Ato Delaquis (pronounced De-la-kee) is a renowned artist of our time whose art brings to light the clash of ideas and concepts, shown explicitly in the painting strokes of this genius. His works span across 40 decades and more, and are expressed in different media ranging from acrylic painting, graphite, linocut and lithography to screen-printing. He has been described as creating detailed, colormodulated panoramic scenes of Ashanti warriors and vehicular scenes (Overview of Contemporary Visual Art from Ghana by George Hughes).
His fascination with horses is expressed in his paintings of the horn blowers of northern Ghana and Nigeria, riding these majestic animals. Ato Delaquis’ keen eye translates intelligently into his brush strokes, vividly capturing the complex Ghanaian and African landscape layered with histories of trading, slavery and colonization. Yet still, he captures the beauty in the complexities that makes up the proud cultures of the continent. He is a prolific artist, writer and educator, as the last Dean of his alma mater, the College of Art of KNUST before it was merged with the Department of Social Sciences in 2005. This interview delves into his thoughts and mind.
“…the practice of an art is merely a reflection of the life and vision of the artist, if he has been honest with his creativity. Therefore, whether he makes a name or not is immaterial. What matters is whether the creativity made him a better person or not. ”
Ato Delaquis (June, 2014)
Design233: You are known as one of the leading painters of Renaissance Ghana. What’s your style of art?
Ato Delaquis: I really don’t have a particular style. I have always been somewhat eclectic like the German painter, Gerhard Richter. This is because of the subject matters I’ve been forced to use as basis for my artistic expression due to the peculiar conditions of the social and cultural situation of my little corner of Africa. Thus, as far as I can remember, my paintings and drawings gravitate from representational to abstraction. Nevertheless, a researcher has told me that the handling of my brushstrokes when placed under the microscope remains constant irrespective of whether I paint realistically or abstract.
I was happy to hear that because it implies that the eclectism is merely superficial. I must, however, state that these changes in themes are not from one work to another but traverse some expanse of years before a gradual metamorphosis.
D233: What media do you use?
A.D.: I’ve used all painterly media in my time. My favorites have been watercolor, acrylics and oils. In the last 3 decades or so, my output in oils has drastically reduced because of its suspicious durability in tropical conditions. I’ve also equally worked in all drawing media and in printmaking but had to stop the latter due to inadequate facilities in etching and lithography. I work wholly in acrylics now.
D233: What subjects interest you and what do you look for in them?
A.D.: In representational art, the subject –matter that interests me are:
· The clash of cultures perceived in African urban centers, for example, a hut to a mini-skyscraper; a Mercedes Benz juxtaposed to a wooden trotro wagon, etc.
· Landscapes of the African terrain; this theme has been much maligned as non-African, but I refute this claim and keep expressing pristine African jungle and savannah.
· Horses- Since I saw horsemen in my coastal town of Cape Coast when I was 10 or 11, I’ve always been attached to horsemen of the Sahel regions of West Africa, particularly northern Ghana and Nigeria. Now one sees mostly donkeys in upper Ghana. But in the 1950s, growing up, there were horses were commonplace in Ghana. Surprisingly, I never sat on a horse until 1974 in the southwest region of the US, specifically, New Mexico.
· I like abstracting natural found-objects like seashells, fruits and classic wooden African sculptures.
· I still paint still-lifes of fruits!
· I consider the aesthetic aspects of a theme first and foremost, before the underlying compositional storyline in virtually all my creative output.
D233: Horse riders in colorful garbs are a running theme in your paintings, namely your painting titled Paramount Chiefs with Umbrellas & Riders of the Savanna? What is peculiar about these subjects?
A.D.: I must have been a top horseman in a previous life! I simply paint and draw horses easily. I must be frank that as a child, I loved comic strips of cowboys and Native Americans on horsebacks. In my adult life, I was pleasantly shocked to find, through research, that there were quite a number of African-American cowboys and cavalrymen. But I never saw that in the movies or comic strips. Anyway, I was galvanized to paint a lot of horses.
D233:Besides painting do you explore other forms of art?
A.D.: Aside from Drawing and Printmaking, I don’t explore any other forms of art except that years back, I dabbled in learning to play the organ, guitar and the saxophone, because of my love for traditional jazz music. But these ended up nowhere. I draw more than anything, although hundreds of them are nowhere to be found. I don’t do printmaking anymore due to lack of facilities in Lithography and Etching, which I love more than simpler forms of printmaking like woodcut and linocut.
