LONDON — In Serge Attukwei Clottey’s exhibition, Crossroads at Simon Lee gallery, the Accra-based multidisciplinary artist uses found materials to explore Ghanaian culture and identity. Several of his large-scale pieces are brightly colored mosaics Clottey created by bounding together square pieces of plastic from Kufuor gallons. Named after Ghana’s then-president John Agyekum Kufuor, these jerrycans were used to collect and store water when the country was suffering from severe shortages in the 2000s. The artist calls the usage and exploration of this material Afrogallonism, for the way this practice highlights the gallon as, at once, a ubiquitous symbol of recent Ghanaian cultural history, a representation of the environmental injustice of water scarcity across the continent, and an object that tells the story of exchange between Ghana and the West. As such, these large, vibrant orange-yellow tapestries appear repeatedly across the two floors of the exhibition like a motif.
You can almost feel the sticky residue left behind by the labels, which add tones of brown to the tapestries when you step back. In other works, Clottey uses vivid contrasting plastic pieces to render abstract figures. “Man’s world” (2022) depicts a large male with an orange and black phallus. The irony is that it’s actually millions of women around the world who are tasked with walking miles to fetch water in the plastic gallons that are transformed in the artist’s work.
In striking portraits painted on patterned and colored duct tape and corkboard, Clottey depicts members of his local community. He expresses their personal style, the way their clothes depict the marriage of traditional Ghanaian and European and American styles. Red paisley print bandanas. Military ensembles. Their faces convey self-confidence and assuredness, and “coolness,” which philosopher Thorsten Botz-Bornstein intriguingly — and appropriately, in relation to Clottey’s work and the exhibition’s emphasis on the Kufuor gallon pieces — describes as “imp[lying] the power of abstraction without becoming overly abstract.”
All of the portraits are connected to each other through the repeated use of black and white checkered tape — another recurring motif, like the gallon mosaics. However, one portrait in particular stands out, the only one that portrays more than a single person. In “The pillars” (2021), two women lay their hands on one another, each woman dressed in a top with a swirling Zebra print and a black duku (head scarf). This might be a funeral or perhaps a one-week (a celebration of life that takes place seven days after the funeral). Both women wear pink lipstick and shiny earrings. The woman on the left wears a gold watch on her wrist. At first glance, they may appear to be dressed identically, until those little details reveal themselves.
This too is a running theme throughout the works displayed in Clottey’s first show at Simon Lee: the singular and the collective. The singular within the collective. Stepping back from the mosaics you see a blur of orange and yellow. Up close each square has its own character, revealing secrets about its past life. The subjects of the portraits are taped-up in the same patterns, but their sense of style is utterly original. Clottey’s work here — particularly his use of pattern — emphasizes a sense of interconnectedness and the world as a global village, presenting a kind of homogeneity that doesn’t entirely blot out individuality.
Serge Attukwei Clottey: Crossroads continues at Simon Lee Gallery (12 Berkeley Street, London, England) through April 15. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.