PORTRAIT OF A PORTRAITIST – AMON KOTEI by Nii Nortey Dowuona

PORTRAIT OF A PORTRAITIST

(AMON KOTEI)

by Albert Nii Nortey Dowuona, (alniinod), 2010

 

INTRODUCTION

Throughout the ages, there have been great men and women, scholars and achievers, nobles and aristocrats who have been immortalised by their achievements, works and impact on their societies – positively or negatively. In the world of art, great artists and scholars as well as exponents of styles and movements have also been acknowledged as far as their works, interests, influences and philosophies are concerned.

Even though in Ghana a few artists have been acknowledged for their role in shaping society especially in the pre and post-independence era, there are still some who have not been duly recognised for their efforts.

The idea of discussing Amon Kotei’s art is necessary as there is, the need to recognise the contributions, achievements and hard work of the artists of yester-years in order to help us know where we are heading towards and to perpetuate the tradition of acknowledging good works.

I will attempt to discuss as much of possible in detail the selected Ghanaian artist – Amon Kotei.

During the period I did my research, in 2010, the artist was living but aged. Majority of my findings were based on an unpublished write-up by Maruska Svašek. She had a great opportunity in 1989 to live with the artist and personally interview and interact with him in his house in Accra – Ghana.

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH

Amon Kotei (figure 1), a Ghanaian, was born during World War I on 24th May, 1915 at La, Accra. His parents were the late S.K. Hammond (Amon Tete) and the late Yemoley Ama both of La.

He started schooling at Dodowa. During this period he stayed with his grandfather, David Kotei, a catechist at the Dodowa Presbyterian church. He furthered his education at the La Salem Boarding School where he completed standard seven (an academic level during the colonial era) in 1934. He was said to be very good in almost all subjects of art, especially in clay modelling, painting and drawing. He gained a scholarship from the British Colonial Government in 1938 to study at Achimota School. At Achimota School, Amon Kotei was known to be interested in realism and therefore produced realistic modelling and paintings.

Achimota College Years (1938 – 1940)

Amon Kotei went to Achimota College fully excited because of the opportunity to be trained as an artist in a renowned art college in the country. With that spirit of excitement, he exhibited all his talent and thus invested everything possible to justify the award he had received.

At Achimota College, Amon Kotei met different art teachers: European and African teachers. One of the European teachers he met was Herbert Vladimir Meyerowitz who had two Ghanaian Helpers. These were M. Opoku and Mr. P.O. Gabra. Another European teacher he met was Mr. Debrish who headed the pottery course. In Achimota, Amon Kotei also met renowned artists who by then were students in the Achimota College. They included artists like Kofi Antuban, Vincent Kofi and E.V. Asihene.

According to Amon Kotei, though going to Achimota College was an opportunity to polish up his realistic drawing and modelling in a major way he was disappointed at Achimota College. He expected to be trained in all the principles of proportions and all the principles that governed the production of art. He personally believes that the principles used in the production of art are universal. He strongly believes that there is no reason why Africans should not know and use these universal principles.

During Kotei’s schooling days in Achimota College, the students were forced to go by a traditional ‘African style’.  It was due to this that Kotei began to exhibit bitterness for the course. Though his colleagues were also disappointed, unhappy and even grumbled concerning the approach the authorities used to train them, they could not show it. Amon Kotei openly, but in a respectful way, opposed the approach.

Amon Kotei was down hearted when Meyerowitz, his art tutor criticised him for doing a realistic portrait rather than the expected ‘African art style.’ According to Kotei, the philosophy which H.V. Meyerowitz and the other teachers used to run the art department was a belief in the appropriation of the styles of African-Traditional art. The students were then used for the research. Since the students were Africans, they were the right source for any intellectual information into their way of art.

The Achimota College in general was however run by the philosophy or concept of the black and white keys on the piano. The black and white keys where to necessarily find a way of living together. This was intended to break boundaries and that every good thing in Europe is equally good here in Africa. According to the primary philosophy of the Achimota College, there was no restriction to any student who is interested in any style or ways of production in terms of art. It is believed that all the various departments, including the art department agreed to the primary philosophy of the college but the reaction of Meyerowitz to Amon Kotei’s realistic portrait was contrary to the philosophy of the college.

Kotei’s realistic portraits, according to the philosophy of the college should have been considered as an international art where there is no legal claim to any continental style hence he deserved the freedom to work in any style he chose.

Most concerned people might wonder why Amon Kotei’s scholarship was withdrawn. To some, it was because of his reactionary attitude towards the course. To others, the authorities might not have liked him. For any of these reasons why Amon Kotei’s scholarship was withdrawn, Amon Kotei said “I did one and a half year and I was glad to walk out of Achimota College.”

Amon Kotei’s scholarship withdrawal was not a sudden decision. It was systematic thus from one degree of problem to the other. First of all, he was disappointed at the teaching method and his expectation of attending an art college was not met and he lost interest in the course and thereby his performance would be low.  Furthermore he became downhearted when Meyerowitz gave a harsh and judgemental criticism on his realistic portrait. At this point, Kotei was down in spirit and all zeal quenched; what was left was pessimism.

Though his idea about being allowed to produce realistic works were not supported, his open reaction to that was not enough reason for him to be  dismissed from the college. “…but something happened…” he said. According to him, there was water shortage in those days and someone, unknown to him, turned on the tap when the water was not flowing. The person forgot to turn the tap off. When the tap started running, before long, the whole studio was flooded and he was held as the prime suspect.

