Annie-Marie Akussah is a graduating BA Painting student from Accra, Ghana in West Africa, she moved to East London when she was 14. This year Annie-Marie was shortlisted for the Ashurst Emerging Artist Prize, receiving a ‘Highly Commended’. Here she tells us about the prize, her practice and her Summer Show piece.
Please tell us a bit about your background and how you came to study at Wimbledon?
I went to a private school in Accra where I did regular subjects, Maths, Science and Art. I always drew, I always painted but I didn’t think of art as a career, I always thought of it as a hobby, it that was the only class I really enjoyed. Throughout my time at school, I was always a sporty person, I was an athlete my whole life. When I came to England I was pursuing basketball, playing nationally.
At the end of college my tutor was like, “Annie you should really go and do an art foundation”, but in my mind I was thinking I need to get a sholarship to go to school and play basketball in the States. I listened to my tutor because she was an adult and I thought she must know what she is talking about. So I applied to a foundation course and I had an interview and the guy was like, “you are in”. So I thought, Ok! one option down, let me try and get to school with basketball. I got a place and they asked me to come the States, but I felt a really strong connection for the foundation course and the school – Working Men’s College in Camden so I decided to try this art thing.
At this point I still didn’t know I could be an artist, I enjoy basketball, but I really love painting. After my foundation my tutor said, “Annie you should really go to Wimbledon, its for you”. I didn’t even know about UAL, which is down to me always looking at painting as a hobby and not a career, so I never really researched into art schools. My first time seeing Wimbledon was when I went to my interview, after I was taken around the campus the smell of the studios, the smell of turp and white spirit felt like people had really been in that space and were really active making work. The studios were really what drew me in, nothing else. The studios in Wimbledon stood out to me compared to the other universities. I am glad I followed the advise of my tutors because pursuing my passion for art and painting and coming to Wimbledon has been the best decision I have ever made.
Please tell us about your current practice:
My current practice is, (which I sometimes think of it as two separate things, but then I look at them and think about it, its just one practice) is geared towards inter-African migration and a project around albinism. I started to look at inter-African migration in my second year when I started to become aware of the migrant crisis in Europe and I started questioning the routes. Obviously they didn’t just appear, they came from somewhere, so I was really looking at the starting point, where it all began.
For me I was looking at West Africa, as that’s the only place I can speak for because that’s where I’ve lived. Africans moving within Africa then crossing, then walking on land before they cross the sea, what happens before, what happens at the checkpoint, what happens with their passports, with their documents. Instead of what’s happening now, I try and look back, looking at what happened before independence, during independence and after, really thinking about movements that Africans made before these big historical times in West Africa and Ghana. I went to archives, I went to one in Ghana and I go through peoples Passports and documents to see the kinds of movements people made. For example in 1950 what were the popular places that maybe Ghanaian people liked to travel to? Through that research I could see there was a lot of movement within Africa. Usually when we talk about movement in general we almost always normally talk about African to European movement, but there is a lot of movement within the continent. I think that idea of African to European movement stems from people addressing Africa as a country as opposed to a continent. Each country has its own boarders and they are treated differently. Although we are friendly with each other and we don’t build big walls, there are still conflicts. There have been deportations, the same things that happen in Europe could happen within Africa. Those are the sorts of conversations I am trying to get out within my painting. So I mostly work from archives, passports, identification cards.
The archive in Ghana is open to anyone, and is free to use if you are Ghanaian. I knew about the archives after talking to my father about colonisation and independence, because he was born just when Ghana got independence. My father mentioned to me that one of our uncles helps with the archives so I spoke with him, he then said you don’t need me the archive is free for anyone to use. I was so surprised at the things I saw, the major movements there were a lot of Ghanaians going to Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast. So much movement and so many interesting documents. I was reading how the Ghanaians would write letters to their colonial masters and the way they would sign letters was very strange, certain phrases like, “your humble obedient servant”.
I like that these things are in a public space for everyone to use, but for me I wouldn’t like my passport to be in a public office. The passports are from people who have died, so I am making work from peoples passports and documents, taking phrases and colours. It is very strange, but I appreciate it because if it wasn’t there, I wouldn’t be able to make work and for me that’s the most important thing, getting these documents out. That’s what art does, art brings things that are hidden into a space. That’s one of the reasons why my practice is really important and that my practice exists outside of gallery spaces. I don’t make commercial art, my art may have commercial value, I don’t know, but my art isn’t what someone would want to have in their office. It’s something that should be out in schools and in spaces for people to learn about what’s going on. I didn’t learn until I walked into the archive and it’s like, why are all these amazing documents being hidden? I get to learn about my own culture in the process, as I knew very little about my history, so at the age of 21 I’m now picking up books by the first president and really learning about my country. I think that’s what’s driving me at the moment because I’m actually learning, I’m not just making work to tell you what’s going on, I’m making work to learn myself.
