Odile Tevie: Recording, Preserving and Promoting the arts, culture and heritage of Ghana
The arts is a peculiar field. People don’t really think there is anything to it and see art forms such as poetry as jest – there to make people laugh, so not worthy of brilliant minds.
Odile Tevie, the co-founder and now Director of the Nubuke Foundation tells me with a tinge of sadness.
I had been in Accra, Ghana’s capital for a little over three weeks for leisure, business and it had also been on my schedule to interview the doyen of “recording, preserving and promoting” Ghanaian visual art and culture, Odile Tevie.
As I waited for the interview which was slated for the third week of my trip, I took the opportunity to traverse the length and breadth of Accra, from its historic and now cultural hub of Jamestown to the more affluent areas such as Cantonments and East Airport for coffee amongst other things. I had witnessed, for the first time, the coastal traditional way of fishing at Kokrobite and joined friends to backpack to the historic town of Cape Coast in the Central region of Ghana.
I had experienced the genesis of a renaissance or more accurately an emergence of a lifestyle that I simply hadn’t associated Accra with. This Accra had a healthy sprinkling of boutiques that stocked locally made African print clothing, upscale restaurants that impressed with a kaleidoscope of local dishes and street artefacts that wowed. The wealth in the area I call the golden triangle was palpable. The mansions, gated estates, new commercial buildings, expensive four wheel vehicles, busy shopping malls and posh international schools all spoke of a city that puts to bed the tiresome old stereotypical image of Africa.
As I arrived to meet Odile, a graduate from the University of Ghana and a former information technology analyst and art gallery owner in London at the Nubuke foundation, I was a 100 percent certain of how the conversation would go. I expected to hear that the new nouveau riche were clamouring to get their hands on the latest art pieces Ghana had to offer and snapping up art and culture exhibition tickets quicker than they could be printed. Surely like any society that begins to get a taste of wealth, it is inevitable that high culture, especially in art, becomes the natural outlet for investment or “showing” off one’s status. The Russians, Indians and Chinese will attest to that. I also know that Western collectors have developed a curious interest in contemporary African art. Therefore, there had to be a swathe of new galleries, a plethora of institutional collections, and who knows, a vibrant auction market to cater for this local and international interest. Was I wrong? Had I expected too much?
Truth be told the venerable Nubuke Foundation, which celebrated its 10 year anniversary in 2016, is the only one of its kind in Accra and by extension Ghana. The breadth and depth of its activities is second to none. Visual arts, drama, poetry, school outreach and exhibitions are their forte.
Tucked away on Lome Close, off Lagos Avenue in the upscale neighbourhood of East Legon, it reminded me of an Eden that had been created with not tempting fruits but, serenity in mind. A space that was well cocooned in its seemingly natural habitat, in the heart of hip and “happening” modern Accra. As I walked into the grounds my senses were instantly flooded with a rather colourful mural of picasso-esque imagery. This mural, I was later told by Odile, was the Nubuke “signature mural.” To me it symbolised a rather aesthetic open door to draw folks into the grounds to have that Nubuke conversation.
A few feet to my right as I entered the premises was an eponymous outdoor stage. This was where the poets and wordsmiths come to play as audiences lap up their words.
In the far distance I spotted a brick wall with what looked like Kente imagery. Naturally I drew close to it to savour. This was, I was later told, the outcome of a piece of research commissioned in 2010 on textile weaving in the Volta region of Ghana. Odile told me that “out of that we got to know one of the communities very well and said to them, we could get you patronage in Accra. Since then we have helped them design a lot of Kente that they weave which we sell in our shop. Prior to all that we had an exhibition for them and the wall was a way of mimicking and promoting their Kente designs.”
As I made my way into the main exhibition gallery I was met by Odile, who was beautifully attired in a one piece African print dress. Before we had sat down for the interview, she showed me Nubuke’s current exhibition. It was a solo photographic exhibition by Eric Gyamfi entitled “see me, see you” from his photographic essay “…just like us…” Eric Gyamfi is a photographer whose acclaimed work on the witches of Gambaga I knew about. Surprisingly this was Nubuke Foundation’s first ever photographic exhibition and something in my voice must have expressed surprise which prompted Odile to explain why. She stated that “I guess when we were younger photography was the art form we were used to but, maybe the barrier was getting hold off cameras” I guess as cameras become more accessible more people are taking to this genre of art which I suppose brings them to the attention of Nubuke and other galleries.
