Many are the artistes who have begun their journey with a certain artistic philosophy and have, along the way, swayed – sometimes slightly, sometimes extremely – from this original philosophy. Several reasons have been given as justifications for these actions; from ‘having to sell-out in order to start selling,’ to ‘winning the ears of listeners so as to win their hearts later,’ all through to ‘dumbing it down to be able to reach the masses.’ Finance, however, has arguably been the ultimate causal factor for a majority of these shifts.
About two months ago, on the evening of Thursday, April 14, 2016, digital illustrator slash graffiti artiste Bright Ackwerh emerged winner of the second Kuenyehia Prize for Contemporary Ghanaian Art. The prize was initiated two years ago by lawyer and entrepreneur Elikem Nutifafa Kuenyehia to “identify, reward and help develop Ghana’s most outstanding artists between the ages of 25 and 40.” The artiste won the prize with his piece “Tweaa Room: Confrontation.”
Bright Ackwerh is a young man whose art – despite the air of light-heartedness that surrounds it – is critical, provocative, thought-laden and ultimately, utilitarian. His posts on social media are no less different, and unpopular to a certain extent – going by the back and forth in most of his comment threads. It would not be far-fetched to say that his’ is a case of an artiste who is not separate from their art. In an environment that is largely hostile to the kind of art -and artist- described above, it is surely not an easy thing to swim against the tide, and stick to whatever artistic philosophy you set out with. Bright’s win however, proves to us (perhaps yet again) that it is very possible.
In one of the numerous interviews he granted after winning the prize, Bright spoke of instances where people and platforms such as “exhibitions, discussions, and even blogs” have outrightly rejected or simply refused to associate with his works, invariably due to the content. Such situations, of course, cost the artist a lot: opportunities, potential fans, finances, et cetera. In such instances where the odds seemed heavily against him and his ‘sensitive’ work, did Bright ever consider watering down the ‘sensitivity’ of his work, to pander to the preferences of the mainstream?
“I did. And decided otherwise; it’s hard for an artiste to have to deal with people not responding to his or her work. It’s like stripping your lover and they don’t even get turned on but you keep doing it because you want your lover to be satisfied sexually. Because i need to communicate with people. When i open my legs, i need someone to sex me; can’t masturbate all the time. Its not fulfilling. So when the audience is not paying attention you are tempted to switch your content to what they are currently paying attention to so you ride the hype without critical concern. I have faced this temptation,” Bright responded with his typical quirky sense of humour.
Performing some rituals however, help(ed) Bright maintain focus and stay steadfast to himself and his art. “I have always fallen on music to help me. I look up to Blitz [The Ambassador]. I always listen to ‘Hard to Choose’ by Rapsody and i am comforted. Also, I take every major decision into prayer… so maybe when in prayer the Gods said to keep at it.”
In light of all the above, if Bright, being the kind of artist that he is, won such a prestigious prize -whose jury was headed by the very prominent El Anatsui, it should be a lesson, an example and inspiration enough for artistes -young and emerging ones, especially- to know that compromising your art is not the only way to ‘make it’, and that being uncompromising too, can be as rewarding and fulfilling- however difficult and impossible it may seem.
Asked for his take on artistery and staying unyielding to the original mission, the eloquent young man had this to share: “For me i think it is wrong to starve for sticking by what you believe in; but selling out to eat is a crime if it is not done with any critical concern; a crime against your own soul. To be an artiste usually means expressing very personal opinions on interested issues. However, one must also allow his or his opinion to evolve creatively as our art and knowledge grows. It is very difficult to have unpopular views in a world constantly driven by popular opinions. But many many people have set examples and have achieved critical acclaim for staying true to their ideological causes and there is no doubt that those paths will find such success too…in this life or another…in their lifetimes or when all that is left to show is a testimony of their life work.”
But for he, Bright Ackwerh himself, he reiterated something he said at last year’s Mesh confab, “I will rather live and die poor and inspiring than have a bunch of money and not inspire anything.”
By: Moshood Balogun