Amon Kotei said that he was falsely accused. He said Meyerowitz did not accept any explanation from him. This incident also caused him to be downhearted and subsequently lost total interest in the whole course. His downheartedness influenced the zeal and enthusiasm he had for the course. It subsequently affected the way he approached the course, and a report was sent to his sponsors that he had lost interest in the course. Finally the scholarship was withdrawn and he was eventually expelled from Achimota College.

Appiah (2007:45) recounts the same events but in a much simpler way stating that, Amon Kotei was not able to complete the three-year scholarship course in Achimota College because he had misunderstanding with H.V. Meyerowitz, the head of the art department by that time.  Appiah continues by stating that “Amon Kotei was expelled after studying for one-and-half years of his scholarship.  His realistic modelling was branded European art by Meyerowitz. This left Kotei confused, portraying him as stubborn. In effect he was not ready to sacrifice his style in sculpture for any alternative. Maruska’s interview with Amon Kotei as discussed however cites a series of events as leading to his expulsion.”

Life after Achimota College

Two years after been expelled from Achimota College, Amon Kotei was enlisted in the Royal West African Frontier Forte (RWAF) during the World War II in 1942. In the RWAF, Kotei trained as a topographical draughtsman. During the World War II, he designed various war posters to educate the public. After five years of active military service, he was discharged as a corporal.

Whiles working in the RWAF in 1949, Amon Kotei was given a three-year scholarship to study in London School of Printing and Graphic Art, Great Britain.  Though his scholarship did not permit multiple registrations, upon tangible explanation to the head of the school and his ambition to study especially in lettering, he gained the opportunity and was allowed to all departments of the school, using the opportunity profitably.

Kotei completed his course in Britain as a qualified commercial artist in 1952 and returned home to join the Victoria Press at the photo engraving section, where he managed the graphic department. (Appiah, 2007:46)

In an exhibition catalogue published by Artists Alliance Gallery in 2009 (Pioneers of Contemporary Ghanaian Art Exhibition), Amon Kotei was described as one of the practicing and outstanding pioneers of contemporary Ghanaian artists who in their individual practices confronted the challenges in their time and era and left a rich legacy of artistic heritage.

Apart from drawing, painting, and sculpting, Amon Kotei is a lover of music. He plays the guitar, piano and sings. He does not do music for commercial purposes but as a hobby.

One of his favourite friends in the music circle was the Legendary Ghanaian folk or Palm wine musician, Agya Koo Nimo.

 

CONCEPTION OF THE ARTIST

Amon Kotei is an all-round artist. He does not only paint and sculpt; he is a draughtsman, a graphic designer, and a printmaker. He is naturally skilful and gifted in art. As he studied through elementary school and college, both locally and internationally, he was inspired by different artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt and other European masters. Social, political, environmental and religious factors also inspired him. These influences will be examined in an attempt to deduce his philosophy as an artist.

According to Afutu Kotei, Amon Kotei’s fifth child, his father [Amon Kotei] through his study in art saw and understood that he [Amon Kotei] was also capable of depicting realistic and representational works of art. Afutu Kotei said that this mentality is what has shaped his father’s philosophy and hence his art works. Afutu continued to say that it is one thing to say or have a philosophy and another thing to prove what you so hold on as your philosophy. To him, Amon Kotei proved his philosophy. Throughout Amon Kotei’s study, from Achimota School in 1938 to London School of Printing and Graphic Art in 1949 and to his artistic practice, he has been painting and sculpting realistic and representational works.

During Maruska Svašek visit to Amon Kotei in 1989 at his residence in La – Accra, Amon Kotei showed her a photograph of himself in his early years, standing in front of one of his realistic portraits in clay. Svašek said, “Amon Kotei used the picture to prove to me his ability to work in a naturalistic style, and thus to challenge the idea that whites are superior to blacks” Svašek continue to say that Amon Kotei also showed her a paper he, Amon Kotei, had written in 1977, which stated: “The prejudice was that the Ghanaian is not fit, capable, or that it is not African art to do anything that is realistic. Let us change this prejudice, and prove that the colour of our skin has nothing to do with acquisition of knowledge which is power, and the exercise of intelligence which is the only possession God gave to human beings to use”

This mentality where all humans are capable of excelling is the vehicle that has informed Amon Kotei’s philosophy. He strongly believed and proved that he could equally do what has been so long accredited to only a class of selected people and made them the originators and custodians of an ability that is universal.

For a very long time, even before Amon Kotei started to practice art, some styles and techniques had been branded, tagged and categorised under continents and nations. Realistic, naturalistic and representational works of art, for instance, have been tagged as European art whiles subjective, abstract and primitive are tagged as African art. According to Svašek, it might be that it was with this mentality that he refused to submit to the cultural hierarchic scheme of the white colonisers. Now African art is no longer termed ‘primitive’, but has now been reinterpreted as being something to be proud of. “The idea of an existing original national art should be rejected outright, since art in its present state is universal. No nation can now lay a claim to a national style in art” (Quao 1970: 53, cited by Svašek 1997:14).

