Atta Kwami and Pamela Clarkson are exceedingly productive artists working at home studios in Ghana and the UK, as well as participating regularly in international artist residencies and exhibitions. Kwami and Clarkson make prints and works on paper as well as paintings. Kwami also produces constructions and artist books. They both find that as an entity handmade paper can inspire by its material presence, carrying sculptural and painterly qualities that are suited to their respective creative practices. The robust printmaking processes that they favor relate to their physical involvement with the making of things from alternative and found objects; a prerequisite for artistic survival in Ghana and, to some extent, provincial UK. Without automatic access to institutions, Kwami and Clarkson rely on the serendipitous discovery of local materials and renewed visions in both Ghana and the UK.
Learning from her experiences in the Thami Mnyele Studio in Amsterdam, Pamela Clarkson makes small hand-printed linocuts from already scored and discarded linoleum, a hastily concocted baren from plaited twine, and jiffy cloths for burnishing, often printing on handmade paper produced in Ghana, which she finds “wonderfully resilient.” Clarkson has exhibited widely, practiced in North and South America in addition to West Africa, and has taught extensively in British art schools. Atta Kwami’s work, alongside the lively print practice that he shares with Clarkson, includes the production of large paintings and installations using found wood and other materials that he paints with brilliant color. Like his prints, these works play with color and form improvisations that are distinctive of Ghanaian architecture and African strip-woven textiles, especially those made famous by his culture, the Ewe and Asante of Ghana. Kwami is also an independent art historian and curator, previously on the faculty at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), lecturing in painting and printmaking.
In 1991 Pamela Clarkson, then teaching printmaking at Chelsea
College of Art in London, traveled to Kumasi, Ghana for a six month
artist residency at KNUST. With the help of faculty members
Kwabena Kusi-Appouh and Atta Kwami, she set up the first
printmaking studio in the Department of Painting and Sculpture. During this residency, Clarkson led a group of undergraduate and
graduate students, making paper from recycled materials. It was
the first production of handmade paper in the department, and
while Pamela remembers the resulting papers “looking like flattened
egg cartons,” the experience of making it was magical for
Later that same year, Atta Kwami was asked to represent Ghana
in an international portfolio publication of prints: Hope & Optimism,
dedicated to the memory of Namibian artist John Muafangejo. An edition of 400 was required for this project. This quantity of paper was unavailable in Kumasi at the time. Encouraged by the energy generated in the earlier papermaking project, Clarkson, Kwami, and a team of volunteer students decided to make the paper they needed for this print run. With a can-do spirit, the team set about pulling together the equipment they needed, repurposing available household tools: a large, wooden mortar, normally used for pounding fufu (a mainstay food item in Ghana) was used with a proportionately large pestle to mash strips of discarded paper that had been soaked in water; and an ex-colonial Belfast-sink was appropriated to serve as a vat. Moulds and deckles were knocked together using mosquito netting stretched and tacked over frames. The paper, while still a bit rough, worked for the print run and the edition of 400 of Atta Kwami’s linocut were successfully produced.
Four years later, Clarkson and Kwami, now married, had established their home and studio in Ayeduase, Kumasi, a neighborhood close to the university. They transported presses from the UK: a letterpress with cases of type, an etching press, and a bookbinding press. At the time, this may have been the only print studio dedicated to artistic production in the country. (Kofi Setordji’s ArtHaus/Nubuke Foundation in Accra hosted occasional printmaking workshops.)
The papers that Clarkson and Kwami used for printing were carried from Europe. Surrounded by lush vegetation, Clarkson and a young neighbor, Samuel Soku, conducted hand papermaking research with bamboo, plantain, okra, sisal, and mango, hoping to be able to produce papers with local materials for printing. While the resulting papers were beautiful—thin, pale, and elegant—they did not contain sizing, which made them inappropriate for the type of printing in which Clarkson and Kwami were engaged.
Fast forward to 2007. With the support of a Fulbright award, I moved to Kumasi. I set up a studio and began field research focused on textiles. I sought out traditional makers and met university-trained artists. One of the many highlights of that year in Kumasi was meeting Atta Kwami and Pamela Clarkson. It was wonderful being introduced to their impressive work, their small, well-equipped studio, and most impactfully being exposed to the life that this artistic duo had established, a life whose daily rhythms were defined by making art and living modestly, in Ghana, and internationally. Through a series of events that is an altogether longer story, I began my work developing high-quality handmade papers in Ghana. Using Ghanaian botanicals, I have formulated papers that carried the appropriate qualities used in printmaking and other artistic activities. In 2011, Kwami, Clarkson, and I established TakeTime Press, an enterprise dedicated to nurturing international artistic collaborations while celebrating the cultural richness of Ghana.
