Arthur Timothy: Grandma's Hands
Gallery 1957, Accra, Ghana
Through October 22, 2021
By REBECCA ANNE PROCTOR, October 2021
The British Ghanaian-born painter joyfully captures growing up in post-colonial West Africa through paintings that marry his family life with the political tides of the times.
The date is 6 March 1957, and the city is Accra, Ghana. The West African nation has just become the first sub saharan nation to gain independence from British colonial rule, with Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president and prime minister, declaring that, “African people are capable of managing their own affairs and Ghana our beloved country is free forever.” Ghanaian men and women went out onto the streets to march and dance in celebration, their colorful dress and joyful expressions would be captured in black-and-white photographs, and in the paintings of Ghanaian-born London-based architect and painter Arthur Timothy who was born that very same year in Accra. His bright oil paintings, the subject of Grandma’s Hands at Gallery 1957 marking the artist’s first solo exhibition in the country of his birth, delicately render the personal and political nuances of his early years growing up between Ghana, Sierra Leone, and the UK and also mark a break from the abstract figurative work of his Ghanaian contemporaries.
At once fun and lively as well as serious and contemplative, Timothy’s large-scale oil paintings burst with color and light akin to a David Hockney-esque rendition of post-colonial West Africa. The artist’s realistic autobiographical portrayals sing with a vibrancy of color and a fluidity of brushstrokes as he meticulously captures the details of his subjects and the powerful moments they relay.
His works at first might surprise the western viewer. They relay an image of Africa that many might not expect to see: an upscale aristocratic black Africa where blacks mingled with whites at fancy bars, pools, and clubs, held intense intellectual and political debates and where women dressed in the most fashionable outfits of the time. Timothy’s world is one catered to the West African bourgeoisie, the aristocracy, the educated, the privileged and the decision-makers of those crucial years in Ghana post-independence—in great contrast to images of busy street scenes, marketplaces and densely populated African cities.
One of the first works we see is La Femme (2021) a bright oil painting of a young black woman, a friend of Timothy’s father, happily reclining on a sun lounger on the MV Auriol, a passenger ship in transit to the UK—the same the artist once took in April 1966 when he migrated to London at the age of nine with his family from Freetown, Sierra Leone. Timothy’s tight yet expressive brushstrokes resonate with light and realistically render the scene, with shadows cast on the ship’s wooden floor from the various nearby striped sun loungers, evoking a moment of happy calm as this woman, like Timothy once did, set sail for a new country.
The exhibition, co-curated by British-Ghanaian writer and curator Ekow Eshun, divides Timothy’s paintings into sections predominantly focusing on his family in the first part with the prominent display of his grandmother and father mounted on the intersecting fin walls. One of the first works the viewer confronts, and undeniably one of the most important, is The Journalist (2021), a portrait of Timothy’s late father, Bankole Timothy from Sierra Leone, a journalist for Ghana’s leading Daily Graphic paper, who was always hard at work. The painting depicts his father with a cigarette in his mouth as he takes notes amidst scattered papers at his desk.
Once a friend of Kwame Nkrumah, Timothy’s father bore witness to some of the most crucial political moments of time. Timothy’s mother, Adeline Dove, was the daughter of the distinguished barrister Francis (Frans) Dove, from Accra, Ghana. When Timothy was just one year’s old, his father’s outspoken criticism of Kwame Nkrumah led to his deportation by Nkrumah and his family’s return to Sierra Leone.
In the second section we are submerged into the political moments shaping a newly independent Ghana. Rubicon (2021), for example, is a powerful rendering of a procession of men and women in a street in Accra holding large Asante umbrellas or traditional Ghanaian umbrellas to provide shade. “Just like Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon,” quips Timothy, in this painting he relays how “there was no turning back for Nkrumah.” Nearby is The Witness (2021), showing Kwame Nkrumah with his Egyptian-born wife Fathia and an unknown British lady by their side. The trio have just stepped through a doorway and are dressed in the upscale fashion of times, yet Nkrumah’s expression is one of awe as if he has just received some startling news. Also in this section is Delegation (2021) where the viewer is introduced to Kwame Nkrumah’s first political cabinet and its variety of characters, including Kojo Botsio, K.A. Gbedemah, A. Casely-Hayford, T. Hutton-Mills, dressed in traditional Kente cloth, and British delegates from the House of Commons, dressed in top hats and tails. In the last part, marked by paintings of family members, notably pioneering women, there’s the unforgettable portrait of Mabel Dove (2021), his aunt who was a journalist, political activist, and creative writer and one of the first West African women to work in such disciplines.
