Kwaiye Dwumah Kuffour’s work reveals social conditions, in everyday situations, underlying the booming development in Ghana. He photographs both decay and renewal with a critical eye; observing the minute changes that punctuate daily life in Accra and the surrounding suburbs. Born in Ghana, Kwaiye is committed to using photography to make social and political commentary on a growing country that he feels passionate about.
Kuffour questions the traditions of landscape photography: through avoiding a conventional point of view his close up details of river pollution at first appear like sublime abstract paintings. As the viewer is drawn in to the image the beauty turns to rot and the poison under the painterly surface is blatantly revealed.
Kuffour has been working in Ghana since he graduated from his masters studies in the UK and is committed to the development of photography education there.
Kwayie Dwumah Kuffour interviewed by Anna Fox
In Goma Feta Ghana on 2ND November 2012. At Jibacco Cottages.com
Anna Fox: I first met you at the RCA where you studied in the late 1990s – you studied before this at the Kent Institute of Art and Design (KIAD) in Rochester now University for the Creative Arts (UCA).
Kwayie Juma Kuffour: Yes at KIAD in the 90s I made one of my first proper bodies of work: Memories of Reflection. It was a series of photographs about remembering my past life in Ghana. I had travelled from Ghana to the UK to study banking but ended up taking pictures and eventually studying photography. When I decided to make Memories of Reflection I had started coming back to Ghana more regularly and noticed, for the first time, how we use colours to decorate our homes and frequently reflect our status in the community. I was photographing decorations in people’s homes and it helped me to recollect my memory of living in Ghana. In the UK colour was missing from the environment. Later when I was at the RCA I started another body of work about middle class homes in Ghana; these were environments I was familiar with, that I remembered from my childhood. Before I left Ghana the city was quite empty and when I returned there was a huge increase in the population. The estates being built to house people were slowly evolving into Ghettos as too many people moved into the apartments that had been built to house far fewer people.
I first came to the UK in 1986 and returned to Ghana in 1988 then back to the UK in 1991 and first studied at Hackney College in 1996 and then from there to Tower Hamlets College and then to KIAD – each place studying photography.
AF: What inspired you to start photographing?
KD: I was working as a street photographer outside a club called the Blue Note Café in Hoxton Square. Eddie Pilar set up the Blue Note (first called Base Line), he employed Goldie as a DJ and they played Drum and Bass all night long. I started just photographing in the street with a 35mm camera then later I hung out with a DJ called Ali Baba who was learning how to DJ then I made friends with more of the DJs, met Eddie and started photographing more inside the club.
I had studied art at secondary school in Ghana and I met a gentleman teacher there who encouraged me in my drawing and I started sketching buildings, my best O level result was in art. There was a photo studio near where I lived at Aodome in Accra, I used to go there when I finished my O Levels – I was fascinated by what they did but I couldn’t afford my own camera until I got to the UK. The studio was tiny, a kiosk made of wood about 10x10ft with a studio and hand processing inside – this was the normal size for a studio in Ghana. I would go and sit and waste my time there and simply got interested in the process. Then I went to the UK, started an office-cleaning job and saved the money for a camera. I photographed weddings and christenings for friends often working alongside a photographer who I was learning the business from. I looked for the studio at Aodame when I went back to Ghana but it had already disappeared.
