Sunday, March 6, 2011

Celebrating Ghana at 54

Nicholas Kowalski: Ghanaian artist and gallery operator

Twenty years ago, in 1989, Ghanaian painter and art historian Nicholas Kowalski made his first visit to Nigeria. Mr. Kowalski came to Nigeria because his works were among those that went on show in a group exhibition organized by Fenchurch Art Gallery. Three years after that exhibition, in 1992, Kowalski had returned to Nigeria for a two-day holiday.

In the same vein, he has made several stop-over in Lagos or Abuja in the course of international flights. All these notwithstanding, Kowalski admitted he really doesn’t know Nigeria. He said he would love to visit Nigeria more often but, “You know how it is,” he mused, alluding to his tight schedule, which includes being a family man, a painter, art historian and gallery operator.

We, Kowalski and I; first met in 1997, during my visit to Ghana to report on that country’s 40th anniversary. Over the years, I must have travelled to the Ghanaian capital some 40 times, and most of those times; I had looked in on Kowalski. Apart from stopping by to see this artist, I was also attracted to his home because Kowalski runs an art mart, Step-in Gallery, in the frontal area of the compound where he resides.

Viewing the different paintings on display over the years, one consciously and unconsciously gleans trends, styles, and perhaps, what the numismatists are collecting. Since Kowalski holds a masters degree in art history, one could also rely on him for further insights as to the goings-on. It is for the sake of the location of Kowalski’s art shop and home as well as that of Samlotte House, home to The Loom, Accra’s first art gallery that I usually stay in the Kwame Nkrumah Circle area of town, each time I visit Ghana.

Interestingly, in July 2009, Mr. Kowalski’s Step-in Gallery closed shop. After 13 years operating along Farrar Avenue in Adabraka area of Accra, painter and art historian Kowalski told “mauricearchibongtravels”: “We’re moving to East Legon”.

Accra’s East Legon neighbourhood could be likened to Victoria Island, Lagos in terms of rental and tenement; so, how was Kowalski planning to cope? That’s how we discovered that unlike the original home of Step-in, where Kowalski was a tenant, the artist was moving to East Legon, because “This is my own place: It’s a project I’ve been doing over the last eight years”.

By 1994, Kowalski had earned a Master of Art degree (Art History) from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. Earlier, in 1991, he had bagged a Bachelor of Arts degree (BA) in Painting from the same institution.

Faced by what he considered unfair treatment at the hands of Accra’s major Galleries, those days; Kowalski launched his own art mart, Step-in Gallery, in September 1996. Step-in gallery, he told me in 1997, was set up just to sell his works.

“I didn’t set up this gallery to sell other people’s works; 70% of the works here are mine.”

However, when he recalled the pains he encountered at the hands of some art dealers until he set up his own art mart, Kowalski said he had to accommodate a few friends and collects 30% commission on each work sold.

That, in a nutshell, is how Step-in Gallery came into being. Now, the art mart has not only moved home, Kowalski revealed there were plans to also change its name. Although he would not say that art business is a lucrative enterprise in Ghana, the artist said he couldn’t be happier because he was doing what he loves to do.

Kowalski is however worried by the dearth and quality of coverage of fine art by his country’s media. Hear him: “It worries me that Ghanaian papers are not documenting anything. Without these documents, we’re not laying a foundation for the history of our art”.

The situation is not helped because exhibitions are rare, which means that even those that would love to do reviews often have nothing to write about.

“A lot of artists are no longer interested in exhibitions, anyway. They sell in their studio, which is what they are doing. I haven’t done a solo show in Ghana for a long time. My last one-man exhibition was in 1997 at Step-in Gallery. The show was titled My Return because I just returned from the US then.
“But in terms of group exhibitions, I have taken part in some. One was in 2008 at Herschel Gallery in the Cantonments area, and my works were also part of the exhibition commemorating Ghana at 50, which took place in 1997 at Ghana Museums.

“Exhibition does not enhance your cause, because it’s become a social event. It’s just to come there, meet friends, and have a drink. So, there’s no reason to go. Real artists and collectors prefer quietude without crowd and other distractions. Because shows are dwindling, there’s little to write about. So, there’s nothing in the papers. So, history is getting washed down the drain”.

People should be educated about art appreciation, added Kowalski; who instantly named John Owoo as one of Ghana’s leading fine arts reporters. However, this artist-cum-gallery operator rued that he has not read an Owoo article for some time.

He hoped Mr. Owoo had not given up on fine arts reporting even as he observed the beat is shunned by many because it is not lucrative. In such circumstance, couldn’t a body of Ghanaian artists establish a grant to encourage the reporting of fine arts?

Kowalski revealed that unlike in Nigeria, where there has been a Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) for more than 40 years, “There’s no artists’ body in Ghana”. He believes that for a Society of Ghanaian Artists, or something like that to succeed, “you need a strong base”.

That platform, he intoned, will require participation of the majority of stakeholders. Unfortunately, it would seem that convening such a forum was always going to be difficult because of the independent attitude of the majority of artists and gallery operators.

Aside inadequate media support, the predicament of the Ghanaian artist is worsened by difficulty in getting art materials.

Once upon a time, Accra could boast five marts; where art materials could be bought. These were Acrylix, Bobula, Naibo, Signature and Telfers Art Gallery. Sadly, Signature Art Gallery and Telfers folded up, leaving Bobula and Naibo, both in Osu behind Photo Club as well as Acrylix behind old US Embassy.
Kowalski again: “In the real sense of the word, there’s no art shop. Who wants to put his money in this business and wait 10 years for turnover? There are many little shops, not too professional, but you’ll find colours and brushes et cetera. The dynamics of the problem is overwhelming. People appreciate art, when they have roof over their head and food in their stomach. In view of the current economic meltdown, art is the first to suffer”.

As to where to place him, with regard to style; as an artist, or as an entrepreneur, Kowalski’s response was that, this would be a difficult thing to do. This leaves us with no option but to re-echo his response, when we put this question to him in 1997:

“I hate to categorize myself; that I am this or I am that because everyday of my life I am becoming”.


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