Please tell us about your final pieces for the summer show:
There is a number of works from the series of inter-African migration and hopefully albinism series. One of the works has a jute sack to reference commerce within Africa. Africans know that they trade within Africa, but what a lot of them don’t know is that they have refugee camps hosting other Africans in their own country. So for me it was to highlight, oh look we can talk about trade and we can talk about agriculture, but do you actually know you have refugees in your country? I had no idea we had refugee camps. Usually when I go to Ghana, I sit in the taxi and I talk to people and it is so clear that the majority of people have no idea about human movement within their own country.
One of my pieces, there is acetone transfers on linen. My work takes different forms, most of the time it’s paints, but it has some sort of ink movement from one place to another – like the passports and also my personal relationship – as in me moving to another country and me losing some sort of identity or culture, because I’m not the same person as I was in Ghana. In Britain I am very much Ghanaian and in Ghana I am very much British, I am always straddling between these two identities and so I use transfers a lot to represent that sort of loss. When I transfer something on to another piece the ink is no longer there, some of the information is lost, playing around with those kind of ideas. There will be transfers, linen, sculpture.
How have your tutors or technicians added/assisted or influenced you in your final show?
I wouldn’t be able to do anything without my tutors or my technicians and that’s not to put myself down or say I can’t do it, its just every time I go to the studio or I go to the workshop something really exciting happens, that idea of learning every time and talking. We all make different types of work, there is nobody in the studio that I make work like or that makes work like me so we are able to bounce fresh new ideas each and every time. The technicians are so supportive and the tutors are amazing. Nelson is my tutor, but every tutor I have gives me so much advice.
Do you have any advice for future students?
Don’t stop working, everybody has a purpose and the way of achieving that purpose is different. You might think you make a painting and galleries come to you and that’s the way of being successful, but that’s not the way of being successful! Art doesn’t have to just exist in galleries, it can exist anywhere. If there is not a space for you then create it, if there is not a community, create it. Don’t just sit down and wait for opportunities to come, take every opportunity, because there are millions of artists out there, don’t stop creating lots of opportunities for yourself.
Is there a favourite project or piece of work that you completed while at Wimbledon?
It has to be my third year because third year is when I’ve gathered everything I’ve learnt from my first and second years, in terms of my professional development, as in going out and finding opportunities for myself and then pushing my work. I get excited with every piece and I try not to finish so the conversation is still being had in my head. I don’t think a painting is really finished, if it is finished then that means the conversation has ended and that’s quite sad.
What are you plans after you leave Wimbledon?
I definitely don’t want to stop learning about my history, about painting, about the medium itself ,and all the other things that are around painting. My plan is to get a studio. I will be working in the student union as an activities officer, and my plan is to find a studio and carry on working. Throughout my time at UAL, I have run societies, I ran an African Caribbean society in my second year and I was a black students officer for UAL, also in my second year. It was really great to get to know more people across the university. Also to stay in contact with my tutors, they think this is the last tutorial, but that’s not the case! I’m going to be bombarding them with emails and pictures.
Do you have an artist influence?
I have many artist influence from music, painting, film. To name a few, Fela Kuti who is a Nigerian musician, Ibrahim Mahama who is a Ghanian artist, Christian Boltanski, Robert Rauschenberg.
And finally, you were shortlisted for the Ashurst Emerging Artist Prize 2018 – please tell us about this:
Someone in the studio told me about it and so I applied for it. Ashurst is a law firm and the Emerging Artist Prize is organised by a guy called Conrad, you submit your work for it online. I think this year they had over 4,000 works submitted and they shortlisted 25 to show in the law firm, the work in the show will be there until the end of June. The work I submitted is ‘Kwantunyi’ (see image above), it has a chequered bag, it is usually a bag you would see homeless people use. It relates to the 1950s when Ghanaians were kicked out of Nigeria and then Nigeria did the same thing in the late 80s, so it is just going back again to inter-African migration. It’s packing the point that in Africa we do deport people, we also have disputes among each other, that’s not to say our boarders are not safe, it’s just to say that Africa is a continent, not a country and so we have certain things like this happen. It makes reference to 1960 and 1989 Alien Compliance order. There’s also a jute sack in that painting and there’s a man on the right side, I got his travel documents from the archives so in that piece I am talking about trade, commerce and human movement within three countries: Nigeria, Ghana and the Ivory Coast. There is also another Wimbledon artist shortlisted for the Ashurst Emerging Artist Prize, her name is Ming Ying.
Follow Annie-Marie’s work on her Instagram