I returned to Ghana and became an Assistant Lecturer in Textiles in the town of Winneba. I taught in that position for seven years.

Soon after, the American scholarships began to come in. Most universities at the time were full of Europeans, and so they wanted to see African faces amongst their pupils. In 1971, I left Ghana to go to Kent State University in America. I got there just after the Kent State Shootings; the university was quiet, the noise had vanished. After I finished my Master’s degree, I wanted to stay in the United States and so I began a PhD at Columbus Ohio State University. For various immigration reasons, I had to return to Ghana two years into my PhD program and finish my dissertation from there. My topic was 'The Rationale for Radical Innovation in the Ghanaian Educational System and in Art Education'.

After the PhD, I went back into teaching in Ghana. However, whilst I was teaching I was also painting the whole time. Being a teacher gave me this freedom.

AL: Let’s talk about your market scene works. What strikes me about your work and why I love it so much is that I read them initially as abstract paintings but when I look closer I start to recognize the scene. How and when did you start making these market scenes?

AG: I was drawn to the market; it is intriguing, the way the crowds move and how the colours change. There is a tempo and an energy that strikes me as an artist. When I went to the market, I was not so much trying to paint the people, I was trying to paint the energy. I am still exploring the market, I don’t think I’ve reached the end.

AL: The way in which you paint these scenes is also important. You use a palette knife to paint, why is that?

AG: The action of creating the scene is fulfilling. I started to use a palette knife at the University of Newcastle. Whilst I was there an art teacher approached me and said: 'The way you paint…you are better off with a palette knife'. At the time, I thought that a palette knife was simply something you mix colours with. The work process is different than with a brush, it gives you an immediacy. There is spontaneity in it that very quickly tells you a story. I continue with the palette knife to this day. I cannot go back to the brush, it is too soft!

AL: But you didn’t always paint market scenes. When did it start?

AG: No, I didn’t start with the market scenes. In the very early stages, I was painting very traditional subjects – horn blowers, mothers carrying babies – those simple things. When I first began the market scenes, I was painting the individuals: two, three, four women at a time. But when I shifted to the essence of the market, that’s when things really started changing for me. I got the feeling! I worked for hours, satisfying my senses, my feelings and ego.

AL: Could you speak a bit about GLO art gallery that you started in the early 90s?

AG: I started GLO after my education in Newcastle. I was working back in Ghana and I noticed that there were not a lot of trained artists who were exhibiting work. There was no space.

At the time, I was invited to teach at Kumasi University. Teaching gave me a lot of time, and visitors would come all the way to Kumasi to come and see my work. I realized that was a great opportunity for me and others.

When I opened GLO Art gallery, I was showing my work alongside young artists who were struggling. I showed some very talented artists who would not have this opportunity otherwise. This is what I was preaching to the government and anyone that I met. People thought I was crazy because all I talked about was that this nation needed an art gallery, it took five years. Unfortunately, during the gallery’s seventh year, I got the chance to return to the USA and when I came back the gallery had accumulated debt and had to close.

On my retirement, my wife and I decided to start another life and another gallery. We called it ‘‘Artists Alliance’’. His Excellency Kofi Annan agreed to formally open it. Today, the gallery is thriving. It used to be that students would finish their university degrees and they would go on to do any other work except being an artist. People were not going to studios to create art. When we opened the gallery, people were resigning their jobs to go to the studio to work! For me, that was very fulfilling. A lot of artists are now clamoring to show their works at the gallery. I show my work there, visitors come there. I am very proud.

AL: Speaking about the art scene in Ghana and its development, what are your thoughts on the growth of the international market for contemporary African art?

AG: The demand for contemporary African art in Ghana is growing; it is a gradual thing. It is not a case of beginning to like art or not like art; it has to do with economics and people’s earnings. Now that the economy is growing, we are growing with it. Oil companies are bringing their offices to Ghana and they want art in their offices. The market here is widening. Locally we have more and more competition, which is good. I could mention Gallery 1957 – they are out there and doing well. It’s all healthy. We have outstanding artists and I am very happy about that.

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