THE ART FIVE, Issue 7, with Artist, Adelaide Damoah
Updated: Oct 24, 2020
AD: There are three distinct elements in this series of works. First there is the big signature piece - 'The Rebirth Of Ama' - which occupies its own space in terms of technique and imagery. Then there are the large works on paper which comprise a series of body prints and finally there are the small works on paper, which are mostly works made with the pages of a large and rather beautiful 17th century bible.
In 2016, I went to Ghana with my sister to visit our mother and to see if I could find any old photographs to use in my work. I was looking for something striking that would connect my work to my ancestry. This is where I found the bold and beautiful photograph of my great grandmother holding my grandmother, Adelaide, as a baby. The photo was taken in 1920, the year of my grandmother's birth, in what was then the British Gold CoastThe idea of this striking woman, my direct maternal ancestor, existing at this time and place intrigued me and I wanted to know more about her. Sadly, we only know her name and that she died quite young. My grandmother lived to her nineties but passed away before I thought to ask her any questions about her mother. I decided then and there that I wanted to somehow know her in my own way through my work. I took a photograph of the photo and immediately started using it in various works such as 'To Know Her', 'Great Angel Mother' and 'Great Angel Golden Mother'. Just before I started preparing for 'Genesis', I made a piece that was later named 'The Ancestor, Rebirth of Ama' as it was much smaller and came before 'The Rebirth of Ama'.
'The Rebirth of Ama' is composed of multiple versions of Ama and grandma repeated over the entirety of this 3 x 4 m work. She appears in some places and disappears in others. She is known and unknown at the same time. Just like she is to us. We know her name and her face and a part of her lives on in her descendants. She is a spectre and I am a spectre of her, in a way. That is interesting to me. The work is a sort of homage to someone I could never know, but who looked statuesque, beautiful and proud. I often wonder if she was politically aware and how living under colonial rule impacted her life and the lives of her children.
This photo really was the beginning of my interest in the exploration of colonial history through my work. The bible pages came about because I found this discarded bible. Someone had placed it outside their studio (when I was at Thamesside Studios in Woolwich) with a note on it saying 'please take!'. I could not believe my luck as it was simply beautiful (I love books), but it was falling apart. At the time, I considered trying to fix it, but that would have been impossible as some of the pages were stuck together and the spine was completely ruined. When I started working on 'Genesis' and I knew I wanted to bring in the spiritual/ religious aspect of colonial imposition, everything clicked into place.
All of the body print works in this series are made with pigment and grease. I was inspired when I read that this was how American artist David Hammons made many of his body print works, and developed my own way of doing it. I feel that bringing my physical self into these works which hint at colonial history really brings the past and the present into sharp focus. This is important for me because the Ghanaian concept of Sankofa is at the core of everything I do. Sankofa means it is not wrong to go back and pick up that which is forgotten. In other words, it is important to understand your history so that you do not repeat the mistakes from the past in the present. Lastly, aside from the bible pages and The Rebirth Of Ama, each of the works is named after a Ghanaian proverb. This naming ties the works to my ancestral heritage.
AD: My studio practice feeds my performance practice and vice versa. Before I moved into my current style of performance, I was making work in the studio using my body. I used to record the process on video as a way of documenting it. This documentation felt performative and at some point, it dawned on me that I needed to do performance in order to express certain ideas to the audience in a way that would cause them to have an experience of what I wanted to say, rather than provide visual clues through the visual language of the studio work.
In terms of context, these are the issues I confront directly in the work. I have work both in the studio and during performances which tap into each of these contexts. For example, the 'Into The Mind Of The Coloniser' performance piece really talks about colonial history in a very direct way by speaking the words of real men who were actively involved in the colonial project. The paint comes into play because at some point during the performance, I invite the audience to cut off the clothes I am wearing - which are Ghanaian funeral clothes and therefore directly relate to my identity and to the identities of many Africans both on the continent and in the diaspora - and what is revealed is skin and underwear stained with blood red paint.
I then imprinted my blood stained body onto the text I was reading from, leaving a reminder, a ghost of the present on to the past. A reminder of the violence of those words and actions. The paint is essential to conveying the message that the colonial project was a violent project and that violence was perpetrated against human beings like me. The impact of colonialism is still felt today. We never had a choice. It is one of those supra individual social events/movements that leaves nothing and no one it touches, unchanged for generations. This is why the paint is so critical to this performance. I could take it a step further and use actual blood, but I feel like the effect of blood-like paint is strong enough to get the message across effectively.
In terms of feminism, the sexual harassment piece I did in 2019 in response to a great installation by Clemence Vazard on sexual harassment, was based on the same principle. Clemence and a lady we were working with called Halime cut my dress off until my blood-stained skin and underwear were revealed. I then lay down on a white canvas and left marks with my body on the canvas. Again, a reminder of the violent effect that all kinds of sexual harassment have on the bodies and psyches of the people they impact. Paint is critical to getting this message across.
AD: I know that performance art has the power to really impact people in a visceral way because I have felt it with every performance I have ever done, and have had conversations with people who have been in attendance who testify to the power of performance. I think I knew deep down before I started working like this that performance would have that power, which may be part of the reason why it took me a while to do it. I think I have a responsibility to choose my subject matter and performance wisely because of this knowledge. Nothing I choose for performance is frivolous for that reason. I think the audience is a large part of the transmission of that power. Once the audience buys into what you are doing, it can be a truly electric and visceral experience for everyone which can lead to learning and healing.
