Afro-Expressionist and visual artist Kojo Marfo talks to us about his love for art as a place to find solace, and as a medium in which to portray vital messages. We discuss those who have inspired him, and the aims of his art going forward, on both a personal and wider societal level. Looking forward, Kojo talks of how the pandemic has given him a new outlook, as well as new art to showcase.
Could you start by introducing yourself to our readers, and speaking about the style of art you create?
I'm a visual artist/Afro-Expressionist based in London, originally from Ghana.
Can you remember a specific moment when you first became interested in art? Or a time when you realised you could make a career from painting?
I was interested in arts or creating because I grew up surrounded by people sculpting and carving. But painting seemed to be the most natural for me to recreate images in my own understanding and use them to comment on society and address certain issues to start a conversation. Initially, not finding the right gallery and not having the right platform to showcase my work was a problem. But around 2008, a gallery in London took me on and encouraged collectors to invest in me.
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Which artists do you feel have influenced your style?
Ibrahim El Salahi, Wilfredo Lam, Fernand Léger and Pablo Picasso. Picasso because he had to reinvent historical paintings and drew upon what had always been a counter-traditional depiction of human situations conceived in poetic terms. He was never afraid to experiment, and to borrow and to combine and to challenge himself and his viewers. Indeed, he was often accused of copying, yet he was no plagiarist. He searched for stimulation and new ideas at every turn but I never know who is influencing me at any time. I love art. But I like the accidental art, not dished up or served on a platter.
You’ve spoken about how your art is more about substance than style though; that you’d rather create art which allows you to start a conversation about social issues than art that is simply beautiful. Do you feel your art has given you a voice to bring attention to the issues you’d like to? Can you give an example of this?
My understanding of the creative process is simply that all cultures and all concerns meet at a certain point, the human point in which everything is related to each other. That has been my creative experience. My art has certainly helped me to talk about issues that are dear to my heart in a broader spectrum. For instance, I grew up in a matriarchy and my work touches on feminist aspects which tie into current Western concerns. Equally, I would like to explore racial inequality in my work, especially given the current climate. But it's such an important issue to me, and something I've experienced firsthand, that I want to take time to think about it, to do something different and impactful.
You brought up an important point about how we often hear people’s stories but don’t really act on injustices. How do you think artists could encourage active change on social issues? Do you think artists have a responsibility to do so?
You cannot live a normal existence if you don't face the issues that affect your life and the lives of others. I think you have to be true to your values and the things that define you as a human. I think artists and intellectuals have a duty to put a mirror up to society and act as a conduit of change. Artists should challenge the status quo and encourage people to question it. In the end, I think artists are in some ways the gatekeepers of society and can protect against corruption.
“In the end, I think artists are in some ways the gatekeepers of society and can protect against corruption.”
You’ve also mentioned this concept of ‘cultural hybridity.’ Do you feel your experiences in Ghana, the United States and the United Kingdom have given you a unique artistic viewpoint?
Artistically yes, because it exposed me to different practices and methods but it also helped broaden my understanding of living in a multicultural society. Once you understand the nuances behind a culture, you begin to understand its significance to the people within it. You may read or hear about another country, but learning to operate within it successfully is a different matter entirely. Living in a different society, especially in the West, can reveal the hidden dangers woven into its social and geographical fabric. And it's opened my eyes to racial injustice.
Your work also has a kind of hybridity of time, incorporating experiences from different points in your life. Do you feel that bridging the past and present helps maintain a sense of yourself in your painting whilst creating something new?
No artist can say they are not influenced by the culture they have come from. But that culture is also constantly evolving. So while you have an intrinsic connection to it you are also in some ways constantly re-evaluating it, breaking it up and reassembling it to suit your own needs. It's constantly there as a source of vital strength.
I’m interested in this idea that the lockdown inspired because it was almost like everyone was forced to live as an introspective artist such as yourself for a few months. Do you think that experience gave you more insight into how other people work and interact? Do you think it allowed you more self-reflection as well?
Art is solace; art is vision, and when I pick up paint and a brush, it consumes me and I lose myself. I enjoy the stillness and silence that solitude brings. Being home and just hanging out with myself through yoga and meditation have helped me develop a sincere friendship with myself. I have embraced being rationally hopeful. I’ve come to terms with the fact that the situation we are in is genuinely dark, but I also acknowledge that there are so many signposts leading to the way out. I acknowledge that things could get worse but some things are already beginning to get better.
I’ve also realized that I thrive when I look at both sides of things and manage my expectations. It feels good to have new paintings that I will be showcasing at JD Malat Gallery in London as soon as the pandemic allows.
“You may read or hear about another country, but learning to operate within it successfully is a different matter entirely. Living in a different society, especially in the West, can reveal the hidden dangers woven into its social and geographical fabric.”
I loved the idea that your painting, Coronation, was about your friend’s breakup, yet it focused on the positive aspect that she was ultimately happier on her own. Do you often find yourself giving a seemingly negative situation a positive outlook when it comes to your work, or was this unusual for you?
I usually try not to have a preconceived notion of what I'm doing. The composition is based on what I am thinking at that moment and sometimes flashes of luck can produce something special. Some people flinch when you talk about art in a societal context. But I think art has a social purpose and use. I like to challenge people's perceptions of themselves and push them to see their issues in a positive light. Time is wasted by people dwelling on things they don't like about themselves. If I can free them from this negative mindset, then I've achieved something.
What are your goals as an artist in the near future?
Obviously the pandemic has stalled a few projects for me but I am still due to show at the Contemporary Art Fair in Istanbul next month with JD Malat Gallery. In January I have a show planned with JD Malat Gallery in St. Moritz. My goals are to exist in the here and now because that's all that's possible currently. But to also enjoy the opportunities that continue to come way.
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