The University Gallery at Texas A&M University-Kingsville (TAMUK) — where I teach art history — has not exhibited artists from outside of Kingsville during the pandemic. Late last year, the space reopened with a show dedicated to César Martínez, one of TAMUK’s influential alumni, alongside Carmen Lomas Garza, Amado Peña, and Santa Barraza. For its second show, gallery organizer and Professor of Art Jesus De La Rosa invited a new faculty member, Japheth Asiedu-Kwarteng, from the neighboring University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, where Asiedu-Kwarteng teaches ceramics and design. In Japheth Asiedu-Kwarteng: Ginger is Carrot, the Ghanaian-American artist presents work investigating the complexity of the cultures of South Texas.
Asiedu-Kwarteng’s artistic training comes from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science & Technology (KNUST) in Kumasi, Ghana, where he did his undergraduate work in ceramics, and Illinois State University, where he completed an MFA in Ceramics. His work is purposeful, practical, and unadorned but well crafted, an approach that comes from aspects of his background and training. At KNUST, he was a research assistant for Professor Parpah Senanu Kwawukume, who is a ceramic engineer and works with civic partners on industrial uses of ceramics and kilns. Asiedu-Kwarteng’s father farmed cocoa, the primary agricultural export of Ghana, and during the artist’s younger days, he would partake in building projects alongside his family on the farm, such as constructing wood-frame houses packed with mud. These experiences altogether culminate in an approach to ceramics that is built and raised.
Fiber is also pervasive in the work, ranging between Kente, jute rope, and canvas. Fiber symbolizes work and tradition, and the act of weaving represents a mixing of colors, materials, and cultures. Many of Asiedu-Kwarteng’s pieces incorporate Kente cloth, made to his specifications by Akan weavers in the Ashanti region. A number of his works also refer to the tools and materials of weaving, including shuttles and bobbins from Ashanti looms. He then cuts and weaves different types of materials, whether ceramic or fiber, into complex constructions. All of his recent works are doubly mixed, whether checkered, striped, jigsawed, woven, or assembled, to represent his dual identity as Ghanaian American.
Many of the works’ titles come from conversations with his two young sons. So You Are Leaving Us (2021) are words spoken to Asiedu-Kwarteng by his family when he visited them between the U.S. and Ghana. It is a large sheet of ceramic bent into a permanent flutter, covered in sewn bands of Kente, with each vertical band divided in half with alternating stripes that are painted after the red, white, and blue of the American flag. The alternating paint flips direction along a slightly diagonal horizontal axis, and on two of the blue stripes, a set of four stars cut out from white canvases are attached, a balancing touch of texture and identity. This sheet of ceramic is a self-portrait, curling under the disappointment of his loved ones, wearing tradition, and painting his new identity as American onto his native identity, and sprinkling dollops of American Star spangles onto the country he adopted.
The use of Kente in So You Are Leaving Us can give further meaning to the depth of Asiedu-Kwarteng’s pieces. He used four wide vertical bands of cut and stitched Kente to cover the ceramic foundation. The first band has narrow horizontal bursts of yellow and white on a green background, a pattern in Akan language called nsoroma, meaning ‘my brightest star.’ The second band is a dense alternation between red and blue horizontal stripes, with the upper part of the cloth morphing into an ascending staircase pattern. This pattern is called adwene si dwene so in Akan, which means a ‘double portion of wisdom’ — referring to his family, particularly his two sons. The third band in a blue and yellow worn sawtooth pattern is akoko baatan, meaning ‘mother hen,’ evoking themes of parental care as a father, along with familial belonging and acceptance. The last band, in gold and purple rows of meandering diamonds and stripes, is adwene asa, or ‘wisdom is exhausted,’ meaning that everything has been learned and there is no more wisdom left to impart. Taken altogether, the work also speaks to the difficulty of responding to his children’s words, which are both a plea and an acceptance of his departure.
