Essé Dabla-Attikpo, a Togolese-Beninese art consultant, cultural producer, and curator, has been at the center of Ghana’s burgeoning scene, working to meet the new international demand for contemporary African art, while also seeking to democratize art for Ghanaians, and Africans at large.
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Through her art consultancy This No Be Art, Dabla-Attikpo has curated exhibitions for the European Union delegation to Ghana, Kuenyehia Trust for Contemporary Art, and Alliance Française, started initiatives like affordable art fair Asime Art Sale, and served as an agent, advisor, and champion for African artists breaking into the international market.
Most recently, Dabla-Attikpo partook in a curatorial research residency at TURN2 in Berlin and a Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (MACAAL) boot camp for African curators in 2020 and 2021.
ARTnews spoke to the rising curator about West Africa’s exciting scene.
This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
[This No Be Art] has helped a number of artists with their first exhibitions. What’s the thinking behind providing an avenue for people who probably won’t have such opportunities?
I am surrounded by artists. My dad is a writer. My auntie is a fashion designer. My brother is a visual artist, DJ, rapper and radio host so I have been living with creatives and I see how complicated it can be to have to handle everything around creating in addition to being creative.
… Also, I realized that a lot of artists make a living by selling their art mainly to tourists, say at The Arts Center [a popular tourist attraction in Accra]. Which obviously has become difficult with the pandemic. There wasn’t really much thought into making the art accessible to people living in Accra.
The idea [for me] is to be a facilitator and make the work available for people who live in Accra so it’s not always people from outside benefitting from the talent of Ghanaian artists or African artists in general, but also to offer avenues for art practitioners to generate income.
What are your thoughts on the development of the art scene in Ghana, and more generally West Africa?
I think we have always had talent in West Africa and in the continent in general. People are intrinsically creative on the continent. You just have to be creative to survive because of hardship or situations in these countries. I think more people have been encouraged to pursue an art career because of the whole market. There is a real African contemporary art market that is developing at the moment so it makes it easier for artists to be full-time artists and not simply do it on the side. The talent has always been here, it’s just that some people have great talents but they turn to another career because they need to make a living.
That said, I am extremely excited about what is happening. I also love that portraiture is flooding the world. We are seeing black portraits all over the place and I love that. It is bringing balance to the global art scene. I love seeing black painters such as Richmond Agamelah, James Mishio, and Niiodai do black portraits – being very creative about it and just telling our stories basically. I am very excited and hopeful. And also seeing people like me who are not artists themselves but understand that there is a need for facilitators, art consultants, curators and art sellers, and art brokers. …
Besides, to see that there are a lot of black artists who actually survived the pandemic thanks to NFTs, like Nana Danso or Ahmed Partey. It’s amazing to see that there are new avenues and there are more ways to make a living as an artist compared to how it used to be. And I also feel like it’s creating ties between the continent and the diaspora. I really believe in the power of art to foster the link between the continent and the diaspora.
What’s your take on the intermixing of the different genres of artistic expression? For example, music and painting?
It’s beautiful to see. I don’t think it’s something new. It’s been happening for years. When you see somebody like Lemi Ghariokwu In Nigeria, who was doing the artwork for Fela Kuti – it has been in existence forever. Here in Ghana, we have [visual artist] Afroscope collaborating with [musician and filmmaker] M3nsa. Bright Ackwerh with [musician] Wanlov, for example.
It’s something that has been happening and what is maybe interesting is when it’s not only music and visual arts but visual arts and dance for example.
Just recently, Anne Laure Gueret, a French photographer, had an exhibition at Gallery Elle Lokko in collaboration with Addis Ababa Ackwerh, a Ghanaian dancer. I feel like we are in a world where we are getting out of the box, we are breaking boundaries. There are fewer limits and everybody is more daring. It’s inspiring. It shows that we are limitless …
What does the future look like for the art scene in Ghana and West Africa in general?
I feel like there are fewer people than before who censor themselves. Also, there are more people than before who are now full-time creatives. It’s still not the majority because it takes courage and not everybody has it. And not everybody has the necessary support system. I am very hopeful. I also see that there are new schools, institutions, and galleries … the landscape is changing and it will help shape the future generation.
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Kids of today have so many galleries they can go to and get inspired. There are many places where they can see art and get inspired. They know that there are schools where they can go and get good training, such as [Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology]. There are also some art residencies [Nubuke Foundation, Gallery 1957, Noldor Artist Residency, etc.] in Accra that they can take part in that will help them build a career in the arts.
There is a positive change, not only in the arts ecosystem, but on the side of the artists who are getting more and more empowered to be full-time artists and on the side of institutions that support these artists.