TakeTime Press’s most ambitious project to date is a fine press book honoring Ghanaian National Living Treasure, Koo Nimo. Published in 2011 in a limited edition of 50, it honors the extraordinary work of the renowned Palm Wine musician. Titled Listen, Listen: Adadam Agofomma, Honoring the Legacy of Koo Nimo (Twi words translate into English as Roots Ensemble), it features Atta Kwami’s suite of three etchings and relief prints titled Sound Fabric. Encased in a handcrafted clamshell box covered with dyed Ghanaian handmade papers is a CD with recorded music, a pamphlet with an essay about Koo Nimo letterpress printed on handmade paper, and an accordion fold carrying the lyrics of one song, written in Twi and in English, with evidence of Koo Nimo’s handwritten script (printed using a polymer plate). Wrapped in a handmade paper portfolio are the three prints by Atta Kwami, printed by Kwami and Clarkson in their Ayeduase studio.
I want to share a small vignette that for me illuminates some of the core values that inform Clarkson’s and Kwami’s practice. This incident happened during the summer that the Koo Nimo book was being printed. Clarkson and Kwami arrived in Ghana with supplies for the project, prepared for an extended period of work. The plan was to print the etchings for the book, which I would then carry back to the University of Wisconsin at of the summer. We were on a tight timeline. As we met at the studio to prepare, we realized that the black ink had been inadvertently left in the UK. This was a critical problem. There was no art store to run to, ordering it to be shipped would be expensive and would delay the printing project. What to do? Clarkson then remembered an antique book she thought was somewhere on the shelves of their Ghanaian library. She found the aged volume, blew away a bit of dust, paged through carefully, and found an old recipe for making black ink. Clarkson had all the basic ingredients in the shop: vine black and French black pigment, and plate oil. She bound the ingredients and ground them on a slab with a glass muller for hours and hours, slowly adding oil until a creamy, rich black ink emerged. They used this beautiful ink to make the prints for our book. Alongside their poetic vision, embedded organically in how they approach their work as printmakers and artists, Clarkson and Kwami carry a deep, respectful understanding of the tools and materials that they use in their practice, an embrace of labor as essential, and when necessary an inventive willingness to find another way.
Both masterful printers, Atta Kwami and Pamela Clarkson assist each other in the production of their respective work; there is often lively banter between them about work in progress, about ideas, what they are reading, what they have seen and experienced. Having committed significant time facing the challenges of building a life with artmaking at its center, they are comfortable working daily on separate projects, side by side. Living internationally, they draw on their experience of moving in between cultures, economies, languages, and histories. Viewing the environments they occupy as both insiders and outsiders, they each produce works that are informed by daily encounters with the material world as well as by ideas gleaned through music, expansive reading, and their respective personal histories. Early in the morning, before it got too hot, I went drawing in the
local covered market. At that hour the stalls were silent. Later the
women would come, having finished work in the house, to set out
their food stuffs. In the absence of the usual colourful crowd, all
was dusty-grey. As I drew the rows of tables, rough-hewn cupboards
and upturned stools balanced precariously on top of one another, I
thought about safety and danger, and unpredictability. Tables supporting
the piled-up furniture were sturdy; they were made from wide
planks of hard wood that retained the markings of the trees they once
were, and the cuts and judders of the sawyers who fashioned them.
Loughborough market is not so different. Maybe the heavy metal
structure of the stalls appear more stable but unexpected rough
winds and driving rain can shake the awnings and close business.
—Pamela Clarkson, January 20, 2019, Kumasi, Ghana.
The qualities I seek in my work are clarity, simplicity, intensity, architectonic
structure, musicality (rhythm and tone, wholeness and
spontaneity). So many strands inevitably manifest themselves in
painting: jazz, the timbre of Ghanaian music (Koo Nimo), improvisation,
arrangements of merchandise and so forth. I also see corresponding
aesthetic commonalities with wall paintings and music from
northern Ghana, the limited range of earth colors and the pentatonic
scale of the xylophone. Poetry is able to sustain the life of language
through new forms of usage. In painting it is also re-interpretation,
improvisation and variation that affect innovation and development.
—Atta Kwami, artist statement, 2011.