In view of this idea of not tagging a style to a continent or nation, a number of artists who belonged to the younger generation in the 1970s refused to identify themselves primarily as Africans or blacks. Instead they emphasized that they were individuals who belonged to an international community of directly or indirectly communicating artists. They rejected the existence of a consciously-created African style. African identity and style were no longer seen as natural categories but deconstructed as cultural constructs. (Svašek 1997:14)

According to Professor Ablade Glover, a Ghanaian Contemporary artist, he keeps telling his students and everybody he meets that it is sad to make a conscious effort to do something called an African painting. He said “I think it is wrong to make something African, because there is nothing like “African”. The “African” is me, so if what comes out of me cannot be taken as African, then what is African?” (Svašek 1997:14)

From Ablade Glover’s Statement, what makes a work to be tagged or categorised by nationality depends on the person who produced it; where he or she comes from. This is what informs the category but not the style the person used.

Amon Kotei together with some artists such as Saka Acquaye and Kofi Antuban were a few of the pioneers of Ghanaian Contemporary artists who started to fight the myth of static primitive tradition. These artists claimed ‘European’ realism as an artistic style of their own thus broadly defined and incorporating diverse styles, such as naturalism, impressionism and expressionism. They symbolically denied boundaries between themselves and their colonizers (Svašek 1997:5).

Contrary to Amon Kotei’s mentality which disassociated realistic style from European identity, Ampofo Oku, also considered as one of the pioneers of contemporary Ghanaian art, when confronted with pieces of African sculpture on his visit to the British museums, said “I found in these ancient masterpieces the emotional appeal and satisfaction which Western education had failed to cultivate in me. It was as though an African had to go all the way to Europe to discover himself” (Svašek 1997: 7, quoted in Mount 1973: 173). In effect he defined realism as a European style of expression and foreign to African culture.

According to Ampofo certain `innate’ qualities of African artists were spoiled by the influence of European artistic styles. He said “The amazing thing was that even. . .those who were colourful and those who were symbolic in their painting and sculpture, when they got a scholarship from the British government. . .and went abroad, by the time they came back they were all spoiled” (Ampofo 1968:25, cited by Svašek 1997: 7-8 ).

Ampofo is believed to have been influenced by Nkrumah’s ‘African personality philosophy’; this was based on the image of Pan-African identity. In Ampofo’s words “Nkrumah was behind me. My work meant a step in the direction of a further development of a typical African identity.” (Svašek 1997:7-8).

According to Svašek (1997: 8-9) After Ghana’s independence in 1957, most artists were inspired by the philosophy of the African personality, propagated by the first president of Ghana, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. They tried to give form to their cultural past, either in an abstract, realistic or semi-realistic style. Although the intended message was to show Ghana as a dynamic culture rooted in the past, the majority of buyers, who were non-African foreigners, persisted in interpreting the works as signs of an exotic and petrified tradition, contrasting with the dynamism of Western modern life. Even though artists tried to maintain that they propagated political ideals, their political message was `lost’ on its way to the consumers.

The rising demand of ‘African art’ was thus not a political, but a commercial success. Wisdom Kudowor, a Ghanaian contemporary artist, whiles a student argued that commercial success was in fact an important reason for artists to create images of the past and that the Ghanaian artists wanted to reflect their cultural heritage, because first of all, foreigners demand for paintings and other artefacts with African imagery was very high hence the demand of the consumers, and not their willingness to become political conscious, guaranteed the production of the images of their past thus the relationship between the artists and the largest sector of their public showed itself not to be educational and political, but mainly economic. The demands of the tourist market partly determine the way in which Ghanaian artists represent themselves through art (Svašek 1997:8-9).

According to professor Ato Delaquis, a senior lecturer in the department of Fine Arts-KNUST, the financial dependence of the artists on foreign buyers is not the only reason why artists keep on creating images of the past. According to him, both the artists and the Ghanaian public cling to a romanticized vision of the past out of confusion. He said “The present-day African is confronted with an awkward and embarrassing problem in trying to know his place in the twentieth century world.” He continued to say that “it is a psychological question of emptiness in our lives” (Delaquis 1976: 17, cited by Svašek 1997:9).

Atta Kwami, a painter and a former art teacher at the College of Art, KNUST, argued as he said ‘I am [an] African, but then I am not proud of being [an] African. It is no big deal; I am just a human being, in the sense that Africans are not special’ (Svašek 1997:14).

What Atta Kwami was trying to say was not to disassociate himself from being an African but that he is a human being who should not be categorised or tagged by his geographical location especially as far as art is concerned.

This is what Amon Kotei and other artists, Ghanaians and non-Ghanaians, Africans and non-Africans, have been trying to communicate through every means to break the continental and national boundaries and their association with status and hierarchy in art.

The concluding statement on this discussion can be that the difference between a European and an African may be only the colour of the skin and geographical location. Apart from that we are all humans and created by God according to religion. “Human beings are human beings in the first place, and not Africans or Europeans” so “if you are inspired by something, go for it. But never think only about Africa [or continental], or your [national] background.” (Svašek 1997:16)

Though Amon Kotei had a focused mentality which informed his philosophy, these and other things and issues thus political, social and religious issues may have influenced him, positively and negatively.

Amon Kotei was trained by his grandfather, a Presbyterian catechist and teacher. His elementary schooling was in a Presbyterian Boys’ Boarding school which was known to be a very strict and meticulous institution in his time. Through his training under a disciplined and meticulous mentor as well as an orthodox denomination under the Christian faith-Presbyterian Church, his life, emotions, response and even choices may have been shaped and affected.