My main influences when it comes to performance have been Carolee Schneemann’s early performances like Interior Scroll and Ana Mendieta, especially Blood Sign/Body tracks which was the main inspiration behind my 33 hour durational performance - 'My Body Is Present, Homage to Ana Mendieta'. Yves Klein’s 1960 Anthropometries performance was the main inspiration behind the This Is Me The Inconsistency Of The Self performance. Yoko Ono’s 1965 Cut piece was a huge influence and the cutting stage of my 'Coloniser' and sexual harassment performances were a direct nod to her.
In Ono’s performance, the audience cutting her clothes was a commentary on violence against the female body and in mine, it was about violence against the black body for the 'Coloniser' performance and violence against the female body in the sexual harassment performance (not that I am suggesting only women are sexually harassed, this particular piece was about sexual violence against women).
I wish I could go back in time as an adult to witness each of their performances in real life. Just reading about them and watching footage has been massively influential in the development of my ideas.
AD: It means that all of my works have at their core some kind of intentional historical reference. Whether that be referencing artists or specific historical events or moments. This can manifest itself through speaking in performances like the 'Coloniser' performance, or through the use of historical texts and photographs in the work. With artistic references, I guess the best example is the 'This Is Me' performance with the Yves Klein reference which then bounces off into conversations about feminism and agency. My aim is always to understand history and I do this through the conduit of artistic expression in various ways.
AD: The BBFA Collective was established to address the lack of representation of black British females on the art scene. There are four of us, Enam Gbewonyo, Ayesha Feisal, Carleen De Sozer and myself. We formed in 2015 and since then have successfully completed international and national projects, including one in Ghana with Nubuke Foundation and another in America and Germany with Adidas. We have participated in various talks including an amazing one with the British Library and had a number of successful exhibitions, our most recent of which was with Sandra Obiago of SMO Contemporary, The Smithsonian Museum and Hogan Lovells law firm in London. Our aim has always been to use our strength as a group to help establish successful careers for each of us independently, whilst raising the profile of the collective. We aim to be in a position where we can use our experience to provide incubator programmes and support for other artists like ourselves coming up behind us.
INFEM’s collective was formed early this year on Valentine’s Day, at my house! There are five of us and we are united by our love of painting, intersectional feminism and Artemesia Gentileschi. The members are Wendy Elia, Roxana Halls, Rebecca Fontaine Wolf and Dr Marie- Anne Mancio. Dr Marie-Anne is an art historian, writer and lecturer and has a pHD in performance art. The rest of the artists are painters. We discuss feminism within the group and we want to empower women and girls from diverse backgrounds to engage with art through exhibitions and symposiums. We have not had a chance to be active in real life as we formed just before the pandemic hit. Our first exhibition was due to take place at the start of April and this has had to be postponed until further notice. Even though we could not have an exhibition to launch, we were able to get our website, Instagram and Twitter pages up and active and are generating regular content and now have a small following.
Regarding the role of digital in art, perhaps to state the obvious - but if not for the digital, this whole lockdown experience would have been even more of a nightmare. Digital has enabled our various communities to remain connected and social through different platforms. The collectives plus my other friends and colleagues have never been more in touch than during this period.
My solo exhibition with Boogie Wall Gallery was supposed to open in April and this had to be cancelled, but like many other galleries, we did a 3D virtual version of the show and launched it that way. It is still open and is truly a beautiful virtual experience. Josefina, the gallery director will now continue using this virtual gallery to run virtual exhibitions alongside her physical shows going forwards, which is something I don’t think she would necessarily have considered before the pandemic, certainly not at this point in time.
This growth in digital has led to a definite democratisation of the art world in that artists have a lot more power now thanks to social media and websites than ever before. On the gallery side, whether you have gallery representation or not, you can reach and grow an audience and potentially sell work. We have seen evidence of this with the success of Artist Support Pledge on Instagram in the last couple of months. The pandemic has meant death for many galleries, but by the same token, many have been able to stay in front of their audiences thanks to digital technologies and auction houses like Sotheby’s, who are now engaging in very sophisticated virtual auctions. Many art fairs put up virtual viewing galleries during this time so the digital has been absolutely crucial to the experience of art as we were not able to go and physically experience it.
I can’t possibly predict the future with any certainty, but I imagine that the digital will become even more important with time. I suspect more galleries will work with 3D virtual viewing rooms and that these will become even more sophisticated. I think that international clients will be able to have a more visceral experience of the artwork from any part of the world whenever they want...
Adelaide Damoah’s solo exhibition ‘Reembodying the Real' at Boogie Wall Gallery, London is open by appointment until 15th August, or visit their online Viewing Room. Damoah is currently showing two works with Sakhile & Me in Frankfurt in “Figures” until 8th August, and is showing one work in Under the Skin, Art and Anatomy at the Royal College of Physicians Museum, London until April 2021.
Thank you to Adelaide Damoah for participating in issue 7 of The Art Five.
Adelaide Damoah (RWA, FRSA) is a British artist of Ghanaian descent working at the intersection of painting and performance within the context of colonialism, identity, sexuality and spirituality. Damoah initially studied applied biology at Kingston University in Surrey, graduating with honours in 1999. Her career in the pharmaceutical industry was cut short following a diagnosis of endometriosis. While convalescing, she turned her attention to art.
Damoah has always had a particular interest in colonial history and knew that eventually she would explore the relationship between Ghana and Britain in her work. Damoah has works in private collections nationally and internationally. She is a member of the BBFA Collective which is represented by Tafeta Gallery, London. In 2019, Damoah became the first black artist to be appointed an academician of the Royal West of England Academy (RWA).For more information visit adelaidedamoahart.com
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All images courtesy of The Artist.