As we viewed Eric Gyamfi’s work Odile added that “We’ve had schools come in and we would also normally invite the artist to come in to talk to the kids which gives them the opportunity to ask questions about the artist and thier work.”
As we headed out of the main gallery into one of the outside seating areas, Odile pointed out to the outside stage to inform me that they’d be a gospel jazz concert there the next day. She spoke passionately about how that space had been used by folks including Elisabeth Efua Sutherland to practice and to put on plays especially for local pupils in the area.
A few moments later we got down to the nitty gritty of getting to know Odile Tevie!
Asked what the inspiration behind Nubuke foundation was she smiled and said
For me it’s important that Ghanaians support and are able to enjoy our own creation and art forms and also to encourage and nurture the younger ones who feel inspired to be creative.
I referred her to a statement on the Nubuke Foundation website which alluded to the concern the organisation had about the erosion of Ghanaian culture. I asked Odile if such a thing as Ghanaian culture existed in the first place given the plurality of ethnicities, class and other differences in Ghana. She was adamant that there was such a thing as Ghanaian culture. She stated that “there is something that gives the various cultures a cohesiveness or “Ghanaian-ness”. Let me give you an example. There is a language in Ghana – which has multiple variations in Togo, Benin and Nigeria. That language of the Ewe people, Anlo is associated with Ghana. When it moves into Togo it becomes mina, and then further on in Benin it becomes Fon. There is something that cements people and that something encapsulates who we are and there are things in our art forms, languages and expressions that is common to Ghana that you will not find in other countries. It is important that we continue to nurture that commonality.”
Prompted to elaborate on what makes Ghana different from Kenya or Senegal or South Africa to the foreign perhaps even the non African eye, Odile said
I think it’s the people. There is a certain warmth, friendliness and tolerance that you’d never find elsewhere. Ghanaians are very kind. When I go to the market the interactions I have there are real and not fake. When I go to Salaga to buy fish I look forward to sitting and chatting for 10 or so minutes with the vendor. That sense of humanity is here in abundance in Ghana.
Whilst on the subject of food and food markets, Ghana is in the throes of a food revolution of sorts and the revolution is being televised from the creativity and imaginative spaces of the likes of Midunu and Villa Grace. Food as they say is culture. I asked Odile, to what extent she thought food contributed to Ghanaian culture? “There is no family event without food! Sharing and eating together brings families and gatherings together. Eating from the same plate for example…There is always a sense of well being where there is food.”
Veering away from food and culture, I asked Odile what challenges the Nubuke Foundation faces in Ghana?
Ghana is a tough place. There is something that I find fascinating. We have just been talking about people. The same friendly Ghanaians you see around somehow metamorphose into beings without a sense of empathy when you put them in a formal structure or in an office environment where we need to operate efficiently.
I’ve just been reading in the papers that a lot of prenatal mothers do not go for their health checks because of the attitude of the nurses and the midwives. Probably that same midwife, would be welcoming and happy to see you if you visited their home. When you go to some of the banks, you’ll find yourself queueing whilst the staff chat with their friends. You go to the Ministries and the same attitude prevails. This is a big obstacle to work and if you are trying to do things the right way then it becomes a bigger challenge. We had a sign board on the street corner that we were being asked to remove by the authorities. We were fine with that but, my staff spent so much valuable time chasing a permit to put the sign board back up that I have now asked them to forget it. This is the reason why somebody can just plonk a container in front of your house, they start selling food and then find an electrician to illegally tap electricity into the container and that’s it!
Another challenge is finding good people to work with. The arts is a peculiar field. People don’t really think there is anything to it and see art forms such as poetry as jest – there to make people laugh, so not worthy of brilliant minds. Our art forms have so much depth, philosophy, wisdom and idioms embedded in them but, are not valued as much as they should. If somebody tells their parents they want to work in the arts, it’s usually met with a no no from the parents. A lot of young artists come here for respite, to get away from those pressures. In some ways those concerns are justified. The arts in Ghana is a tough environment to be in because that patronage is not high enough. They wouldn’t want their children to put themselves in an area where there is no market.”
Surely the success of art festivals like the Chale Wote festival must be increasing the appreciation levels for art in Ghana, I asked “If I asked the patrons there to pay 500 GH cedis ($115) for a painting, will they pay for it? I mean people are haggling with us all the time and the longer the art pieces remain unsold it becomes demoralising for the artists.”
Is this lack of patronage a peculiarity that relates to Ghana or does it affect the whole continent of Africa? “No, it’s a Ghanaian thing. The Nigerians for example are different. I used to think that it was because our senses are bombarded with so much visual imagery, however, with the Nigerians this is different. The Nigerians patronise art. They have art schools of international repute and they even send scouts into Ghana to come and see who is doing what here.”
