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General News of Thursday, 21 March 2019


Carving a living out of wood amid apathy and superstition

Some of the totems were handed down to Godknows by his Grandfather

Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, Godknows Setordzi has been fashioning art out of wood for more than half his life.

As I walked around his small shop a few hundred meters from the Accra Mall, eyeing the intricately fashioned masks and the pristine sculptures of wildlife, his passion for this artform was evident.

But it is clear the best years of his business are far behind him.

Now 38, Godknows feels like the apathy of contemporary Ghana is squeezing the life out of the art form that fed him and his family for the better part of two decades. There may have been a generation that actively supported artists like Godknows but it is certainly not the one I belong to.

I have mostly been a voyeur of indigenous art. Some of the more African forms of artistic expression operate in the periphery of my world; flashing by on trips through town or in the corner of a random office or in the backdrop of classic African films.

I only really stopped to ponder about this art following a chapter in a book by Malian writer Manthia Diawara. In his book ‘Searching for Africa’ he speaks of his meeting with a childhood friend who had become a traditional masks carver and how they discuss the spiritual, artistic and sociopolitical layers that envelope the art of carving wooden sculptures.

Diawara’s friend, Sidime Laye, on the surface, embodied the functional existence of the contemporary mask carver. It’s no longer about the social and spiritual function that accompanied the increasingly incongruous and idiosyncratic art from in times past. It is now simply a means to pay the bills. Aware of the spiritual layers, Laye still says: “for me, it’s just work. Find buyers and I’ll make you more of them.”

Godknows does not live far from this sentiment. He admits that there may be some ethereal backing of his craft when he says: “it’s like this was something from God, I just picked it up. Nobody taught me.”

“I started in my hometown small small. I just put [my first carving] the house and people saw that this was my grandfather’s work I was doing. Then later I saw that this may have been the work from God for me.”

The older he’s gotten and further away he’s been from his birthplace of Agbozume in the Volta Region, the more his craft has come to revolve around supply and demand as he caters for his two kids in boarding school.

From the time he made his first carving at age 18 and sold his first piece at age 22, business used to be great for Godknows. “Business was moving; carving people’s pots and white people will come with containers for export,” he recalls fondly.

But in a country where citizens wield little disposable income, people like Godknows suffer. When we met, the last piece he had sold was in January 2019. “It’s not like before when I was always busy,” he laments. “It is only unless somebody orders something before I go buy the wood and [carve] it.”

The digital age has only emphasised our lack of interest in such art. For instance, online portal AhoomStore curates art from artisans and sells online. But its patronage gives little cause for optimism. “Ghanaians don’t really value those artefacts… they would rather prefer buying garments, food, cosmetics and all that,” the sourcing officer at Ahoom, Seth Aklaga said to me.

Unsurprisingly, in Godknows’ reality, demand for his work is mostly synonymous with tourists. Their influence even informed the art his Grandfather sold, and by extension him.

This sense is no different at the Art Centre in Accra. Carvers like Eric Adinkra revel in the months that “white people” stream through the gates looking for exotic art to cart across the pond. “If it’s June, July, August; plenty Americans come. That’s the time. Or December and January. Apart from that, they don’t come too much.”

At Adinkra’s side, the much younger Moses Tetteh was chiselling his way to elaborate designs on the mask he was working on. His eight years in this field have been relatively kind to him. He has fostered healthy links with clients home and abroad that make his artistry rewarding.

Whiles he has good business ties to some radio stations and tv stations in Accra, it’s the dollars that move the needle for him. “Always [people] buy my work. I have white people I work with too… every two or three months they come and buy. They order from me so when I am done with the job, I send to them,” he explained.

Fair or unfair, passports determine the price of the artefacts you desire. Where a basic carved mask may cost GHc20 for the average Ghanaian, the price jumps up by almost a thousand percent if your skin is white or your speech has the slightest trace of a foreign accent, Moses Tetteh explained.

“GHc 20 is for we the blacks but when you are a white person and you come around, I am not going to sell it to you for GHc 20. We have guys who sell it for GHc 300 or GHc 200.”