D233: Who are your mentors?
A.D.: It is said I’m naturally talented. However, my elder brother, Louis Delaquis, who later becomes a puppeteer and sculptor, first inspired me in my painterly efforts. Another mentor was an obscure French artist called Andre Martin and an African-American painter named Leroy Mitchell who made me conscious of the African condition in relation to the humanistic tradition of Art since the Cave Age.
D233: Which designers or artists have you collaborated with or would like to work with?
A.D.: I am a lonene-wolf when it comes to creativity and I don’t like collaboration. Even now I stretch my own canvas and prime them myself.
D233: How have you evolved as an artist?
A.D.: I evolved from my teens, from naïve representations of my environment, then I learnt formal European academic traditions. I liked Western art materials so I mastered them technically and applied them in search of an African idiom of painting, using classic African sculptures as a basis for expressive analysis. Then followed a period of pure abstraction. Since the early 1980’s, I have synthesized all my wide experiences into painting anything that comes to mind. This amalgamation has been prodded by absolute lack of critical appraisal from any quarters as my works go into private homes.
D233: Which pieces have you done that have greatly impacted you?
A.D.: My output of painting is vast. Drawings are even three-times more numerous. Unfortunately, the whereabouts of the majority are unknown. With our lack of a culture of storage and preservation, it’s obvious many of these creative works are lost. I have some few early drawings though, which are stored but many are in poor condition.
A mural I executed in 1962 at Young Pioneer Building in Cape Coast has been defaced. A fire in 2013 must have gutted a huge mural executed in Ghana Parliament House in 1970/71. But see, the practice of an art is merely a reflection of the life and vision of the artist, if he has been honest with his creativity. Therefore, whether he makes a name or not is immaterial. What matters is whether the creativity made him a better person or not. As for the lost artwork, it’s society that suffers, and that of course is also a tragedy. Surprisingly, the greater number of my works that impacted Ghanaians are the conservative ones of direct visionary expression of society or the environment. My brown-tan abstraction inspired by traditional sculpture seem to have impressed non-Africans.
D233:You have been quoted as being interested in the clash of cultures that Africa as a whole faces (The western against the indigenous). How does your work express this?
A.D.: Huge chunks of my paintings and drawings express this dichotomy. You may call the phenomena a “clash” of cultures or “fusion” of cultures. But everywhere I look, African urban landscapes reflect this clash or fusion. That’s why I used the icon of the Mammy Wagon as a basis for a lot of my paintings. To me the front metal contraption of the Bedford Austin or Morris of the late 1940’s and 50’s against the wooden rear of African ingenuity was significant. The love of funerals and accompanying dirges against Christian worship; the lawyers’ blond wig against African faces; the stretched hair of ladies against the kente blouse, etc. The only sensible explanation for this phenomenon is that of the emergence of a neo-African culture. About 30% of my artistic output tries to express these.
A.D.: I was the last Dean of the original College of Art from 2002 to 2005. I regret to say that the College of Art no longer exists. It’s amalgamated with the Social Sciences. The parochial concepts of people in power, whether in politics, business or education, are unbelievable. I consider their antics nothing but self-flagellation. To cut a long story short, the current Faculty of Art has become more of a theoretical institution largely to train artists. The loss of potentially talented artists in all the categories of studio-art is unbelievable. Up untill now, we still cannot differentiate between studio-art (i.e. Painting, Sculpture, Textiles, Pottery & Ceramics, Metals, Graphic Design, Film, Printmaking) against Art Education and Art History. Consequently, in order to compete with the latter two, the aspiration here is to gain a PhD, in Painting, Sculpture, etc., whatever that means, as the highest qualification in creative art! The internationally recognized terminal degree in art, the MFA is completely neutralized in the bid for empty accolades. The institution that trained El Anatsui is now wallowing in fruitless theoretical ambiguities to the detriment of the nation’s development.D233: As dean of the College of Art, how does the school currently reflect your vision or goals for the institution?
“These links between traditional art and modern or contemporary experiments have always existed since the 1950’s. But such links are supposed to improve traditional practices. The rustic Kente technology is in danger of freezing to a state of stasis, while the Chinese find ways and means of imitating them quickly for mass production. The 4-inch strip of Kente is screaming to be widened. That is what an academic institution is supposed to explore. ”
Ato Delaquis (June, 2014)
D233: What are the attempts to create links between formal art (which arises from educational institutions like KNUST) and non-formal art such as what is practiced in places like Ahwiaa and Bonwire?