Due to this, he was described as “very discipline and passionate about the rule of law and public service” by Afutu Kotei, his fifth son. Afutu continued to say that his father [Amon Kotei] has an opinion about what should be done and done right. He said, “He [Amon Kotei] has a strong political view and sees things in a bigger light.” By this he meant, Amon Kotei analyses issues honestly and not by partisan or political inclination. He rightly judges every issue and only promotes that which is true, right and beneficial to the society.

Citing an example to what he actually meant he said that “imagine the government buys an x-ray machine for a community hospital and someone manages to steal that machine which could be used to save lives”, he said that Amon Kotei would analyse the problem and would consider the effect of theft and not the person who stole the thing. According to Afutu, Amon Kotei would not believe someone could think of stealing something that would save many lives and even his-the thief. (Source: Afutu Kotei, 7th November, 2009).

Amon Kotei was very particular about the working attitude of Ghanaians. From a compilation of sayings by Amon Kotei, he states, “colonials worked six days in a week and rested on the seventh day like God. After independence, when we should have won our economic independence, we [Ghanaians] reduced working days to five.” Amon Kotei, further says “Ghanaians, now, works on only three days out of seven [Mondays – Wednesdays] then Thursday is Mortuary day, and Friday is Wake keeping and preparation. Saturday is for burial.” He also said “God is Almighty. He knew everything he created was good… He made provision for a fertile land and ordered Adam to ‘work the land’.”(Some Compilation of Amon Kotei’s sayings)

Kotei’s Philosophy

There may be no written text that clearly states Amon Kotei’s philosophy. However a few things appear very dear to him as far as art is concerned. One is that the African is capable of achieving true naturalism in art. Therefore realism or naturalism is as much European as African. Indeed continental claim to such artistic styles has no basis.  Therefore, when an African produces a realistic work, that work is an African work and not a European one. This mentality which formed the bases of his practice was proved as true as he produced realistic figures mainly. To him everyone is first a human being created by God and in the art world everyone is an artist irrespective of his or her continent or nation.

Amon Kotei also strongly believes in human values and especially the value of a woman in a family. No wonder most of his portraits have women as subjects (See Attached images)

Throughout his practice of art, he produced realistic and representation works.  He believes at all times an artist has to have a sketch pad around him or her to record variety of information which interests him or her. (Source:  Interview, Afutu Kotei, 7th November, 2009)

AMON KOTEI’S ART

In the field of art, there have been thousands of painters who have lived but only a few have gained recognition. Some of those who did not gain recognition were not outstanding or probably joined in the existing chorus. They did not discover who they really were in order to master their potential or probably they were not grounded in what they could do best. Of course others were simply not discovered.

It is believed that a man cannot possibly be outstanding if all he does is to join the existing chorus. He or she must step out and create his or her own kind of recognised noise.

This difference or peculiarity alone does not simply make one outstanding as far as humanity is concern. Otherwise anyone could just go contrary to existing norms and be outstanding. It is rather the character of a person, and the way and manner he or she approaches and does things which add and contribute to the progress and benefit of the world which essentially determines ones outstanding nature.

Outstanding personalities are sometimes believed to be illogical, non-conformists, strange, bizarre, strong willed and unconventional. They create their own kinds of paths and in their efforts, leave trails for others to follow.

Outstanding attitudes often connote being true to oneself, sincerity and immense understanding of oneself and of human experience and reality.

Amon Kotei, based on these statements, is an outstanding personality who did not just follow an existing chorus but stood for what he believed in.

Svašek in an article from a journal: Ghana Newsletter in 1989, entitled ‘Coping Urge or own identity?’  argued that “[modern or contemporary African] artists are accused of copying Western art”. According to her “this accusation is mostly uttered by people who know little of Africa and have stereotyped images of what ‘real African art’ should look like”. She continued to state that “the myth of the African living isolated in the jungle, unaffected by external influence still exists”.

In the same article entitled ‘Modern art in Ghana: Copying urge or own identity?’ Maruska Svašek, then student of cultural anthropology said “A sincere artist is very sensitive and cannot ignore the influence of his environment. Parts of this influence, too, are artistic developments at international level. An artist should be open to all these influences and learn from them as much as possible. There is no need for a forced searching after an African Identity. For one cannot ignore one’s own identity”.

In this same article, Professor Emeritus A. M. Opoku is quoted as saying that “Kotei has remained unspoiled by his mastery of several techniques of European art expressions because he has remained steeped in life, experience and fascination of the Ghanaian scene. …these are the roots; the interest in traditional fitness is his inspiration and driving force behind his creative imagery.”

Professor Emeritus A. M. Opoku happens to be Amon Kotei’s teacher in Achimota College. He had observed Amon Kotei’s performance as a student and therefore knew where he was coming from. His statement infers Kotei’s strong will to do what he believes in. Nothing could stop him, not even dismissal from Achimota College. In a way this strength of character reflects in Amon Kotei’s works.

Kotei’s Style

Almost all paintings of Amon Kotei are in the oil medium. He works on boards and canvas. He uses the palette knife to paint.

His painting style is very unique to him. Due to the nature of how he applies his medium on his support, in appearance, his style is usually described as “waterfalls”. The medium is applied vertically to the support.

