Curators’ and Nana Danso Awuah-Asante’s Reflections on His Retrospective at La Foundation for the Arts

Pictured From Left: Nana Danso Awuah-Asante, Chantel Akworkor Thompson and Calvin Ayivie,

On Thursday, June 13, 2024, La Foundation for the Arts (LAFA) will present a solo exhibition, “From Soul to Humanity: A Retrospective of Works (2018-2024),” featuring the remarkable journey of Ghanaian artist Nana Danso Awuah-Asante. Co-curated by Chantel Akworkor Thompson and Calvin Ayivie, this retrospective showcases the evolution of Nana Danso’s artistry, from his early days as Artsoul Kojo to his current self. The exhibition highlights the profound depth of his visual explorations and experimentations, capturing the essence of his creative journey and his commitment to preserving Ghanaian history and culture.;

Africans Column sat down with the curators and Nana Danso Awuah-Asante to delve into the inspiration behind the exhibition, the process of curating, and the themes that define his work. Through insightful conversations, we explored the transition of Nana Danso’s artistic identity, the influences of his Akan heritage, and the significance of the different phases of his work, offering a comprehensive look into the artist’s world and his profound impact on the art scene in Ghana.

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Interview:

Africans Column: When and how did you first meet Nana Danso Awuah-Asante? What initially drew you to his work and inspired you to consider curating a show?

Calvin Ayivie: It’s been an incredible journey! For about six years now, I’ve had the joy of working side by side with Nana as both a product developer and an artist liaison. What initially drew me in was the mesmerizing character, the Eye Witness, which Nana masterfully created. This motif isn’t just a visual element; it’s a storyteller in its own right, weaving narratives that resonate deeply. Over time, being so closely engaged with Nana’s evolving work, curating a show felt like a natural extension of my experience. Having been immersed in his creative process and artistic vision for so long, I felt an inherent understanding of how to present his stories to the world. It’s been an honor to help bring his captivating tales to a wider audience.

Chantel Akworkor Thompson: My relationship with Nana Danso is one that has evolved over time but is in no way as deep as his and Calvin’s, hence why I asked him to co-curate. I had been following Nana Danso’s work for a number of years on Instagram before I met him. Then in either 2019 or 2020, I purchased a paper work via Instagram. At the time, I was living abroad. In December 2020, during the height of the pandemic, I got the opportunity to travel to Ghana, and a studio visit with him was no doubt on the top of my list of things to do. So we first officially met in December 2020. I remember it vividly. He appeared reserved at first, and our energies were opposing but aligned: mine was yang, and his yin. I remember apologizing for my enthusiasm and chattiness. Then he asked if I were a Gemini. Of course, he was correct. Soon after, he seemed to be at ease, and we talked like old friends for ages about philosophy, spirituality, and our shared Ghanaian heritage. It was such an energizing exchange of creativity. He really left such an impression on me, more so than the work itself, which I deemed exceptional. We stayed in contact, and I later met Calvin. After a follow-up studio visit, I think in 2021 or early 2022, the idea of curating an exhibition for Nana Danso was definitely discussed. So, naturally, when given the opportunity this year, I had to make this dream of ours a reality.

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Africans Column: Can you describe the vision you had for this retrospective exhibition? What were the key themes and elements you wanted to highlight about Nana Danso’s journey and work?

Calvin Ayivie: The key elements of this retrospective were designed to offer a glimpse into the past, revealing some—but not all—of the works Nana has created over the years. We wanted to capture the essence of his artistic journey and the recurring themes that define his work. Elements such as self-identity and African spirituality play a significant role in his pieces. The formation of self is a central theme that can be witnessed throughout the retrospective. Additionally, we showcased works that sprung out of his relationships with friends, highlighting the profound impact these connections have had on his art. This blend of personal and communal experiences provides a deep and insightful look into Nana’s evolving narrative and artistic expression.

