Artist, curator, and art historian Atta Kwami defines “Kumasi Realism” as a kind of representational painting inspired by a plurality of sources. Distinctly local, it is drawn equally from Ghanaian and European art histories, mass-produced advertising and photography, as well as from Ghanaian history, culture, and current events. In Kumasi Realism 1951–2007: An African Modernism, Kwami argues that in Kumasi, Ghana, both college-educated artists and those trained in the city's hundred-plus sign shops draw from this shared visual vocabulary. Exploding the categorical divisions between academically trained and “street” painters often present in the West—launched nearly three decades ago by the exhibitions “Magiciens de la Terre” and “Africa Explores”—Kwami argues for the simultaneous contemporaneity of both groups of painters by claiming each as practitioners of Kumasi Realism.
Declaring that “in Kumasi painting is unavoidable,” Kwami claims his book to be the first to systematically document the medium of painting in a single location (p. 338). While city-based studies of painting abound for European locales like Paris and Rome (see for example, Georges Duby's 2009 The History of Paris in Painting or Patricia Leighten's 2013 The Liberation of Painting: Modernism and Anarchism in Avant-Guerre Paris), none exist for any African city. Indeed, the closest urban art historical portraits on the continent are Philippa Hobbs and Elizabeth Rankin's 2003 Rorke's Drift: Empowering Prints and Joanna Grabski's 2012 film Market Imaginary. Like Kumasi Realism, each examines modern art in a single locale: however, Hobbs and Rankin focus on the relationship between style, social engagement, and politics at a Lutheran-linked South African art school, while Grabski charts artists’ engagement with the multiplicity of commercial and visual networks in Dakar's Colobane Market. Building upon previous unpublished studies of Kumasi's painting (Sarah Brown, SOAS, 1994; Yoshimi Kanazawa, SOAS, 2000; Margaret Hunt de Bona, School of International Training, 2005), Kwami offers new insights based on his own primary research and successfully records the symbiotic relationship between artists trained in Kumasi's two instructional modes.
Kumasi Realism opens with a history of art education in Ghana (Chapter 1), from its inception as a British colonial institution in the 1920s, to the gradual introduction of Ghanaian methods in the 1950s and 1960s, to the decolonization-inspired artistic pluralism in practice through the present day. In 1952, the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST, then known as the Kumasi College of Technology) opened as one of the West African colonial colleges established in response to Britain's 1945 Elliot Commission report. Kwami cites January of that year—when the School of Arts and Crafts (art department) became KCT's first Faculty—as the moment when the parallel traditions of street art workshops and college-trained artists first intersected. With that, Kumasi Realism was born “from the fusion of photographic naturalism, and the demands of advertising, shop front decor and commercial portraiture” (p. 63). Chapter 2 continues by examining each artistic track's training methods, expansively considering the teaching methods espoused by influential instructors. He recounts the underlying push-pull between African and European teaching methods from 1900–1950, the transformation of the School of Arts and Crafts into KNUST's College of Art (COA) in 1965 as a theory-driven institution linked to Nkrumah's Sankofa movement, and the increasing experimentalism present at KNUST-COA in the following decades. In what is the book's greatest contribution, he considers the training curriculum in sign workshops from 1999–2005, as well as some sign painters’ education at the College of Art and Industry (CAI, founded 1973), breaking apart the myth of the autodidact advertising painter.
Chapters 3 through 5 present twelve case studies of “college” (KNUST-COA trained), “city” (workshop apprenticeship trained), and “hybrid” (college and workshop trained) artists. Many, such as Ato Delaquis and Alex Amofa, later became influential instructors or workshop owners, which Kwami posits as a driving force behind contemporary teaching policies that promote stylistic preferences for figurative realism. Chapter 6 functions as a reenactment of the 2002 exhibition “Kumasi Junction,” which Kwami curated. Amongst installation views and his own abstract-schematic works, Kwami emphasizes that Kumasi Realism interprets the unique context of its natal city. Given its figurative emphasis, he sees his own works as apart from those presented in his study, but also as something of a kindred spirit thanks to his leadership of KNUST-COA's painting department and his engagement with the environment of the Kumasi Realists. Sufficient to stand on their own, the introduction and case study chapters are particularly well suited for teaching.
The book concludes with a set of appendices. Appendix C, which includes syllabi and enrollment statistics for KNUST-COA, is especially notable, as this academic ephemera pinpoints curriculum content, eliminating any reliance on vague notions of “art school training.” It also includes a codification of the training stages in ten sign painting workshops, allowing for a juxtaposition of Kumasi's two dominant forms of art instruction.
Kumasi Realism is at its strongest when considering the careers of individual artists. Each case study functions as a mini-monograph, charting not only an artist's production, but also their place in the city's intricate artistic networks. By considering artists at various stages in their careers, the case studies holistically construct the genealogy of Kumasi Realism, tracking the progression from art student to instructor and influencer. As both observer of, and major player in, Kumasi's art world, Kwami's argument benefits from his access to a wide variety of primary sources, including his unpublished interviews with Kumasi artists and instructors. It also draws deeply upon art teaching materials in the Kumasi university archives, several unpublished Ghanaian manuscripts and theses, as well as government reports and papers. Though sometimes heavy-handed in translating this wealth of information into prose, the substantial material presented by Kwami will prove equally engaging to scholars of Ghanaian art history and to students of art pedagogy.
While Kwami admirably documents Kumasi's art education systems, greater examination of the commercial and exhibition opportunities of these painters—especially those not employed by sign workshops—would have made his argument more convincing by ruling out the possible effects of non-educational influences on subject matter and style. Perhaps the most serious limitation of this study is the absence of female artists: in Kwami's telling, Kumasi Realism is an exclusively male practice. While the 2002–2003 statistics for KNUST-COA (p. 379) do indicate lower female art school enrollment, none of the case studies examine female artists; only a glimpse of female artists at work in a sign shop and a handful of names in the “List of Artists” implies their involvement in this practice. The BA dissertation of Yoshimi Kanazawa, whose work as Kwami's research assistant underlies much of Chapter 4, does discuss gender in relation to sign shop practices. Though included in full as an appendix in the dissertation, it was omitted in the book.
Regrettably, greater editorial care should have been taken when adapting Kwami's 2007 dissertation (Open University, UK) into book format. Readers are frequently directed to nonexistent or mislabeled cross-textual references and figures. As many works are being illustrated for the first time, both this inattention to the book's structure—and the poor quality of many of the images—detracts from their otherwise revelatory dissemination. The volume also lacks an index, which would have been greatly appreciated by those seeking the many carefully researched details.
By elucidating the systematic training used in the sign workshops and the shared pool of visual resources used by Kumasi's artists, Kwami deftly dispels both the autodidact myth, and the division between college-trained and sign painters seen most profoundly outside of Ghana, but also expressed within the country's art colleges. As a voice in the ongoing contemporary/traditional debate, and in the continually expanding conversation about African modernisms, Kumasi Realism argues for an expanded scope of modernity that spans not just geographically, but also theoretically and temporally, stretching the bounds of increasingly outmoded dualisms.