Artist Adjei Tawiah Shows Us How He Brought a Bit of Ghana to His Brooklyn Studio While Preparing for His Debut U.S. Solo Show
The artist's first New York exhibition, "I Miss Us," is now on view at Opera Gallery.
How does an artist make a residency studio feel like home?
Emerging Ghanaian artist Adjei Tawiah spent six weeks working from a Brooklyn studio far from his base in Accra as he prepared for “I Miss Us,” the artist’s first major solo exhibition in the U.S., now on view at New York’s Opera Gallery.
In the past few years, Tawiah has been noted as an important emerging artist to watch. In 2021, Amoako Boafo chose Adjei for T Magazine‘s “Artists on Artists to Watch” and he was recently selected by Kehinde Wiley for the group show “Self Addressed” at Jeffrey Deitch.
“I Miss Us” presents Tawiah’s latest portraits, a group of tender paintings that explore the emotions that linger long after a relationship ends. Lovers are shown softly holding one another. Figures in individual portraits cast faraway glances, in a mood of melancholy haunted by memory. Painted with Tawiah’s recognizable pulsating intensity, and marked by vivid hues, the paintings are plangent and longing in effect. Into these compositions, Tawiah incorporates kotsa, a nylon sponge material popular in Ghana. Typically used for bathing and in funerary traditions, kotsa embeds the idea of ablution into the works themselves.
In finalizing these works, the artist has used his Brooklyn studio as a place of meditation and focus, but also as a home away from home where he plays his favorite music and dines on Ghanaian dishes like Waakye and Kontomire stew.
Recently, he invited us into this light-filled Brooklyn space, where we caught a glimpse of the artist’s creative process.
Tell us about your studio. Where is it, how did you find it, what kind of space is it?
My studio is in Brooklyn on Bergen Street. I spent about six weeks here in a residency leading up to my first New York solo exhibition at Opera Gallery on the Upper East Side. The studio is located on the fourth floor of the building, which means I get my daily workout in before painting. I’ve grown to love climbing up these stairs daily. The space is really large, much bigger than my studio space in Accra, Ghana, where I’m from.
Do you have studio assistants or other team members working with you? What do they do?
Back in Ghana, Grace Adjeley is my assistant and having her around adds a level of ease when I’m working. Here in New York during this residency I have no assistant, but the curator Chantel Akworkor Thompson has spent many hours with me at the studio helping me as we prepare for the show. We have developed a great working relationship, and I think that’s reflected in the work. She has really pushed me to take a step back and critically analyze what I’m producing and why. Through our conversations, I’ve been able to reflect and grow. I do love my home studio in Accra because of the collaborative, community feel—there are nine other artists, including Amoako Boafo, David Aplerh-Doku Borlabi, and Crystal Yayra Anthony, there—but I have really grown as an artist in this space in Brooklyn and the experience has been invaluable.
How many hours do you typically spend in the studio, what time of day do you feel most productive, and what activities fill the majority of that time?
I normally arrive around 9 a.m. and leave at 4 p.m. I’ll be honest, most days I work straight through with few or no breaks. There is something about when I’m in the zone. The fear of losing that sensation and focus helps guide me as I paint.
What is the first thing you do when you walk into your studio (after turning on the lights)?
I meditate. This has become a really important ritual of my process, especially for this show. This particular space, and being so far from home and away from my usual art community has given me time to dedicate to developing this. The meditation helps put me in the zone and helps me to know what I should paint, what colors to use, and what kind of brush strokes to deploy.
What are you working on right now?
Right now I’m working on a series for my solo show “I Miss Us“. It’s a really important series for a number of reasons. Firstly because it’s my first major solo show in the U.S., and secondly because of the themes I’m exploring. “I Miss Us” is about love, loss, grief and healing. It’s a real display of some of the feelings I’ve harbored deep inside and those that I believe all humans experience. Through this show, I want to allow people to enter into a conversation that I think is really vital for society.
What tool or art supply do you enjoy working with the most, and why?
Without a doubt, the local Ghanaian nylon sponge we call kotsa in our local dialect Ga-dangme. The use of kotsa has become my signature and is used as a metaphor for cleansing and renewal. I first got inspired to use it after my mother’s passing. Part of the burial traditions in Ghana amongst Ga people includes a process we call kotsa gbamo, which is the bathing of the corpse. It is the final realization that the person can no longer bathe themselves and that others are called to do the duty for them. This is one of the rituals performed to ensure that the spirit of the departed member of the family can rest rather than wandering in the world forever suffering. The Ga word for soul is susuma, which also means spirit or shadow.
What kind of atmosphere do you prefer when you work? Is there anything you like to listen to/watch/read/look at while in the studio for inspiration or ambience?
Music really inspires, especially Ga highlife, and most notably Wulomei, one of my late mother’s favorite bands. The music really puts me in the right frame of mind for painting, and especially being here in Brooklyn, with that music and sunlight shining through the windows, I can forget that I am far from home.
How do you know when an artwork you are working on is clicking? How do you know when it’s a dud?
It’s all in the eyes. Once I’ve painted them, I take a step back and look at the portrait. If the gaze is right it gives me a sensation that I can’t explain. It’s like we’re in communication, but of course, no words are exchanged. If the eyes are off, I know the work is not right.
What’s the last museum exhibition or gallery show you saw that really affected you and why?
I would say “Side by Side” and “Homegrown,” which were exhibited in Accra in December to launch Amoako Boafo’s new residency space dot.ateliers, designed by David Adjaye. “Homegrown” was a solo exhibition of works from Boafo’s personal collection, never exhibited before. “Side by Side” was a group show exhibiting collaborative works between Amoako and his contemporaries, including myself, Kwesi Botchway, Cornelious Anor, and more. It was curated by Chantel Akworkor Thompson, which is the first time we worked together. I’m thrilled she’s curated “I Miss Us.” The way she interprets my work is so exact and she’s brilliant at bridging the gap between Ghana and the rest of the world.
What do you eat when you get hungry in the studio? Where do you get your food?
Waakye, Kenkey, Kontomire stew: these are all local Ghanaian dishes. Luckily, I discovered an Accra Restaurant in Harlem where I buy my Waakye, and Chantel bought me some Kenkey from her mother in London, who has made and sold the dish there for years. Family friends living in New York have also cooked and brought me food to the studio. It helps me feel connected to home.
Is there anything in your studio that a visitor might find surprising?
I guess the kotsa, nylon sponge. For non-Ghanians, it is not something they are familiar with, and most people here have referred to it as ‘netting’. In Ghana, because it is used for bathing or cleansing the body, Ghanaian people are also surprised to see it in the studio.
Describe the space in three adjectives.
Meditative, inspirational, and rejuvenating.
In the silence, I am able to reflect on past experiences. This environment put me in a really good space to create the works for the show. I felt very inspired. With this studio space I feel like I have been able to almost make a fresh start with my career.
What do you like to do right after leaving the studio?
When I leave the studio and get home, I love to unwind by watching comedy. Specifically Mind Your Language, a British sitcom that debuted in the 1970s always has me laughing out loud.
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