I had gone to the UK to study banking but I couldn’t handle the mathematics so I gave that up and decided to go to Hackney College to study art and photography. I did everything at Hackney, portraiture, landscape, photo essays and built a portfolio, which got me into Tower Hamlet College in 1997 where I did photojournalism and photo-video. I got my nickname KD at Hackney College as the tutors could not pronounce my name. The portfolio I built at Tower Hamlets got me into KIAD in 1999 to do a 3yr BA in editorial and advertising photography. Ori Gersht was teaching at Rochester and over the three years there I read books like Said’s Orientalism – he talked about “the other” and the outsider. I moved onto read Spikvak, Chakravatries Sprivak ,and Frans Fenon, all the African Diaspora and pan African post-colonialism and so I discovered myself and thought this is what I want to do. I decided to look at what was going on in the Arabic World the war in Kuwait and the birth of Al Jazeera. I was interested in looking at this history, particularly of the rise of Al Jazeera as a model for what could be done in Africa. I wrote a dissertation on the representation of post-colonial discourse in photography. There was a book that I found on African photographers from the 1940s to the 1980s it introduced me to Malik Sidibe, Seidou Keita, Vanda Buoy and others and I was also reading Kobena Mercer, looking at Isaac Julien and I wrote about these things in my dissertation. This reading and looking fed into my practice, what was going on in the Arab world and what happened in South Africa persuaded me to look at myself as black person, as a black African. At this point I started going back to Ghana more regularly.
AF: What impact did these trips home have on your photography?
KD: I grew up in villages and cities. My father was away in England as a political exile so I grew up with my mother. We visited him sometimes. My mother was a police officer so we had travelled the country. When she worked as a station police officer she worked as a law person so we could not stay with her. We had to stay with someone and that person was my grandmother. My grandmother also had businesses, fish factories so she would take us with her on her travels from village to village where her factories were, her wares would be travelling to Liberia and Ivory Coast to be sold. We would travel with her on school vacations. When I returned to Ghana (when I was at Rochester) I came straight to the village, my mother’s hometown where my grandmother had lived, to see how we had lived – it was called Sronbe in the Volta region of Ghana and I started taking pictures there. I was photographing people’s spaces, where they lived. I had realized, partly through being in England, how privileged I had been, and I knew I had to look into myself. I realized I was lucky growing up the way I had in Ghana often in police barracks with three or four bedrooms with TV and the rest of it and now I was looking at other peoples spaces that were very simple maybe only one chair and a table, no radio or TV. Still these people were happy – their spaces were beautiful. I didn’t understand the class system when I was young and I don’t like it now. But I was looking as a privileged person at these spaces and they turned out to be very beautiful spaces, the colours that came out of these pictures was wonderful – I was just looking at light and colours really, after all my education in post-colonial thinking all I was looking at was light.
AF: And that’s what photography is, isn’t it?
KD: Yes – I had graduated from the books I was reading to thinking about form and content. More important to me now was Clement Greenberg and Claude Levi Strauss, De Souza – I started reading more European books and it became a combination things like Foucault and Greenberg that were interesting to me. Hegel, Thomas Mann, Heidegger – I got to a stage of thinking that the stuff on post-colonialism was pigeon holing us and not expanding our knowledge. I went on to read Derrida as he had written about his Arabic and Jewish background – so I thought I had a connection to this. Derrida saw the class system but didn’t see it as something big, I loomed at more French philosophers and I looked at Henri Cartier Bresson at Leni Riefenstahl and George Rodger – his project in the Nubas – he went to Africa after the war as Magnum was being formed – it was a hard journey for him but he came back with some pictures. Later Leni Riefenstahl went there to make films, films that have only recently been seen. So I thought these people are making work in Africa and I should be doing this. I had been making work in Europe and now I travelled back to Ghana – I needed to make work in Africa. My competition was my mates and one of those mates was Steffi Klenz – I found out we were doing the same sort of thing and so I went back to Ghana to make work.
AF: The kind of African photography you had been looking at was Studio and portrait based and now you had moved into spaces, still -life, observing light and colours, and architectural photography as well. This was all very different from the photography you have been looking at – did you feel like you were entering into a new type of territory for an African photographer?
KD: I had read books that had made me question stereotypes in photography so I felt guilty photographing people, looking at my own people because of the way portraiture is analyzed. I wanted to know how to move on – I looked at architectural photography as well so I started from there.
AF: So in a sense it is like the problems of portraiture were too great so you took a sideways step – going against the grain of traditional African photography and photography of Africa by others?