Amon Kotei high-lightens and focuses on essential portions in his subjects where some features of the figures are more emphasised. In most cases, these emphasised portions are the parts which appear three dimensional and happen to have form.

His Composition and Subject Matter

It is obvious that Amon Kotei’s subject matter is the female and her inner character. He has explored this theme in various ways. Another interesting feature of this is the way he organises the subjects and how he portrays them. He creates both symmetrical and asymmetrical balance with his compositions.

His subjects are portrayed in two distinctive compositional ways. These ways, to me, may show how the artist wants his viewers to observe his subjects. One of the ways in which he portrays his subjects is the ‘group composition’ where, in most cases, the identity of the models are unknown and the other is ‘a portraiture’ or a ‘sole composition’ of the model where his subject is dominant in the composition and the model or subject can be identified. In the former, he concentrates on a general subject or theme. Examples are “Story Telling Time” , “Dode Akaibi”, “How Sane are You” , “Resting”, “Group of Girls”, and “Work and Happiness”.

Colour

Amon Kotei has a collection of rocks of different forms and types from which he gets and gathers his choice of colours as well as the way he applies them. It is believed that they give him some sort of inspiration.

To Amon Kotei, God has created colours and they appear everywhere; at every corner, on different continents, in rivers, in the oceans, in the sky, in the crust of the earth, in contrasting objects and in people: black, white and yellow men and women. (Artists Alliance Gallery, 2009: 30)

In Amon Kotei’s paintings, colours do not usually ‘blend’ together. They form several kinds of coloured irregular shapes. By this, it is very easy to describe him as a colourist, because he uses several colours in a composition. He also makes use of contrasting colours to help him create form and some sort of variety in his paintings. In most cases he also introduces the use of the tip of the palette knife (the blade) to create lines which helps to separate some features of the figures from others. Examples are “Group of Girls, 1996  and Self Portrait, 1999”

From the late 20th Century, Amon Kotei’s works were bright and blatant. Between these periods, probably from the 1990’s, his colour scheme started to be subtle and more ambiguous. “Resting”1991, “Shadows” 1993, “Reclining Woman” 1997 and “Seated Woman” 1998  are some typical examples.

Finally getting to the 21st Century, his works lost the warm bright colours and gave way to cool and subtle colour scheme. Can this issue of change in colour scheme from the bright to subtle colours, be an effect of his age or that he is conscious of it and it is for a reason like Pablo Picasso’s change in colour schemes and styles which were used to categorise his works into periods “Self Portrait” 2002, “Deep in Thoughts (I)” 2003, “Reclining Figure” 2003, “Waiting”2004, “Deep in Thoughts (II)2005, and “Thinking Back”2005 are some examples.

I once discussed the works of Amon Kotei with my high School art teacher, and to him, Amon Kotei’s colour has changed from warm colour scheme to cool colour scheme. He added that Amon Kotei now (around the 2000’s) tints almost all his colours and it tends to give the composition a chalky visualisation. My high school teacher strongly believes that this change is an effect of his old age and that he may be slowly losing his sight.

 

Objectivity versus Subjectivity

From the image plates, almost all of the subjects depicted in Amon Kotei’s works, are human figures and anatomical studies. These figures are objective studies in terms of anatomy. On the other hand, the treatments of the objective studies or figures have been subjectively expressed in terms of colour. This is where he uses several colours, mostly cool and warm to depict the form of his figures. Amon Kotei has some few works which are objective studies in anatomy and colour. An example is “Portrait of a Woman” ; though not dated, from the nature and condition of the actual work I believe it must be a very old work probably before the 1990’s.

The subjective nature of the background and the objective figures appears to be amalgamated. Therefore as one observes the work he or she would see an objective and subjective treatment of the subject at a glance thus the figures are realistic representations of his models that have been rendered in an expressive body colour defined by the artist. The subjective figure and ground execution runs through almost all the paintings and it gives the works a kind of unique identity.

In some cases, these subjective renditions hide the identity of the figure or model. On the other hand, though the renditions of the models are subjectively expressed, a close relation can easily identify the model. This is simply because he used most of his family relatives as his models.

According to the picture plates, from the 1970’s to 2005’s, the theme of the figure and ground as well as the objective and subjective representation runs through almost every work. Though I could not find any of his 1940’s works whiles in Achimota College to compare with what he was doing at the moment and how far he has come, when the “Portrait of a Woman” is compared with the rest of the works, there is a sort of difference or change as far as the theme of objectivity and subjectivity is concerned. In the “Portrait of a Woman”, the artist attempted to be objective in the study, both in anatomy and the colour.

 

Signing the Work

Amon Kotei uses the name “Kotei” as his brush name. He signs his name at the bottom part of his painting. He signs the works which, he thinks are finished. He however may go back to those works and add additional strokes to them to enhance them.

Amon Kotei has a unique and peculiar way of signing his works. He uses the sgraffito technique. This is a technique used in either ceramics or sculpture where a layer of clay is applied; when the first layer is dried another layer of a different colour is applied then a sharp edge is used to scrape the second layer so that the preceding layer would appear from the latter.

Some of his earlier works do not have this kind of signature. They are written with a brush. Examples are “Story Telling Time” 1972  and “Dode Akaibi” 1982.