Timothy’s paintings, largely inspired by an archive of black-and-white photographs that he found amongst his father’s papers, are often metaphorical in nature, encompassing the excitement, diversity and joy of those early post-colonial years.
Moreover, his subjects, painted in their fresh colors and realistic style, mark a break from the abstract work of his post-colonial Ghanaian contemporaries. The heightened sensitivity to his subjects and their realistic portrayals are arguably more stylistically in tune with the figures painted in realistic works of contemporary artists in the African and African American diaspora — Kehinde Wiley, Kerry James Marshall, and even the densely layered figurative compositions of Nigerian-born Los Angeles-based Njideka Akunyili Crosby compared to those of modern Ghanaian artists like Ablade Glover, Wiz Kuduwor, Kofi Argorsor working in the realm of figurative abstraction and focusing on the collective and their emotions rather than those pertaining to an elite sphere.
Missing from his work are the plebs, the masses, the precarity and joy of everyday life on the streets and the alluring mystic pull of African myth—the realm that married the real with the imaginary that Ghanaian post-colonial painters such as Kuduwor, Argorsor, and the acclaimed Glover strove to capture through their lively highly textured abstract paintings.
The subdued elegance of Timothy’s work and its focus on the private realm is quite the opposite from Glover’s vibrant and highly textured abstract oil paintings, illustrating the lively and colorful cacophony of the masses in Ghana’s streets and marketplaces.
Yet, Timothy’s works carry a quiet confidence and refinement even as he paints a time of great change. They are intimate portrayals of crucial periods in Ghanaian and African history rather than grandiose and monumental assertions of Ghana’s newfound political freedom. His paintings are also imbued with a fragility, a sense of humility, grace and integrity—personal virtues of the artist himself—found for example in Birds of Paradise (2021), a portrait of a young African woman, a friend of Timothy’s father. As she rests her chin on her hands softly clasped under her chin, she looks out to the viewer with an expression of quiet acceptance. Behind her is a dreamy, imagined background akin in Chinese painted wallpaper with African birds, including an Abyssinian roller, African heron, Hummingbird, and Pied kingfisher.
Timothy’s ability to peer into what might be immediately deemed as a fancy, almost Great Gatsby-like sphere in West Africa helps us understand another side of the region’s history and moreover recall crucial moments in African and world history. The artist focuses on the private and intimate realities of his subjects even as they face the public, rather than the gestures and emotions of the collective—a welcome break (perhaps) to expected portrayals of West Africa, often presumed (shall we dare say) by western eyes unfamiliar with Africa’s diverse cultures, belief systems and economic classes.
The artist’s powerful yet humble paintings, resurrect a time inspired by Nkrumah’s revolutionary vision for unity, change and freedom—a period, Timothy seems to say, worth celebrating again today.
The exhibition runs until October 1, 2021, at Gallery 1957 in Accra, Ghana. WM
Rebecca Anne Proctor is a journalist based in Dubai. She is the former Editor-in-Chief of Harper’s Bazaar Art and Harper’s Bazaar Interiors, a role she held since January 2015. Her writing has been published in The New York Times Style Magazine; Bloomberg Businessweek, Architectural Digest, Vogue Arabia, Artnet News, Frieze, BBC, The Forward, Arab News, Galerie, Ocula, The National, ArtNews and The Business of Fashion. She is an international consultant for Rizzoli Books and also regularly writes texts for books and catalogues on Middle Eastern and African art and culture.view all articles from this author