KD: Yes, as I said, I had a book of African photographers and I had seen the type of picture in here that were very anthropological and I was reading Claude Levi Strauss and I had looked at the anthropologists Pritchard and Boas and I wanted to stop making anthropological type pictures. I thought that maybe later, when I understood it better, I could start with portraiture again. From here I discovered light and colour through shooting Memories of Reflection (interiors) and photographing architecture. I was taking fairly straight pictures of buildings with no content, they were just flat– the pictures were divided into layers, thirds – like the rule of thirds – I was just looking at foreground, middle ground and background so I would have sky, occupying the majority of my prints, a high sky saying that up is the limit, then the building itself with beautiful roofing, terracotta roofing – new galvanized roofing had arrived from South Africa and so these roofs looked dislocated. These roofs were red and different to the older aluminum roofing and were a means of giving the middle classes a way of projecting their image onto society. These buildings looked like some thing you might find in Spain or Florida – so I thought I could take a picture and people would not know I was photographing in Ghana. When I started photographing the buildings I had started at the Royal College. I ended up calling the project The Oxfam Country.
AF: so you wanted to subvert the way that charities like Oxfam had pictured Africa?
KD: Yes – I wanted to subvert the victim picture of Africa – I wanted to show that you could be poor and still have a good life and I wanted to show the growth of a new Africa. After KIAD I took a year off then got into the Royal College and started making the architectural photographs. I looked at the new architecture, an expensive reclaiming of urban spaces – no body knew this kind of image of Ghana. At the RCA I mainly concentrated on architecture especially East Lagon which is near to where I had lived. When the viewer looked at the pictures they did not realize this was Ghana – it was not what they were used to seeing from Africa
AF: Were there any other African photographers that you discovered along the way, doing similar things?
KD: I met theorists to start with. James Barnor and Eileen Perrier, both Ghanaian photographers, I met later – Eileen when she studied at the RCA. Also I forgot to say I met another Ghanaian photographer while I was studying at Rochester – Muzi Quawson – she was born in the UK and had not been to Ghana – she too went to the RCA and I think she had her work on the American homelessness shown at the Tate.
AF: Who taught at the RCA while you were there?
KD: Olivier Richon was the Head of photography, Rut Blees Luxemburg, Hermione Wilshire, Peter Kennard, Yve Lomax and Anna Fox. Anna and then Rut were my personal tutors. And my contemporaries were important Cia Durante, who made work in Ghana on the gold mining and then Steffi Klenz was at the RCA (and she had been at Rochester too).
AF: So what did you feel that you would do when you left the RCA?
KD: To be honest I was totally confused when I left the RCA. I did not feel African any longer – I felt “universal”. My family, African family did not find it easy to relate to me. My stepmother was in England so I did have a connection to the UK, I felt very, very English and so there was a big conflict in me between my English self and my African self. I saw much of the African photography, that was being promoted – Seydou Keita, Malik Sedibe, etc., they were doing beautiful work yet I saw it as anthropological and I did not want to do this.
AF: Since that time you have photographed people?
KD: Yes but I stopped photography for a while, I needed to re-think. My mother died and my father had died sometime before. Then in 2007 I met Karen Knorr and James Barnor – this was a big inspiration. I met Karen through Rut Blees Luxemburg who had been in Senegal and was very sympathetic towards me. Karen got in touch and looked at my work, she had grown up all over the world she was “tropical”! We could relate to each other. I started to read a lot instead of photographing and look at the black African representation , I read Anthony Kwame Appiah ( Ghanaian, British American Philosopher) and then I also studied African TV and learned how it worked – I wanted to be the African Al Jazeera at one point. I wanted to work out how we, in Ghana, could have our own news. I realized then that I could not stay in England. I returned to Ghana in 2008.
AF: what did you do when you went back?
