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Issue 236

Gallery 1957 Offers Artists a Space for Experimentation

The gallery, based in Accra and London, aims to connect local and international artists amidst a critical and commercial surge of interest in Ghana

BY Osman Can Yerebakan in Features , Opinion | 08 AUG 23

Artist Tiffanie Delune had always been hesitant about expanding the palette of her mixed-media paintings. ‘I wanted my work to be uplifting and joyful,’ she told me when we spoke recently over the phone, ‘and I wasn’t sure how to convey that feeling with dark colours.’ Yet, the Lisbon-based artist’s doubts waned earlier this year when she started her three-month residency with Gallery 1957 in Accra. By early March, Delune was putting the final touches to a group of paintings she had created during her sojourn in the Ghanaian capital. ‘Everywhere around me was a blend of pastels and bolder tones, both across the landscape and on people’s clothes. After just a few walks around town, I was inspired to balance browns and blacks with softer colours.’

Delune’s abstract, spiritual, glitter-dusted works were on view in her solo exhibition, ‘There’s Gold on the Palms of My Hands’, which closed in May at one of Gallery 1957’s three spaces in Accra. (The gallery also has a London outpost.) According to founder Marwan Zakhem, the residency programme – which launched in 2018 with Haitian-American painter Florine Démosthène – has provided many artists with a platform ‘where they can experiment with artistic languages [whilst also experiencing] the vulnerability of being in a new environment’.

Tiffanie Delune, No Longer Afraid Of The Dark, 2023, mixed media on cotton canvas, 1.8 × 1.5 m. Courtesy: the artist and Gallery 1957

Zakhem, a Lebanese entrepreneur and art collector, moved to the West African nation in 2003 and opened the gallery in 2016 to help support local artists beyond acquiring their work or offering financial advice. It was seeing the boundary-pushing practices of local artists such as Serge Attukwei Clottey and Yaw Owusu that convinced Zakhem of the city’s potential as a location for a successful commercial gallery rather than simply as home to an institution for exhibiting his own collection, amassed from across the continent during the past two decades. ‘Running a residency adjacent to our gallery exposes our guest artists to all the things we do right – as well as our faults,’ Zakhem notes wryly when we spoke by telephone. The intergenerational and multidisciplinary residency programme encourages cross-pollination between artists: this year’s attendees, for example, have included the 59-year-old British-Ghanaian painter Godfried Donkor, who has exhibited widely internationally, and young local artist Daniel Arnan Quarshie, whose residency concluded in his debut solo exhibition of figurative charcoal works, ‘Sympathetic Magic’. 

Each resident is given a studio inside Galleria Mall and every three-month residency concludes with a solo presentation. (Galleria Mall is also home to the gallery’s 1,400 m2 project space, which recently hosted ‘Unlimited’ – a group show featuring site-specific works by 24 artists.) Gallery 1957’s exhibition programme also plays a significant role in the country’s positioning as a locus for portraiture, which has seen a massive critical and commercial surge in recent years. Many key figurative painters have crossed paths with Gallery 1957 in the early stages of their careers, including Gideon Appah, Amoako Boafo and Kwesi Botchway. ‘We will soon look back at this time and see that it wasn’t a trend, but it was a movement,’ Zakhem insists.

Tiffanie Delune, 'There's Gold on the Palms of My Hands', 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Gallery 1957 

While male artists have so far tended to take the lead in terms of commercial and institutional success in Ghana, the gallery founder tells me that women artists are now gaining similar visibility. Ghanaian painter Afia Prempeh attended the residency program in 2022, following a solo show, ‘We Could Be’, at the gallery and showing at 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London a year earlier. For Delune, who will have another solo show at the gallery’s London space next spring, the residency’s outcomes were as much practical as creative. In addition to connecting with local and international artists through studio visits, the French Belgo-Congolese artist found the courage to delve deeper into a non-figurative lexicon. ‘Abstraction requires confidence and, here, I’ve been more in tune with my intuition and found myself slowly removing the bodily representations,’ she said. Living in a kind of creative isolation during the residency enabled her to work in sync with her own natural rhythm. ‘I was able to check in with myself and have the proper time to sit with the work,’ she tells me. For Zakhem, the residency is a microcosm of the city’s potential for future artistic success. ‘If you consider all portraiture created across time,’ he reflects, ‘the minuscule percentage of Black figurative painting, even given this recent surge, is not even a drop in the ocean of what is yet to come.’ 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 236 as part of a dossier with the headline ‘Ghana: Four Galleries to Watch’, alongside Nuku Studio, Nubuke Foundation and Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art

Main image: Tiffanie Delune, The Fall Is Never Too High To Blossom, 2023, mixed media on cotton canvas, 4.5 × 2 m. Courtesy: the artist and Gallery 1957

Osman Can Yerebakan is an art writer.