Detailed of “Self Portrait” 2002

Section of the sgraffito technique used in signing his name

Design Portfolio: The Ghanaian National Coat of Arms and Others

In 1956 as independence approached, the nationalist government found Amon Kotei competent to design one of the most important emblems of the Gold Coast, now Ghana, when it commenced the creation of various new national identities for independent Ghana.

Unlike the other state’s symbols and elements like the Ghanaian flag needed for independence, the national coat of arms was not a competition; it was commissioned (Source: Ghana @ 50, Video interview, Metro TV, 2007)  .

When Amon Kotei was assigned the challenge to design the Coat of Arms (Figure 3) at the Government Printing Press where he worked as a graphic designer, he researched all the symbols that were suggested to him by the government to his satisfaction before he assigned them to the various columns of the shield.

Before the design was accepted, it was to go through some sort of judgement from both the local cabinet in Ghana and the colonial masters. The design was sent to the Queen’s College of Heraldry in United Kingdom for his work to be approved. When it was returned, some minor changes had been made to it. “In my design, the star was suspending but the College of Heraldry pushed it down to rest on the shield. In addition they placed a miniature scroll around the legs of the eagles with the colours red, gold and green…” Kotei said.

He noted that the end of the scroll bearing the motto “Freedom and Justice” was already flying but it was folded. “They (the British) also added the British lion to the design”, he said. Mr. Kotei acknowledged that the changes made the design look better.

“After the final touches, the design was brought back to the Gold Coast with the following comment: “The College had the opportunity to view numerous crests but the one from Ghana came almost perfect”. Mr. Kotei said when the Coat-of Arms was sent to Gold Coast Cabinet it was brought back to him to remove the lion from it. (Source: THE GHANAIAN TIMES, Tuesday, March 6, 2007; Page: 41)

According to Amon Kotei, in an interview, the Prime Minister, Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah asked him to remove the ‘British Lion’ that was place solidly in the centre of the proposed crest. To him, Amon Kotei, Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah might have been angered and probably considered the representation of the ‘British Lion’ as a form of neo-colonialism. Later, another urgent instruction was communicated to him. This time, he was to put the ‘British Lion’ back. Perhaps, the British would not easily grant independence without the representation of the Lion which might signify the continuous supremacy of the former colonial master over the former Gold Coast Colony. (Source: Artists Alliance Gallery, 2009: 29)

Amon Kotei is worried about how some state institutions and organisations have been changing the real look of the coat of arms. Referring to the emblem used by the Ghana Immigration Service, he said “this is not the Ghana Coat of Arms.” In addition he said “I am really shocked. If anybody will ever say that this sort of thing is the coat of arms… if I have the time I would challenge that this is not my Coat of Arms. If this piece is allowed to remain in the country as the Coat of Arms, I say no and as long as I live, I will keep saying no.” Furthermore he said that if institutions would want to use some features of the Coat of Arms, they should not add the inscription “Freedom and Justice” which seals the coat of arms to make it look like the real coat of arm. (Source: Ghana @ 50, Video interview, Metro TV, 2007)

The emblem is used to identify state owned properties and on state documents such as letterheads. The Coat of Arms is also used officially in all government organisations, departments and even non-governmental organisations representing the county overseas. The emblem is therefore the seal of Ghana.

The symbols used in the Coat of Arms

Amon Kotei when giving the opportunity and the challenge to design an emblem which was to stand for Ghana, he might have been given so many possible symbols to use. The cabinet in charge of the design might have tried to influence the artist by their own individualistic interests; politically, religious state, cultural and even tribal state.

It is well noted that before Amon Kotei used any of the proposed symbols presented to him, he researched into its meaning before applying them. Therefore though he might have been influenced in a way to use a particular symbol, he considered it critically and made sure it was relevant and beneficial to the state and not to an individual.

Finally Amon Kotei settled for, and used eight elements including a text which is said to be the motto of Ghana. Within the emblem, the Star and the Eagle were repeated. These symbols include:

  1. An Eagle: which is repeated the reverted and are wearing a black star medal suspended by a ribbon with the Ghanaian national colours (Red, yellow and green). These Eagles are both supporting a shield with their hands. Their other hand is holding a banner on which is inscribed the motto of the country. These Eagles have their wings opened in a flying position. They are both steering at each other.

The choice of the Eagle was not a random choice but personally considered by the artist. The artist considered the representation of the Eagles as protectors of the shield rather than the British Lion in the middle of the shield. To the artist the Eagle is the significant icon and it is profound.

He choose the Eagle over all the other possible symbols or animals because to him, Kotei, Ghana was not an elephant as depicted on her crest when she was a colonial Gold Coast, but rather an eagle that must truly soar.

Amon Kotei was inspired by Dr. Akwegyir Aggrey’s inspirational words, which he had heard whiles a student at the Achimota School “to soar like eagle”. Kotei felt that Aggrey’s admonition was equally relevant and applicable to young Ghana at independence.

  1. Black Stars: there are three five-pointed Black Stars in the emblem. The Biggest of them is located on top of the shield and it rests on a red, gold and green coloured wreath. This represents the lone star of African Freedom.

 

  1. Banner on which is inscribed the motto: At the base of the shield is a banner which contains the caption of the Motto of Ghana. The caption reads: FREEDOM AND JUSTICE.