A.D.: These links between traditional art and modern or contemporary experiments have always existed since the 1950’s. But such links are supposed to improve traditional practices. The rustic Kente technology is in danger of freezing to a state of stasis, while the Chinese find ways and means of imitating them quickly for mass production. The 4-inch strip of Kente is screaming to be widened. That is what an academic institution is supposed to explore. Thus Rural Art and Industry of KNUST as a program, was instituted to evolve the improvement of traditional crafts. But now, mundane scholarship in the form of theoretical research leading to lofty paper degrees is swamping the creative urge for tangible artistic activities. Authority thinks creative activity is not also an intellectual activity. Thus, the traditional arts and crafts remain stale due to static repetition without improvement.
D233: Art caters to a certain small niche, which can be classified as the middle class or the wealthy. However the subjects of art know no boundaries and within today’s setting where the lines of art are so blurred, how can art start to bridge this gap to start much needed conversations between all groups of people?
A.D.: In almost all cultures, art generally caters for relatively small groups of privileged people. This anomaly is due perhaps, to the nature of existence where the battle for survival attracts a greater number of people to chase after functionality of things than aesthetic “pleasures”. Communism tried to change things, but its attempts always failed. Until the world somehow becomes a paradise, high art cannot be imbibed by all groups of people, due simply to the fact that the emotional gaps of people and the ego of individuals are so wide and diversified that its ideals would always remain a chimera, until a cataclysmic event convulses the world in a dynamic, supernatural fashion.
D233: What is your dream project?
A.D.: My dream project would have been to paint huge murals in public buildings like the great Mexicans, Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros did. That was why when I visited Mexico from the U.S. in the mid 1970’s, I learnt most of the technicalities of painting. But this never came to pass. So be it. Easel painting also suffices due to the relative ease of production in a society that fails generally, to consider the importance of Art.
D233: What are you currently working on?
A.D.: I am currently working on paintings I never finished or wasn’t satisfied with since the 1980’s. I do this side by side with my normal schedule of painting activity, which basically is to produce artwork intended for homes rather that galleries or museums.
D233: How did you break into the international art scene?
A.D.: I’ve never tried to break into the international art scene. I find it absolutely ridiculous to break into the international arena when there is little or no local recognition first. I don’t actually know of any culture where the art doesn’t ferment in local conditions first before it breaks out into other cultures. I consider it an ego trip to chase after international recognition when in your own backyard you haven’t made any attempt to spread your vision. Ofcourse, there are exceptions to every rule. But the Bible says “what’s the point of gaining the whole world and losing your own soul.” Ecclesiastes also says something about “chasing after the wind”. Moreover, it must be admitted, the whole international art world is messy. Every individual artist thinks he is different and a genius. What is more of a recipe for confusion than that? It is better to work like the Paleolithic artist working for his clan in a cave for their consumption.
D233: How did awards such as the 1967 Leipzig International Graphic Art and the 1976 Fulbright Hays Fellowship impact your career?
A.D.: The Arts Council of Ghana sent my black-&-white art to Leipzig and I went to collect my prize at the East German Embassy in khaki shorts as a student of Achimota. The Ambassador was somewhat embarrassed especially when he gave a consolation prize to an established artist named Owusu Dartey.
The Fulbright Hays Scholarship had a great impact on me because my intention was never to come back like Willem de Kooning. But after surveying the art scene in New York and the hordes of artists in that enclave, all aspiring to make it, I quickly beat a hasty retreat to the so-called Dark Continent to find peaceful solace from the jungle of New York. It was then I understood Diego Rivera, a pioneering Cubist in Europe, who returned to his native Mexico.
D233: How do you see Art in Ghana now?
A.D.: Art has been fairly vibrant in Ghana since the late 1970’s. But in recent years, young artists who have just started, are overpricing their works and attracting ugly comments from the struggling public. Tragically, KNUST is no longer feeding the art scene with passionate budding young artists. They graduate with a BFA and fight to get white-collar jobs in the banks and Insurance Houses.
D233: What would you pass on to the next generation of artists including your kids, most of whom have proudly followed in your footsteps?
A.D.: What I’d pass on to the next generation is that, they should consider creative activity almost as a spiritual enterprise. When you dedicate yourself to creative art, you understand the world better and gain greater insight into humanity and existence.