Chantel Akworkor Thompson: This is a great question, and I think Calvin has spoken to most of the key themes that we wanted to cover, which ultimately came from our various discussions, musings, and reasonings with Nana Danso over the years. Nonetheless, I’ll add a bit more about the process. When embarking on this journey, I knew that we couldn’t select just one phase of Nana Danso’s practice, or more so trajectory, and really say something of substance. I initially was playing with the concept of mind, body, soul, and spirit as a way of capturing the artistic in a holistic way, encapsulating the full entirety of him. But for some reason, we were not all aligning on this, and now I understand why—it wasn’t what was to be for this exhibition. In order to fully formulate my thoughts, I called another meeting with Nana Danso, and a couple of hours before the call, the title of the exhibition just came to me. I wasn’t even thinking about it, and it just appeared in my mind—thank you, ancestors. Nana Danso was in agreement, and the conversation afterward served to further consolidate that we were all in alignment. I remember feeling like I knew so much about the mind of someone that in some way I felt like I barely knew, but as he reminded me, we had known each other for some years and been in continuous conversation.

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Africans Column: What was the process like for you in bringing all these works together for this exhibition? How did you select the pieces that are part of this retrospective?

Calvin Ayivie: The process of bringing all the works together was truly a collaborative effort between my co-curator and me. Working with the team was seamless, as we all shared a unified vision for the retrospective. We carefully selected pieces that highlighted significant periods of Nana’s artistic journey, ensuring that each work contributed to a cohesive narrative. This collaborative spirit and shared dedication allowed us to create an exhibition that truly reflects the depth and evolution of Nana’s artistry.

Chantel Akworkor Thompson: I would just echo what Calvin said. Honestly, it felt very intuitive, like we were being guided. And being in the space with Calvin, placing the works was great. Not one disagreement or misalignment.

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Africans Column: What were some of the challenges you faced while curating this exhibition?

Calvin Ayivie: I wouldn’t call them challenges; rather, we faced a lot of learning blocks while curating this show. Each obstacle was a valuable lesson, and it’s just the beginning of what’s to come. I’m incredibly grateful for the outcome, and I truly hope people enjoy themselves. This experience has been a journey of growth and discovery for all of us involved.

Chantel Akworkor Thompson: Again, I’m in agreement with Calvin—nothing I would call a challenge, but an abundance of lessons and blessings. I’m really fortunate to have worked with Calvin on this and to share my experience as a way of developing him professionally. As the director of an organization dedicated to advancing the careers of art professionals in Ghana, this has truly been a rewarding experience, and I know that, as Calvin stated, this is just the beginning of what is to come.

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Africans Column: How did you address the transition in Nana Danso’s artistic identity from Artsoul Kojo to his current self? How did you ensure that the exhibition encapsulates the full breadth of his artistic journey?

Calvin Ayivie: The artistic transition from Artsoul Kojo to Nana Danso is indeed an interesting one. This evolution is evident in the use of different mediums in his works and the increased expressiveness of his characters and motifs. I don’t want to give it all away, but this transformation is something you really need to come and experience for yourself. It’s a journey that truly showcases Nana’s growth and depth as an artist.

Chantel Akworkor Thompson: To speak on this, I will say we addressed it honestly, with the integrity and reverence it deserves. When we release the full catalog later, people will be able to read more about it. But we believe that the work speaks for itself, and you’ll feel it. The kind of personal transition that the artist went through is one that many of us in Ghana also travel. Just thinking about names, the decision to use a Western-derived name over a local one, even the idea of calling local names ‘house names.’ There’s so much to address here about our own personal and cultural identities when navigating this contemporary post-colonial (maybe more neo-colonial) world, which has us Africans existing at the threshold of two somewhat opposing paradigms.

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Africans Column: Can you share more about your journey from using the moniker Artsoul Kojo to now embracing your name Nana Danso Awuah-Asante? What prompted this change, and how has it impacted your artistic practice and identity?

Nana Danso Awuah-Asante: This decision was deeply rooted in my identity as a Ghanaian. While I had been painting under the name Artsoul Kojo for some time, I felt it was important for my audience to connect with the person behind the art. Embracing my given name, Nana Danso, allows me to proudly showcase my Ghanaian heritage and ensure

that it isn’t overshadowed by my artistic persona. I believe it will bring a deeper level of authenticity and connection to my work. By using my real name, I hope to foster a stronger sense of identity and cultural resonance within the art community. It’s about honoring where I come from and inviting others to share in that experience through my art.

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Africans Column: Can you tell us about your journey as an artist over the past six years? How has your work evolved during this period?

Nana Danso Awuah-Asante: My artistic journey over the past six years has truly been a journey of self-discovery and connection. Through my art, I’ve found a way to express not only my own experiences but also the stories and experiences of the people around me. It’s been a process of exploration, learning, and growth, as I’ve delved deeper into understanding myself and the world around me through my creative endeavors. Each painting, each piece of art, has been a reflection of this ongoing journey of finding myself and lending my voice to the stories of those whose voices might not otherwise be heard.