 

  1. The Shield: the shield is divided into four quarters by a green St. George’s cross, rimmed with gold. Within each quarter there the symbols are placed on a blue coloured background. The following are the symbols in the quarters:

 

  1. Crossed Linguist Staff and Ceremonial sword: it is positioned at the top left-hand quarter and represents the local administration.
  2. A heraldic castle on a heraldic sea: it is positioned at the top right-hand quarter and it represents the National Government.
  3. A Cocoa tree: It is positioned at the bottom left-hand quarter within the shield. It represents the Agricultural wealth of the country.
  1. A mine shaft: Positioned at the bottom right-hand quarter. It represents the mineral wealth of the country.
  1. A Gold Lion or the British Lion: it is positioned in the centreof the green St. George’s cross. It represents the continued link between Ghana and the Commonwealth.

(Source: Ghana High Commission (2010), www.ghana-com.co.uk

Amon Kotei also designed some school crests including Nungua Secondary School (Figure 6) and Labone Secondary School (figure 5) all in the Greater Accra region.

He also illustrated many government publications like Ghana Telephone Directory during the ‘P’ and ‘T’ era.

Amon Kotei was also the one who designed the ‘The order of the Volta’ for the National Presidential awards.

He has to his credit the illustrations of colourful postage stamps, book jackets and books.

In March, 1997 he received the Grand Medal (G.M.) civil division award during Ghana’s Independence anniversary celebration by President Jerry John Rawlings for his remarkable design of the Coat of Arms.

Selected Exhibitions by Amon Kotei

  • Arts and Crafts of Ghana, Commonwealth Institute Art Gallery, London, UK, August 1970 (Group exhibition)
  • Drawings and Paintings by Amon Kotei, Accra, Ghana, May 1990. (Solo exhibition)
  • Contemporary Painting from Ghana, Maison Descartes, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, March 1998. (Group exhibition)
  • Zeitgenössische Kunst aus Ghana, GalerieXenios, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, July-August 1999. (Group exhibition)
  • Pioneers of Ghanaian Contemporary art, Artist’s Alliance, Omanye Gallery, La – Accra, Ghana, 2nd May 2009. (Group exhibition)

Awards

  • The State Honour of GRAND MEDAL (G.M.), Civil Division, 5th March, 1997: Awarded for the remarkable design of the Coat of Arms by President Jerry John Rawlings during Ghana’s independence anniversary celebration.
  • The National Theatre of Ghana Living Legends Award, 8th September, 2003. (Figure 2)

 

THE LEGACY OF AMON KOTEI

Although Amon Kotei does not have any regular school or class for young artists, he does everything within his power to help younger artists. Amon Kotei sees young talented artists as a charcoal fire that could easily generate light and heat if only somebody can fan it. He always feels obliged to do just that.

It is very difficult to count the number of young artists who have been inspired by Amon Kotei; physically and spiritually, directly and indirectly.

Personal Memories with Amon Kotei (2004 -2006)

I happened to be one of the many young students Amon Kotei has directly inspired. Not only in the visual art but also in the performing art – music to be specific. He showed much concern about me having a personal piano tutor and made his piano and guitar available for practice. He made me write the solfa notations and staff notations of the songs he composed. Although I spent short times with him, I always got inspired on every visit. I saw about a hundred sketch pads filled with drawings dating back as far as 1972. He said that the sketch pad is the artist’s diary and encouraged me to keep records of data in drawings and in texts because I would need them someday.

Though I did not understand what Amon Kotei was teaching me, I listened anyway. I remember in those days, around 2005, when I used to visit him very often, he made mention of some old artists and his schooling days in Achimota and I quite remember him mentioning the name ‘Meyerowitz’. I did not know that ‘grandpa’ was training and building me up and investing into me some key personal data about himself. I did not take any note of those data seriously because I did not understand a thing. He encouraged me to be strong in the profession that I choose and that many may despise me, even relatives. Using himself as an example he said though people did not expect him to get to where he is now, by God’s grace and determination, he is there.

Other Artists who have been inspired by Amon Kotei

“Amon Kotei is my mentor” says Benjamin Offei Nyako (BON), a senior lecturer in the department of painting, KNUST during one of his class sections with the Final year painting students (2009/2010).

Sowatey Adjei, a commercial artist and a member of the artist’s alliance, Ghana, also said “He [Amon Kotei] inspired me to work and through him I [Sowatey Adjei] saw the need to do art for commercial purpose” Sowatey Adjei continued to say “he [Amon Kotei] made me to see art as a profession and a source of income.”

According to Sowatey Adjei though he does not spend much time on his visit, with the very few hours spent, he really gained a lot.

Sowatey Adjei is a self-trained artist and did not have the opportunity to further his art course but said Amon Kotei taught him so many things that would have been taught in the university. Therefore though he did not go to the university to further his art lessons, he said “through Amon Kotei I learnt everything I needed.” To him Amon Kotei did not actually teach him how to draw but really inspired him.

He recalled how Amon Kotei used to visit him in his house impromptu to check what he has been doing. “He [Amon Kotei] encouraged me [Sowatey Adjei] and helped me to build a library.”

Sowatey Adjei stayed in the same neighbourhood with Amon Kotei and was in the same school with Amon Kotei’s children so he used to visit them often. “It was there that I saw him painting in his garden, realistic figures of women” Sowatey Adjei said.

