Exploring Exploitation: Interview with Godfried Donkor

Ebony Dakar edition ( its a numbers game ) mixed media collage on paper 70 cm 100 cm , 2014 © Godfried Donkor

Ebony Dakar edition ( its a numbers game )
mixed media collage on paper
70 cm 100 cm , 2014
© Godfried Donkor

As an artist who himself moved from his home country of Ghana to the United Kingdom, Godfried Donkor is fascinated by the shared history of Africa and Europe. Donkor examines slavery through his collages and drawings, juxtaposing cut out bodies with scraps of stock market figures to reveal an unnervingly contemporary form of exploitation. Pin-ups gaze over their shoulders at you as they rise out of slave ships. Boxers flex over cross sections of hulls that would have transported humans like cargo from Africa to Europe. Donkor shows that in an era that decries slavery, we still treat human life as a commodity.

Trained in Fine Art at Central St. Martin’s in London, followed by postgraduate studies in Barcelona and at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, in 1998 Donkor was awarded the Prix de la Revelation, at the Dakar Biennale. Since then his work has continued to receive acclaim and featured at the most recent installment of 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair in London.

I asked the artist more about his work and the methods he uses:

When was it you first started experimenting with collage?

I started experimenting with the medium of collage at art school and loved it instantly. For me, it quickly became another form of drawing. I found that I was able to layout my plans for artworks through traditional drawing and collages. Added to that I could make multiple images with slight variations quickly and with real effect.

You use a mixture of different images in your collages that function almost like symbols or like words in a language, that change meaning depending on their combination. Do you think collage is a particularly communicative and expressive medium?

I found that I was drawn to collage firstly as another variation to my drawings, I could play around with ideas and make multiple images quickly and to my surprise some people and curators actually saw the collages as artworks. Initially I was not even thinking of showing them, they were preparations for my paintings or work in other mediums ….. visual language is intriguing to me and with collage, symbols became a language , thus it was interesting to me the language that was developing from the images . Collage can be a very expressive medium , very instant and direct.

Collage allows for sharp contrasts to be made, is this something you draw on in your work?

Collage does allow for sharp contrasts, it also can lend itself to camouflage or be layered, I think I’m more drawn to using images that may seem to be contrasting in a harmonious way. Contrasts and similarities all appeal to me.

St Tom Molineaux  Oil and gold leaf on canvas  160 x 200 cm , 2010 © Godfried Donkor

St Tom Molineaux
Oil and gold leaf on canvas
160 x 200 cm , 2010
© Godfried Donkor

Images of boxers have frequently been used in your collages. What is it that the boxer represents to you?

I started using images of boxers in my work early on as a way of making work about certain notions or ideals that intrigued me. Perceptions of maleness and power for example…stereotypes about race or class …. and then there is the pure physicality of the boxer . The history of the sport in the west….. then the sport itself and the movement and stances used .

Finally , the arena of acceptance created around the spectacle of the boxing contest . These were all ideas that presented visuals for me to work with . The history of the sport in the west had two strands , both during the 17th and 18th century . One the old country England , the other in the newly founded USA . For me these two elements were the basis for a continued and constant library of visual material to work from. The boxer represents the ultimate ‘fighter’ , in all fields, a fighter not just in the physical sense but across all the senses…….

Our Madonna of Grace silk screen, lino cut and mixed media on paper 50 cm x 70 cm , 2014  © Godfried Donkor

Our Madonna of Grace
silk screen, lino cut and mixed media on paper
50 cm x 70 cm , 2014
© Godfried Donkor

Could you explain your series of Madonnas and what inspired them?

The Madonna series started shortly after I finished art school and were initially inspired by the madonna images from early Christian and Greco-Roman iconography. The series was further stimulated by my fascination with the cult of Mary, the birth of Venus ,Mama Water ( sea /river Goddess ) the three graces and the judgement of Paris accounts . These accounts essentially referred to ideas of feminism, beauty , motherhood, sexuality ,Goddess , desire, female idealization , myths and reality.
Using the language of those early classical imagery I wanted to create a contemporary version that combined the classical layout with a completely different aesthetic that explored the representation of the black female body both contemporary and historical. As a Goddess and mother. For this end, I had to employ a collage technique involving the intermixing of source materials that would allude to a wide field of cultural and historical references. Also I want these images to represent the present, my love of history is based on its relationship to the present, because that is the only equation I can work on.

You represented Ghana at the 2001 Venice Biennale, how was the experience for you and could you describe your work for it?

For the exhibition ‘Authentic Eccentric’ , in 2001 ,Venice Biennale , I was commissioned to present a new work . This was an installation titled ‘ Lord Byron’s Drawing room’, this was an installation based on Byron’s life both factual and fictional and his relationships and activities in London and Venice. All my work is informed by extensive research and during the research period for this project I discovered that Byron spent time in Venice not far from the site where we were exhibiting. In London he mixed with a creative and underground society which included the ‘fancy and sporting type’. I presented a series of collages and digital prints on canvas framed in gold that were fictional but sourced from actual historical images on regency wallpaper.
The rest of the exhibition space was covered in mirrors to reflect the installation.

Birth of Venus mixed media collage on paper 50 cm x 70 cm , 2007  © Godfried Donkor

Birth of Venus
mixed media collage on paper
50 cm x 70 cm , 2007
© Godfried Donkor

How has your move from Kumasi in Ghana to London affected your work?

You have to remember that I was born in Kumasi and moved to London when I was 9 years old. At that stage I was not an artist, however at that age I was aware that my visual vocabulary was changing . It was much later on when I was in my teens that I realized that I wanted to go to art school. And then it was during my time at art school that I returned to Ghana again for the first time. That made a substantial and lasting impression on me and my work.

What are your plans for your art in the future?

As a visual artist one always plans to evolve and move from one project to another and to enhance one’s practice. The worst thing for me would be to have nothing to do or make work about.
In terms of my future it is always very close to my present and my past. A lot of the work I’m doing now is preoccupied with various sites and continents, combining my interests in Europe, Africa , America and the ‘new world’.

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