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Africans Column: What does this retrospective exhibition mean to you personally and professionally? How do you feel seeing your work from 2018 to 2024 displayed together in one space?

Nana Danso Awuah-Asante: Reflecting on my artistic journey in this retrospective feels somewhat akin to submitting a thesis or dissertation. It’s a culmination of years of dedication, exploration, and growth. However, there’s also a bittersweet aspect to it. As I showcase these works, it feels like I’m parting with a piece of myself. Each piece holds a significant amount of time, effort, and emotion invested in it. They’re not just artworks; they’re fragments of my identity and experiences. So, while there’s a sense of professional accomplishment, there’s also a feeling of loss as I share these pieces that have become deeply intertwined with who I am.

Africans Column: What was the process like for you in bringing all these works together for this exhibition? How did you select the pieces that are part of this retrospective?

Nana Danso Awuah-Asante: In putting together this retrospective, I entrusted the task to the curators while making myself available for guidance whenever possible. It was important for me to collaborate with someone who could bring a fresh perspective and curatorial expertise to the exhibition. While I provided input and direction when needed, I also wanted to allow space for the curators’ vision to shine through. It’s been a collaborative process, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with someone who shares my passion for art and storytelling.

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Africans Column: Your works often delve into deep themes such as spirituality, identity, and culture. What are some of the main influences behind these themes? Your work often references Ghanaian history and culture. Why is the preservation of these elements important to you? How do your Akan heritage and Ghanaian culture shape your artwork?

Nana Danso Awuah-Asante: In African spirituality, art serves as a profound means of expressing the nuances of our beliefs and connections to the spiritual realm. Symbolism plays a central role, as we use lines, forms, faces, masks, and sculptures to represent spirits and energies. This artistic practice is not just personal; it’s interwoven with generations of tradition, each element passed down through time. My approach to art is one of openness, blending what already exists with my own additions. I see it as a duty to preserve and document these narratives, ensuring they endure for future generations. This responsibility is deeply ingrained in my Akan heritage, where storytelling is paramount, serving as a vessel for passing down our cultural wealth to posterity.

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Africans Column: Can you speak about the significance of the different phases of your work, such as the “Sexual Intentions” series and the “Sauce Gumbo” paintings? What inspired this series, and what message do you hope to convey through it?

Nana Danso Awuah-Asante: “Sexual Intention” is a captivating series that delves into the intricate aspects of lustful imagery through fluid movements and swirls. These abstract visual forms investigate the formation of self, illustrating how streams of fluid merge to create a new being. The series captures the formative stages of existence, right at the moment when male and female essences unite. “Sauce Gumbo” explores the relationship between Nana Danso and Nana Yaw Oduro, bringing to life a remix of oil paintings that juxtapose the transition of boys to men. It’s a dynamic exploration of identity and growth, portrayed through vibrant visuals and compelling narratives.

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Africans Column: What messages do you hope to convey through your works in this retrospective? How do you want your audience to engage with and interpret your art? What do you hope visitors will take away from “From Soul to Humanity”?

Nana Danso Awuah-Asante: When considering how my work is perceived by the audience, I simply hope for an open-minded approach to both new and overlooked ideas. In this retrospective, it’s important to recognize that we share common roots, and the threads of our lives, though seemingly separate, were once woven together as one.

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Africans Column: Looking ahead, what are your future plans as an artist after this exhibition? What are some projects or themes you are excited to explore in your future work?

Nana Danso Awuah-Asante: Following this exhibition, my focus will shift towards my sculptures and taking time to rest. For me, the creative process is akin to breathing, a steady rhythm of one step at a time.

Conclusion:

The retrospective “From Soul to Humanity: A Retrospective of Works (2018-2024)” offers a profound exploration of Nana Danso Awuah-Asante’s artistic journey, capturing the essence of his evolution from Artsoul Kojo to his current self. Through the eyes of curators Chantel Akworkor Thompson and Calvin Ayivie, and in Nana Danso’s own words, we gain a deeper understanding of the themes that shape his work, the significance of his Ghanaian heritage, and the profound impact of his art. This exhibition not only celebrates the past six years of Nana Danso’s creativity but also sets the stage for his future endeavors, inviting audiences to connect with the rich tapestry of his experiences and the stories he tells through his art.

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