According to Sowatey, Amon Kotei’s style of work did not influence him but inspired him. He also said Amon Kotei used to give him tubes of oil paints to practice with and gave him art books to read. (Source: Sowatey Adjei, 7th November, 2009)

The Late Janet Adoley Nmai, was one the few female artists who Amon Kotei took in as young students. She started her regular full-time training class with Amon Kotei in April, 1989. Amon Kotei described her as one who is potentially endowed with artistic ability.

Her training had a practical approach to training that is, carrying a sketch book at any time to make sketches of what she sees. She is then led by her master in the studio to turn some of the sketches into compositions and paintings. Amon Kotei featured Janet Nmai in one of his exhibition in May 24th, 1990 which he entitled “Drawings and Paintings.”

Another artist who was featured in the exhibition “Drawings and Paintings” in May 24th, 1990, was Victor Odoi who came into contact with Amon Kotei and Sowatey Adjei after graduating from Ghanatta College. He is alive and lives in Accra.

The people who Amon Kotei have inspired and influenced cannot be fully discussed in the project. His own son, in the person of Afutu Kotei, is also a practicing artist who lives and practices his art in the United States. Most of Amon Kotei’s children and grandchildren are in a way artistically gifted; both in the visual art and in the performing arts.

SUMMARY, CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS

  • Summary of Findings

From my research I realised that the personality – Amon Kotei, had been featured in some art publications and most publications had to do with the independence ceremony of Ghana. Such publications do not discuss the personality in detail. The publications either mentions his name or his achievement which they limit to that of the coat of arms he designed. The publications do not address some critical issues such as his influences and his philosophies and some issues of his past and its influences. The articles and publications mostly in the national newspapers on the personality therefore appear inadequate for serious inquiry into his life and contribution.

From the filled questionnaire that I received from the family, the achievements of Amon Kotei as far as art is concerned was only limited to the fact that he had the honour to design the Ghanaian coat of arms. From my research I observed that his other achievements and philosophies might not have been relevant to the family; being recognised as the designer of the coat of arms and other crests, I think, may be perceived as enough.

On the issue of proper records and documentation, it is rather unfortunate that there is no proper record or documentation at the national galleries and libraries on some prominent artists in the country.

In the case of Amon Kotei, the sad part is that the family does not know the location of the works which were sold and to whom they were sold and Amon Kotei is at the moment not in a position to help.

Information from Amon Kotei’s immediate family was inadequate. Was it that Amon Kotei had none or he did not discuss it with his immediate family? Afutu Kotei, during the interview section, made mention of Amon Kotei consistently talking to the children and everyone around him on what he is doing and the reason behind what he is doing and I believe Amon Kotei might have communicated this in very basic terms for everyone to understand. If this is true, then where are all the pieces of information and to whom did he commit those information?

 

Conclusion

As far as this research is concern, this work is a frame work for an interesting venture in the documentation of prominent personalities in the society. Though it did not capture all aspects of Amon Kotei’s life and art, it may be an opener to the exploration of other interesting aspects of the personality and indeed other personalities yet to be studied. It is my wish and appeal to everyone who is touched by some of the information and facts from this research to help document other personalities in various fields of endeavour so that the efforts and contributions of people who ever they are, are documented.

Recommendations

I believe there are so many interesting personalities in our society who are to be documented. This is an urgent call to help save valuable information and moments.

From my research, I realised that there are several interesting avenues about the personality I discussed about and he was also connected to other interesting personalities who also need to be documented to avoid the stress and tension I went through in gathering information about a renowned personality.

As we take the pain and burden to document on personalities whiles they are alive, it would save us and the generations to come a whole lot of stress and frustrations.

On the personality discussed, since there are more information to gather and analyse, I wish students and researchers would take up this project and continue from where it ended to make it a more comprehensive data for international and local use.

Other possible and interesting research subjects may include the following:

  • Personalities: Sowatey Adjei, Afutu Kotei, Benjamin Offei Nyako, and Victor Odoi.
  • The Coat of Arms: Its Representation, Use, Misinterpretations and Abuse.
  • The Effect of Age on an Artist.

REFERENCES

  1. Appiah, O. (2007). The concept of Africanism in the works of Professor E.V. Asihene, Amon Kotei, Theodosia Okoh and Kofi Antubam. Kumasi: Unpublished Thesis, BFA. Honorary Thesis, KNUST,Ghana.
  2. Artists Alliance, (2009). Pioneers of Contemporary Ghanaian art, Exhibition catalogue. Accra: Artists Alliance gallery.
  3. Ghana High Commission, ghana-com.co.uk (2010)
  4. Kotei, Afutu. One-On-One interview at residence. La-Accra: 7th January, 2009.
  5. Metro TV (2007), Ghana @ 50. Accra: Video interview.
  6. Sowatey Adjei. One-On-One interview at residence. La – Accra: 7th November, 2009,.
  7. Svašek, M. (1997). ‘Identity and style in Ghanaian Artistic Discourse’ – reprinted with permission from Jeremy Mac Clancy (ed.) Contesting Art, Politics, and Identity in the Modern World, Berg Publishers. Oxford
  8. Svašek, M. (1989). Interview with Amon Kotei, “Interview 1, Met Amon Kotei”. Accra: 3rd August, 1989.
  9. Svašek, M. (1989a), ‘Coping Urge or own identity?’ Nijmegen: Ghana Newsletter
  10. news.thinkghana.com/news (2009)

AMON KOTEI GALLERY

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