1964: Certificate de fin d’Etudes, Ecole ABC de Paris (Dessin-Peinture)
1971: B.A. (ART) First Class, College of Art., U.S.T., Kumasi, Ghana
1975: M.F.A. Temple University, Tyler School of Art, Philadelphia, U.S.A.
2009: Dei Center for African Art, Accra (Group)
2008: The Loom Gallery, Accra (Group)
2004: Brondsalon, Frederiksburg City Hall, Copenhagen, Denmark
2003: Alliance Francaise, Kumasi (Group)
2002: The Loom Gallery, Accra
2003 NCA (National Conference of Artists), Accra
2002: Basilica Del Santo, Padova, Italy (Group)
2000: NOVOTEL, Accra
2000: Frederiskburg City Hall Gallery, Copenhagen, Denmark
2000: Gallery B: FORS, Stockholm, Sweden
1999: PAWA Charity Exhibition, Trade Fair Center, Accra
1999: PANAFEST, National Cultural Center, Cape Coast
1999: Central Hall, Ministry of Economic Affairs, The Hague, Holland
1998: Maison Descartes, Vijzelgracht 2A, Amsterdam Holland
1998: Frontier Art, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
1997: Berg Gallery, Accra
1997 College of Art Gallery, U.S.T (Group)
1980: Rothman International House, Accra
1971: Ghana National Parliament House, Accra
1962: Young Pioneers Building (Destroyed)
2010: Visiting Artist: Texas Tech University, School of Art
1991/ 92: Commonwealth Fellow, London University, Dept. of Art & Archaeology
1989: Award for Promoting Wildlife Conservation in Ghana” by participating in a Painting Exhibition Titled “Wildlife is our Life”.
1988: ECRAG for outstanding contribution to the development of African Culture in the filed of Painting
1975: International Play Group – Honorable Mention
1974: O.C.A. (Operation Crossroads Africa) Travel Grant to Ten States in the U.S.A.
1973: Fulbright Hays Scholarship
1970: National Art Exhibition – Award
1968: National Art Exhibition – Award
1966: Bronze Medal – Leipzig, International Graphic Art Exhibition Prize – Warsaw Radio International Art Exhibition
BOOK & MAGAZINE ILLUSTRATION
1965 – 1967 Bediako (Drum Publication) Johannesburg)
1967 – 1968 The Samantha (Drum Publication)
1969: To The Last Man (New Statesman)
1967 – 1971 (Miscellaneous Illustration (Impulse)
1991: Can Dreams Come True? (Africa Christian Press)
1981: The Early of Nkrumah (African Publication) (Never Printed)
1982: Ghana Silver Jubilee Calendar (Ghana Tourist Board)
1986: A Handbook for African Writers (Hans Zell & K.G. Saur Publishers Oxford)
1996: Le Griot (Dept. of Social Sciences, U.S.T., Kumasi) Vol. IV, Numero I
2008: Freedom Symphony, by Atukwei Okai, Ghana Publishing Company
2009 Mandela The Spear, Ghana Publishing Company.
“Africa’s Finest Contribution to Mankind”. 2002, Stockholm, Sweden.
“Art & Nonsense in Relation to the African Condition” 2000 Spanga Sweden.
“African Contemporary Art & Critical Appraisal from the West” 2000 Spanga, Sweden.
“Technicalities of Craftsmanship in painting: Relative to the Development of Contemporary African Art”. School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS, Dept of Art & Archaeology, London University.
Art & Neo-African Culture – “Impulse” Journal 1971 – Vol. 1 No. 1Pages 19-22
PUBLISHED ARTICLES ABOUT THE ARTIST’S WORK & LIFE
1996: “Contemporary Art of Africa” by Andre Magnin & Jacques Soulilou (Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1996; Thames & Hudson, London, 1996)
1996: L’Art African Contemporain” by Nicole Guez. (Association Afrique en Creations, 51 Rue Sainte Anne 72002 Paris, France.
1992: “Pioneering Artist” – A Profile, (West Africa Magazine, London) 14-20 Sept. 1992, Page 1563.
1986: “Ashanti Eye” by Johnnie Ohene (Race Today Journal) London, July 1986.
1986: “Ato Delaquis – Urban Artist” by Julie Kitchener (New African Journal), London, April 1986.
1986: “Arts & Africa” BBC Copyright Interview of Delaquis by Florence Akst. March 28, 1986.
1979: “Talented Modernist” by Nat Amarteifio (Sunday Mirror) Oct. 15 1979.
1972: “Delaquis” by Kwesi Wood (Weekly Spectator) March 10th 1972.