One of Ghana’s most renowned and revered artists, Ablade Glover, is celebrating his 80th birthday, honoured by a major exhibition at the October Gallery, London, titled Ablade Glover: 80th Anniversary. Born in 1934 in Accra, he still occupies a seminal place in the Ghanaian and West African contemporary art scene, as well as being internationally exhibited in Europe, Japan and the USA, Juliet Highet explains.
His intensely dynamic paintings, throbbing with movement and colour, have universal appeal, represented in public and private collections as diverse as the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, the Imperial Palace Collection of Japan, and Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
As long ago as 1986 the late Sally Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s then first lady, commented: “The new artists of Africa, of which Professor Glover is a distinct representative, are marching onto the world stage in a most exciting and stimulating way.” And how! 28 years later, the accolades for his work still keep pouring in.
With recognition typified by an AFGRAD Alumni Award from the African-American Institute of New York, and an appointment as Life Fellow of the Royal Society of Art in London, in May this year one of his market scenes achieved an auction record in London, part of the phenomenal international growth of the contemporary African art market.
Anybody who knows anything about traditional African art is aware of Ghana’s splendid legacy of sculpture, Asante gold-work, Kente cloths, Adinkra prints and Asafo flags, to name but a few genres admired and collected around the world.
By contrast, missionary teachers, who from the turn of the 20th century introduced Western aesthetic concepts, techniques and materials, influenced the first generation of modern Ghanaian artists.
This resulted in a sometimes uneasy balancing act for this first artistic wave before and following Independence in 1957, a tension, even a struggle between adherence to indigenous African art forms and the pull of acquired Western influence, boosted by exposure to Western contemporary art.
Kwame Nkrumah encouraged this first generation of modern Ghanaian artists to forge a contemporary visual identity for the nation, but his guiding principle was that they should focus on traditional Akan symbolism, invoking a mythical/historical past of glorious kingdoms and elaborately attired royalty, decked out in traditional jewellery and cloth.
Glover is a principal representative of a second generational wave of Ghanaian artists, who as Nigerian artist Uche Okeke put it, created a “natural synthesis” of traditional African sensibility and adaptation of modern Western styles and techniques.
Gerard Houghton points out in the catalogue of 2009 for a previous show at the October Gallery: “Glover’s signal achievement in balancing the disparate demands of these quite different traditions marks a point of gathering confidence in the progress of modern African art, revealing a moment when it mastered the Western mode so completely that it began to generate novel variations of its own, thereby substantiating Africa’s claim to being an authentic contributor to the development of the wider (international) field of contemporary art today.”
Glover explains his own synthesis: “We can all pick tools and use them to express ourselves. People here have traditionally worked with the materials around them – such as weaving and with wood. What we are doing now is using alien materials we learned to use at school to express and celebrate our culture.”
Glover’s own conviction is that oil painting like his belongs with Kente cloth and Adinkra prints as one of the contemporary art forms of modern Africa.