Serge Attukwei Clottey sits cross-legged on the floor of his studio in Labadi, the ocean-side community where he lives in Accra, Ghana’s capital. Endless yellow tangles of cut-up water gallons sprawl the floor of the tiny studio. Picasso-like charcoal paintings decorate the walls, a reference to one of his greatest influences while studying art in his home country.
In just a few years, Clottey’s installation pieces made out of the ubiquitous jerry cans found all over Ghana have become an international movement, one intended as a commentary not only about water scarcity but, more widely, about consumption and migration in modern Africa. Being the son of an artist exposed Clottey to painting from a young age, but it wasn’t until completion of a residency in Brazil that the artist became consumed with mixed media experimentation. His work now spans installation, performance, photography and sculpture that questions postcolonial power structures and joins the seemingly disparate narratives of person and nationhood.
“When I started, my work was criticised a lot by the older generations. I had to be very careful where to perform and where not to perform,” Clottey says of the rarity of performance art in Ghana. But GoLokal, the performance collective he started in 2012 with just five people, has now expanded to include over 60 members, all eager to engage with a medium that allows them to express their sociopolitical concerns in a public space. “To be heard in Ghanaian politics, you need a very strong voice – one that people who live in the slums with no money don’t have,” Clottey says. “These performances give them a platform to speak out.”
In “Museum of No Tolerance”, Clottey campaigned for president himself mimicing exactly the strategies politicians use to engage people in their campaign
“I need my work to have a close relationship with myself and my community before it goes abroad” – Clottey
Last year, in the wake of Ghana’s imminent presidential election, the artist took it upon himself to provoke a dialogue surrounding the ways politicians are elected in Ghanaian society. In a piece entitled “Museum of No Tolerance”, Clottey even campaigned for president himself. “We are going to mimic exactly the strategies politicians use to engage people in their campaigns, including house-to-house campaigns giving out food and water and soap,” the artist said. Complete with guerrilla-style campaign posters splattered all over the city, his fictional campaign trail is intended to highlight the flaws of the current political system.
The performance culminated in December 2016 with the audience dropping their ballots into toilet-like bowls at Accra’s Gallery 1957 a few days before the actual election. The gesture was a powerful commentary on the significance of voting in what Clottey calls “a bureaucratic and corrupt political system” and another example of the artist’s continuous exploration of the agency and symbolism in everyday objects.
Public participation is the underlying force behind all of the artist’s work, not just his performance pieces. In addition to staging all of his performances in Accra, Clottey remains committed to showcasing his installations and paintings in spaces accessible to his community before migrating them to the more exclusive realms of art galleries and private collections. The works comprising his current exhibition, at Berlin’s Marta Gnyp Gallery, were first displayed outside the artist’s studio in Labadi.
“I need my work to have a close relationship with myself and my community before it goes abroad,” Clottey says. “My country is my main inspiration, so it’s important that it be shown here so that the people that make it happen can react to it.”
Works by Serge Attukwei Clottey are on display at New York’s Jane Lombard Gallery until 18 February 2017