If I had some spare cash to invest in a painting, who would you recommend? “I like Kofi Dawson. He has a wacky sense of humour and always manages to capture the essence and nuances of the city of Accra. He does a lot of drawing which is a skill we seem to be loosing and his works are affordable”
What tips would you give to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps? “You have to love the arts. That passion has to be there. Managing the arts is different from managing any other business.”
Where do you see the Nubuke Foundation in the next 5 years? “I would like the Nubuke Foundation to be a one stop shop. A place for recreation as well as a space to promote art and culture. We are working towards that. It is important for people to come away from their busy lives to get their senses fed in our oasis in the city of Accra.
We are fortunate to have the sort of ambience we have here and that should as much as possible remain as we go forward. We will make sure we continue to have a good exhibition calendar and it is important that we continue to collaborate with local and international organisations to ensure we have the breadth of works and programming needed to impress our patrons.”
So…what does Odile do to chill out? Surely I don’t expect you to “chillax” at Nubuke. “I love this job so even if I’m working extremely hard it does not feel like work. Within Ghana I travel a lot. We have a centre in Wa and I find that place very peaceful. Wa has no traffic so you can get from A to B in five minutes! There is fresh food everywhere and there is a lot of foodstuffs that are not known in Southern Ghana. I like to explore, getting to know peoples’ culture so when I travel that’s what I do. For the past 5 years we have been working with artisans in the Upper West region who practice textile weaving and working with clay. We find that in some of the traditional art forms we are caught in a time warp. Textiles are woven with little thought for design and strategies to reach the wider market beyond. We hold workshops within the local communities, schools and collectives in Wa aiming for a better understanding of the technical aspects of weaving without which there can be no experimentation or creation of new designs.”
Finally I asked Odile if there was anything else she’d like to make known to the world. She pointed to a piece of artwork on the wall from where we sat and said with a healthy doze of glee that she’d like to tell me about this piece.
“That work there for me encapsulates the work that we do which is encouraging and nurturing people to embrace the arts. Late last year we had a visit from the Australian High Commission who wanted to celebrate their annual day here at Nubuke. They also wanted to show an exhibition of aboriginal art. They didn’t just want to exhibit but, they also wanted to find a way to bridge the art forms of the two countries with an exhibition that the audiences would find familiar. They wanted a Ghanaian artist who could create works that would combine both Ghanaian and Australian art forms. However, I suggested to them that it would be a great project to do with children. They (the children) come here all the time and one of the things we try to get them to do is to engage with the gallery and this I thought could be an opportunity for them to express themselves or create their own art forms based on their own understanding of what is showing. This is the outcome of it.
The artist, Isaac Opoku worked with the children, mostly girls on this project. Nubuke Foundation has worked with their school over many years on several programmes, teaching them about Ghanaian art forms like Adinkra symbols and Asafo flags so they had some understanding of the art forms. Parts of the canvas were taken over by each kid to create their own art work, resulting in this massive piece embracing a fusion of cultures. I strongly believe that if we don’t do this, in 15 years time I’ll still be saying that we don’t have enough patronage for our art. We are encouraging them to be creative and to appreciate the arts so that they too will pass it on to their children and bring their children to spaces like this.”
My assumption for the current value, expressed in patronage, placed on the arts in Ghana may have been overly optimistic but, strangely enough I believed more than ever that something big is in the offing for the Ghana art and culture scene. Nigeria through collaborative projects amongst its arts and cultural promoters, notably Adenrele Sonariwo and other innovators, is experiencing an art rennaissance. Ghana’s own internationally acclaimed sculptor El Anatsui and the Sudanese Ibrahim El Salahi, the godfather of African modernism are the creme de la creme of the continents finest and will be on any authoritative list of who is who in the art world.
Odile Tevie, Kofi Setordji and Tutu Agyare, the three founders of the Nubuke Foundation, surely must have had their collective pulse on the future when they chose the name “Nubuke” which means “A new dawn breaks or new era” in Ewe, for this unique art Foundation. That new dawn as alluded to many times by Odile Tevie requires all of us, especially Ghanaians, to develop the idea of patronising our art, culture and heritage not as amusement or even a pastime, but as a calling. It is, therefore, not a question of “Shall we have art or not” but a question of “Which exhibition or cultural programme should we go see at Nubuke today, tonight or this weekend?”