It is the same for Godknows, whose work is even pricier for the average Ghanaian because of the quality of the materials he uses. A lot of his pieces are carved from ebony wood, making for sturdy insect proof sculptures; unlike the piles of white wood at the more industrial minded Art Centre. Some of his masks are infused with a layer of patterned iron.

But the tough times mean he seldom sells his pieces for their true value. Pointing at some of the more captivating pieces his shop, the ones that merit antique status, he tells me in his Grandfather’s time, they would have cost as much as a car.

According to the Agbozume native, he collected and inherited items, some of them over a century old, from across the continent; Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, Congo and Benin. A third of the shop is dedicated to proper relics; the kind of items you feel the British and French were carting off the continent to keep in their museums.

Godknows believes sculptures age like wine and become more appealing to foreigners the older, dustier and more worn out they are. It helps that the harmattan dust has exaggerated their wear. “White people like [the older worn out looking ones] more than the [newer] shiny ones so my Grandfather went to different countries and brought them.”

It is the art from these countries that influence Godknows’ work with masks today. Whilst Ghana has rich carving tradition; from elaborate staffs and Akuaba dolls to mundane items like bowls and paddles, carving masks wasn’t our thing. This has given the likes of Godknows creative freedom to coalesce different styles into his pieces.

Articulating process doesn’t come easy for him, especially as he attributes his work to a gift from God. But he still holds reverence for the handiwork of other artists from other countries whose work has played a part in him developing his craft. Godknows also may not be as learned as a museum curator, but he has dedicated time to learning about the art he has collected so patrons leave his shop with much more than an antiquities.

One of the fascinating pieces in his shop is a Congolese totem portrayed as crying blood, with numerous nails wedged into it. But it has little to do with violence or intimidation. It is simply a good luck charm. One says a prayer for luck, on say travels, then rams the nail into the wooden sculpture and sticks their name on a piece of paper on it, Godknows explains.

In highlighting the superstitious roots of some of his pieces, he also scratches the surface of a major reason the average Ghanaian shies away from his art. It may be some form of shared paranoia but the carvers I spoke with agreed that when Ghanaians saw their work, they immediately thought of juju.

“For Ghana, here, people say this is juju but it’s not,” was the simple defence Godknows could muster.

Even for the artists that sell relatively tame art, this perception is still a problem. At the Art Centre, Moses Tetteh longs for the days Ghanaians will consume art solely on artistic levels like tourists. “When the black Americans come down, they don’t think about [the spiritual]. They want the art,” he said.

In an anecdote, he recalled he tried to gift one to a student on a tour to the art centre. “I told the girl there was nothing spiritual inside so if she wants I can give her one but she said she doesn’t like it; that if her mom saw it, her mom would sack her.”

With the struggles in recent times, Godknows has turned to Jesus Christ– and quite literally so.

He is now sacrificing his passion for African artefacts to carve figures that resonate with Christians. He has a full set depicting the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. The only works in progress in his shop seem to be figures of Jesus on the cross ready for the Bible-believing customers who have no interest in decorating their homes with traditional African art.

The Jesus Christ he designs have flowing manes, nodding to the blue-eyed saviour in portrayed in a lot of the bible story books some of us grew up with. “All the pastors like this one,” Godknows retorted with a smile, like he could sense my disappointment.

“For the Jesus Christ [carvings], every one can buy. The black people too buy it. That is why I am changing it this way.”

I asked him if he considered putting a more Afrocentric stamp on his Jesus Christ figures, but he said he wanted to play it safe. “It’s like in the books. I don’t want to change it, and someone will come and say it is not Jesus.”

In Godknows’ eyes, he was pushed by society to the point of having to sideline the art he is more passionate about. Money makes the world go round, it is said, and his small world of wood carving is not exempt.

Despite the compromise, Godknows’ heart remains in the right place. His desire, which doubles as a warning is simple: “I want Africans to come back and buy African things because it has meaning, and we may lose that meaning. The way things are going, all these things are getting lost.”