“The dinosaur can be best understood as the totem animal of modern culture, a creature that unites modern science with mass culture, empirical knowledge with collective fantasy, rational methods with ritual practices." - William J. T. Mitchell
Visual accounts of 19th century expeditions, as told through illustrations and various drawings, are containers of culture. What do these accounts imply for the interpretations of African realities and how we regard images of Africa more broadly? Such questions become especially pertinent when we consider that these images were circulated widely outside of the continent, but very little within it. For his first solo show in Ghana since 2006, Donkor repatriates one such image - Thomas Edward Bowdich’s The First Day of the Yam Custom (1818) - to the land of his origins, in order to explore and expose these contradictions, and finally to redress this balance. The Yam custom, an important event in the Asante calendar, involved various forms of tribute being paid to the king. Seated on a chair of ebony and gold, shaded under his state umbrella (visibly depicted in both works with an elephant on top), Osei Bonsu is portrayed in the midst of a procession. The items he wears have been chosen to symbolise his fearless leadership and to indicate his role as the guardian of his people, whilst the flags carried by those surrounding his throne represent the European countries with which his people traded.
Built upon a process of mural painting, and transported by the energy of applied social utopia, the repainting of Bowdich’s original illustration unfolds within the collective subconscious of belonging to the vast and thick layers of blackness. With the revival of this work, Donkor draws parallels between analogies of the past and the present. From this perspective, contexts, events and practices are free for transfer and reinterpretation. Affected, concerned and subjected to the abundant manifestations of white power, the artist’s work challenges the global mainstream’s embrace of the fraught notions of transformation and progress, while humorously poking fun at the status quo - whose only transformative and progressive nature lies in a change of packaging. In repainting Bowdich’s foundational drawing, Donkor combines historical and sociological accounts with a contemporary artistic understanding of a work which triggered British appetite for Ghana, and paved the way for the scramble for gold.
In his exhibition at Gallery 1957, Donkor has contemporised a work that was for too long situated in the cultural academic study of anthropology, shifting the work’s context to provoke a critical re-evaluation. Performing the role of social critic, Donkor guides the viewers to a new mental space, asking them to reconsider this shared history. The work is part of a global process, galvanised by many Africans, to digest what has influenced who we are now, and how we make sense of who we are becoming.
Founder and Artistic Director, RAW Material Company