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ARTISTS IN CONVERSATION: Interview with Kojo Marfo

By Polly Bates

@pollysportfolio www.pollybates.couk

Kojo Marfo is a Ghanaian artist based in London. Marfo developed his interest in art and visual culture through traditional Akan artifacts, sculptures and carvings that he was exposed to as a child growing up in Ghana. These artifacts still remain a vital source of strength for Marfo. He references traditional Akan art to highlight social issues, such as inequalities, religion, politics, and spiritualism. After travelling to New York and London, Marfo has developed a unique style that encompasses his wide range of influences in an effort to express his experiences and comment on society.

Marfo’s work seeks to re-establish the immense richness that is lacking in mainstream representations of African people. He hopes to explore a self-referential perspective of the Black image by creating figurative abstractions that showcase the beauty woven into Africa’s social and geographical fabric.

Kojo Marfo in his studio. Image by JD Malat Gallery ©

POLLY: Congratulations on your recent exhibition ‘Gatekeepers of Heritage’ with JD Malat Gallery in New York. The vibrant paintings within the exhibition and your artistic practice tell stories of people you have met and places you have been. ‘Gatekeepers of Heritage’ mirrors your experiences from your earlier years in Brooklyn, New York, where your artistic career began; How has the New York art scene evolved since your first experiences in the 1990s, and do you still see this time in your life influencing the work you make now?

KOJO: The scene has changed and people’s perceptions of what is considered art has also changed; some of the art that emerged in New York and London in the 90s is now considered main stream, whilst some is probably yet to be ‘discovered’ or appreciated. Whilst external influences and other artists can play their part in what inspires artists’ work, ultimately each artist will be pulling on so many other personal and external influences too that go beyond where they are located, be it New York, London or anywhere in the world. For me personally, I continue to be drawn to reimagining the artefacts I saw as a child growing up in Ghana and shifting the narratives in my own way, by using subjects that were often under celebrated and under-represented .

Kojo Marfo 'Gatekeepers of Heritage' Exhibition Entrance, 507 West 27th Street, New York, USA, 04/05/22 - 04/06/22. Image by JD Malat Gallery ©

POLLY: How do you approach the bold colour palettes for your paintings and why are you so drawn to colour?

KOJO: Colour is my mode of expression; I use it to portray emotions and thoughts.

It also gives me the opportunity to use vivid and bright colours which are a simple visualisation of the personality of an African.

I have images of African clothes and sometimes I go through catalogues of fashion magazines as well to find the best colour combinations.

POLLY: There is an ongoing fascination with flowers, textiles, domestic animals and, less frequently so, cows within your practice. What are your relationships with these visual references?

KOJO: Flowers bring me joy and happiness. You can see that my figures all have stoic faces and a stern expression, so I use  the flowers to mellow the hard hitting stories behind the artworks. My works tell human stories, and human stories are sometimes very difficult to stomach. My intention is not to create beautiful art. Although the flowers, colours, textures and animals can initially draw in the eye, they are not the end point.

Dogs and cats are part of human stories, and if I’m going to tell human stories then it seems natural to include our closest friends. A little like our children when they are first born, our pets love us  more than they love  themselves.

As for cows, they are such an integral part of daily life and are even worshipped in some parts of the world. They can help us to sow crops, carry heavy loads, provide us with milk - which in turn produces so much more, they are food and can even clothe and boot us. I would say that cows are pretty unique in their relationship with humans as their uses are so varied and span across all continents.

Kojo Marfo ‘Gatekeepers of Heritage’ Exhibition View. Image by JD Malat Gallery ©

POLLY: Your works not only reveal personal fears and concerns with humanity, but also the anxieties and challenges of people you have met. What are your societal apprehensions, and how important is it for you to address social issues and provide a voice for others?

KOJO: Social issues are everybody’s concern. We should all think of solutions to the various problems we face as humans, there is no progress if we try to run away or turn a blind eye to the inequalities and injustices we find around us. It doesn’t matter what the background of the people who need support come from, but if the issues are not tackled they can cause so many problems for the civilised world.

It is my duty to highlight these issues and be the voice for the voiceless, to help bring their issues to the forefront of people’s consciousness. After all, the artist is and will forever remain the conduit for change and the gatekeeper of our heritage, helping to fight against oppression and corruption.

POLLY: Do you find creating these works help you to make sense of the world and your place within it?

KOJO: Absolutely. It helps me to observe and record history, both personal and all of humanity. My intention is to leave something for the next generations and beyond; to have something to ponder on. Not necessarily for them to reflect on this current world, but for it to act as mirror for them to reflect on their own lives and historical context.

Kojo Marfo ‘Gatekeepers of Heritage’ Exhibition View. Image by JD Malat Gallery ©

POLLY: There is a deep exploration into identity throughout your practice. What does identity mean to you, and how do you think the people you have met inform your own identity?

KOJO: I use my practice to understand the concept of living and why we have so much in common that binds us together, rather than what divides us.

Most people are unknown to us, so it is hard to figure out who they are and what they stand for.

It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. That story makes you what you are, and we build ourselves out of that story; most people become what they pretend to be.

There are other cultural differences though. Most of the people I have met in the west seem to focus their energy on wealth and power rather than health and happiness, which isn’t the focus where I come from. Love is expressed as an appreciation of what that person brings to their surroundings and not about their social status.

POLLY: Your cross-cultural references to Akan and Western art playfully explores ideas of beauty and womanhood, with distinct refences to Akan fertility dolls and African carvings. Where did the inspiration towards views of beauty and womanhood come from?

Kojo Marfo ‘Gatekeepers of Heritage’ Exhibition View. Image by JD Malat Gallery ©

KOJO: I call it cultural hybridity. I take things I grew up around and use them to highlight the human condition.

I apply the concept of family in all my work because that’s where I believe life and the human condition begins.

I come from a matriarchal upbringing where the women are more powerful than men, and cultural heritage always influences my creative process. The beauty of women comes from their inner strength and power, and isn’t necessarily related to standard Western ideas of beauty that are focussed on a woman’s size and shape.

POLLY: Your portraits and group portraits hint to an embrace of family and ancestry whilst creating a sense of collective experiences. What do you hope to reveal with these compositions?

KOJO: I want to bring people together and for everyone to see their culture reflected in my art. I aim to use my experience to address and strengthen the modern concept of living, which isn’t necessarily the standard nuclear family but rather the joining of people with a common purpose and love.

Kojo Marfo in his studio. Image by JD Malat Gallery ©

POLLY: The abstract figures within your works create a window to a separated reality, yet a familiar one. How important is it for you that the figures create a slight separation to humans, but exist with recognisably human relationships?

KOJO: I paint in this way not only to pay homage to the visual memories of my childhood rooted in Akan culture, but also because I wanted the themes explored in my paintings to be relevant to the people who consume my art. In our world, where reality breathes life to so many divisions, an un-reality highlights the universality of our human desires, needs, and fears, creating an environment where we can better see that what drives us all as humans is universal.

I feel that this separation from reality is needed to tackle our uncomfortable social, cultural and political realities. It also bonds us through the experiences universal to all people.

POLLY: Thank you so much for taking the time to discuss your practice and recent exhibition with us. We would like to finish off with one last question - if you could offer one piece of advice to our creative community, what would it be?

KOJO: Don’t let outside influences be a distraction, but stay focused on what you want to achieve through your artistic expressions. Hopefully everything you produce will have its value.



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