KD: first I got into TV and I was producing and directing a TV show at TV 3 called Sunrise. I started photographing celebrities, a bit like when I was photographing at the Blue Note in London – Full Circle- ! I have an archive of this work in England. They were all Ghanaian celebrities, actors, TV stars, musicians – and I made their portraits. Then I applied for a job to teach photography at the Ghana Institute of Journalism. This is when I thought I can’t run away any more, I had to pick up a camera again. And so I thought back to my tutor’s advice about the dynamics of dressing in the African community, and I started to photograph people going to church in their ‘Sunday Best’. I noticed that everyone I photographed was holding bibles, as if holding onto their lives in this book. I had been looking at the colourful costumes but it was the books that were important. Ghana has become a big Christian community and it’s in your face wherever you go – the bible is quoted everywhere. People look at me strangely if I read my books in public, they think this is arrogant and that one should hide ones knowledge and instead I should be reading the bible. I find this weird, especially as my knowledge has been gained from reading scholarly books in Europe.
AF: Also I remember you were photographing the pollution in the river in Accra?
KD: yes – the river is called Odo river – I only photographed that river a couple of times – the majority of the sewage from Accra ends up in this river and then goes to the sea. This river has become so polluted, very stagnant, that some of the water in the river has caked up and formed into a clay. People like Bill and Melinda Gates send money to Africa to cure malaria but the malaria is in front of us – we could cure it – the money will come in and all be used up and the children are still dying of malaria. We, the middle classes Ghanaians are stuck in our fortress homes behind protective bars and we don’t see the pollution in front of our eyes – we need to do something ourselves.
AF: You were also photographing urban development?
KD: I wanted to photograph the ‘new cash’ the new developments. I photographed close up to gutters coming out of the new homes. I photographed them close up so they actually looked like rivers – I wanted to throw the filth away and just looking at the beautiful colours, like a Jackson Pollock, but eventually you would notice the filth and realize that this is where malaria is coming from. By going so close to the gutters to make them look like rivers I got right up close to the smell, it was right in my nose and it was terrible.
AF: So what do you think you can do with these photographs – the kind of photography you are doing is part social observation, part political intervention and as well reflects your interest in art – how do you think that photography can do? Can it do something?
KD: After meeting James Barnor who I brought into to work on the Ghanaian 50 yr celebration – we worked on the Black Cultural Archive in London – Karen was involved too. I want my new photography of Ghana to tell people about what we are like – to show our position to the world – I aim to exhibit and publish the work. I have many things that I have photographed – while I was at Tower Hamlets I photographed the slave forts the main ones like Elmina and Cape Coast and the fort in the Volta region – I knew little about the history of slavery before I left Ghana – me and my friends didn’t think it was anything to do with us – when I came to the UK I realized the significance of this history. In school the emphasis was about being part of the global world – we learnt about slavery but it wasn’t pushed on us. I am interested in reflecting on history as well as looking at the development here.
AF: What is your ambition for photography in Ghana?
KD: I am a lecturer in photography at the Ghana Institute – photography is very new here, as a subject – I tell my students that photography in Ghana is Facebook photography – this is what they know best – they show off themselves using photography on Facebook – the women students get themselves photographed from the back – showing off their backsides – to ‘pull’. The guys photograph themselves at parties in their best clothes – again trying to ‘pull’! this vernacular photography has its own language – it’s fascinating , I am still studying it. I am looking to grow a different kind of interest in photography – like what happens in Bamako now – I want to see how I can promote what I have learned about photography, I need to build a base and promote a history of Ghanaian photography – the studios and such like. I am also trying to establish a photography course at the Ghana Institute – here we can start to think about creating a new photography festival perhaps for 2014 or 2015.
Kwayie Kuffour was born in Ghana in 1967, he studied photography at the Royal College of Art, 2003-2005, Kent Institute of Art and Design, 1999-2002, Tower Hamlet College, 1997-1999, and Hackney College, 1996-1997.
He is now lecturer in photojournalism at Ghana institute of journalism in Accra and continues to make his own projects.