However difficult separation was, he had to forge ahead with work back in the States. Along one wall of the gallery is a series of wooden boards covered with rope and/or cut canvas. In An Ant has NO Quarrel with the Boot, BUT… (2021), a canvas covering has been patterned into cut horizontal bands of about inch apart, all along its surface. These resulting strips have been woven with 13 strands of jute rope. The plant fibers from the twisted rope flail in all directions; mirroring this effect are the cut ends of canvas threads feathering apart. The work is about luck, or the lack thereof — as much as the ant wants to survive and go on its way, the boot (and the world) has other plans. This is what the nature of work feels like sometimes, in failure — the universe is not aligned to your favor, despite your best desperate efforts, and you are at your wits’ end.
Incurable II (2022) consists of red clay spun, on a wheel, into a coconut-shaped ball, then cut to look like woven bands. Asiedu-Kwarteng then drilled ten rods into the ball and wound rope and Kente around each, leaving the wooden ends sticking out from all but two of them, which are completely wrapped with rope. The piece speaks to the lasting effects of the pandemic, during much of which the artist was separated from his family in Ghana. Although we’ve gone through the worst of it, the administrative, institutional effects of the virus will never go away. It is here to last. This work is also about hosting, and being a foreign body. The body’s immune response is to fight a virus, just as how ‘unfamiliar’ immigrants are often resisted by the cultures and the institutions in their new home. The artist mixed manganese dioxide into the clay and fired it at a higher temperature than clay can typically stand; the resulting glossy black coat cracks and oozes onto the surface alluding to the intense processes of rejection and transformation that global migrants undergo.
Teacher Madam (2022) was named after Asiedu-Kwarteng’s son’s mistaking of ‘madam’ as the name of one of his teachers. Misunderstanding here is translated into materialistic illusions. Six large oblong panels have curling checkerboards bolted onto them. On closer examination, these boards are made by gluing 2 x 2-inch porcelain tiles and wood pieces together with white epoxy, which oozes between the seams. The boards seem to be in the midst of peeling off (about to ‘magic carpet’ into flight) from the back panels covered neatly in wholesale cocoa burlap bags. Some of the checkering comes from color and white tiles, some from MDF wood crates cut and pieced alongside said tiles, and some empty spaces that are filled in with Kente backing. The pieces are flying against fitting neatly into a box, against packaging institutional impulses, feigning misunderstanding to permit oneself a range of freedom. It’s hard to contain creativity born of mixed identities.
In the To and Fro series (2022), four four-foot-tall black ceramic vessels emulate shuttles from traditional Kente looms of Ashanti weavers. There are five pieces like this in the show, each with variations. These have cavities bored into them in different sizes, shapes, and angles, within which one can find either cloth, jute rope, or clay made to look like a bobbin with wound-up threads. Kente is an essential part of Ghanaian culture, with the work of Ashanti weavers prized for its exacting techniques and use of traditional dyes, patterns, and symbols. This series is an homage to this history of the craft, while also alluding to the artist’s travels between Ghana and the U.S., whether in mind or physical presence. To him, ceramics are a metaphorical vessel rather than a physical one, and their malleable nature lends to shapeshifting and mimicry that could stand in place of other forms and materials. These shuttles protect and carry work and tradition — symbolized by jute rope and Kente — inside their hearts, across borders, oceans, and heights.
The show explores the themes of displacement, migration, and immigration as a complex process of division, reconciliation, and integration between different cultures. Whether alienated, as in Incurable, rendered speechless, in So You Are Leaving Us, or gravity-defying, in Teacher Madam, the intensity of these feelings is familiar to anyone who has experienced similar movements across borders and continents. The rhythms of the works along the walls speak to coming to terms with the permanence of dual cultural identities, and the three-dimensional works on platforms in the middle of the gallery create further opportunities to ponder the heft and the force of relocation and acculturation. It is a show that breaks molds.
Japheth Asiedu-Kwarteng: Ginger is Carrot is on view at the Ben Bailey Art Gallery at Texas A&M Kingsville through March 27, 2023.
What about the show’s title, “Ginger is Carrot”? It’s so evocative, provocative. Surely it’s important to the artist. Would be interesting to know the title’s meaning from the review.