The centrepiece of British-Ghanaian artist Godfried Donkor’s exhibition is the titular nine-panel oil and acrylic painting, The First Day of the Yam Custom, 1817 (2017). Produced in Accra, the ten-metre-long work is an ambitious elaboration of Donkor’s preoccupations as an artist. Throughout his career, he has mined various print archives for historical images of blackness. Retrieval is not his sole imperative: Donkor is interested in iconicity, in what constitutes a pop image. His vivid paintings and collages have variously portrayed haloed black footballers and boxers, including Tom Molineaux and Bill Richmond – freed American slaves who achieved great acclaim in the UK in the 19th century.
All Donkor’s appropriations have involved some form of creative translation and amplification – in physical scale and metaphorical significance – of the original engravings and photographs. The First Day of the Yam Custom: 1817 is based on a modest foldout engraving in British colonial explorer and scientist T.E. Bowdich’s book Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee (1819). The engraving was produced in 1818 by printmaker Robert Havell Sr. using an original drawing by Bowdich as reference. Donkor’s painting, therefore, is not a straightforward historical description, but involves cumulative layers of translation: it is a scaled-up copy of a reproduction of a drawing based on a remembered event.
In 1817, Bowdich, an employee of the African Company of Merchants in present-day Ghana, was sent to Kumasi, the royal seat of the powerful Ashanti Empire, to negotiate a treaty with its ruler, Osei Bonsu. Bowdich spent roughly five months in Kumasi. During his stay, he attended the annual yam festival, an important social and political event held in September when this edible tuber ripens. His meticulous verbal and visual description of the festival was the earliest western record of the complex rituals of authority, citizenship, pageantry and patronage in the Ashanti Empire.
Bowdich wrote of the festival: ‘The number, splendour and variety of arriv-als, thronging from the different paths, was as astonishing as entertaining.’ Donkor’s vast tableau, which richly deploys his signature gold leaf, successfully monumentalizes this pageantry with the minimum of painterly exertion. The many people packing the scene are simply described. It is nonetheless easy to pick out the military figures, noblemen, musicians, slave traders and visiting emissaries – including Bowdich and his two companions – as well as a group of ‘Moors’ wearing ‘preposterous turbans’ standing beneath an umbrella topped with a crescent symbol. At the centre of the composition, seated beneath a red umbrella capped with a gold elephant, is the king, his right hand raised as he receives an oath from a military captain. The king is flanked by the flag of Great Britain, as well as those of Holland and Denmark, a detail that now reads as an augury: the first Anglo-Ashanti war broke out six years later.
Donkor’s exhibition, which has been curated by Koyo Kouoh, further includes three oil and acrylic portraits of individual Ashanti war captains, their elaborate uniforms a ‘blaze of splendour and ostentation’, to quote Bowdich. Ten new collages juxtapose Bowdich’s historical graphics with contemporary photographs of the yam festival. Eight of these use stock pages from The Financial Times as a ground, a found material that Donkor has successfully used since the early 2000s to highlight underlying themes of trade and bondage in his work. The installation includes an untitled stool covered in gold leaf and displayed on a fabric-draped plinth in front of Donkor’s large painting. The stool, a royal symbol and sacred representation of the Ashanti nation, underscores the heft of the panel painting, which reclaims an ur-image of pre-colonial Ghanaian society to assert contemporary pride and optimism.
Main image: Godfried Donkor, The First Day of the Yam Custom, 1817, 2017, (detail), oil, acrylic and gold leaf on nine wood panels, 1.2 × 2.4 m each. Courtesy: Gallery 1957, Accra, Ghana, © the artist