ACCRA, GHANA. Twenty-three young men and women dressed in navy coveralls sit side by side in four rows of plastic folding chairs. They giggle and chat comfortably amongst themselves, eagerly anticipating the start of the ceremony.

As they anxiously await their diplomas from The Art Institute, located in Bubiashie, a suburb of Accra, maybe they don’t realize that they are the pioneers of a new era.

The official inauguration of the institute in June was marked by the graduation ceremony of the first batch of trainees. For 12 weeks, these young artisan trainees developed skills in welding, carpentry and finishing techniques.

Traditionally Ghanaian art education has provided little career counseling or training in applied art. In the past two decades, the Ghanaian art community has grown increasingly conscious of the gap between the theory-based art educational system and the skill-based production expectations of the contemporary art scene.

“Years ago, art education was very much a part of secondary school curriculums,” Nat Amarteifio, former Mayor of Accra, explained. Partly as a result of economic downturn in the late 1980s, art education was cut from educational curriculums. “Vocational art training was stigmatized as something that you did when you couldn’t get into higher education,” Amarteifio said.

Constance Swaniker, 41, founder of The Art Institute, found employment with Art Deco, a woodworking company, while enrolled in the art department at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology.

While a student, she juggled university obligations with training as an apprentice carpenter. “I have often reflected on how lucky I was for the events that led to my training as an artisan,” Swaniker said. “I had access to facilities on the factory floor and industrial production.”

Swaniker was not the norm. “Most of my artist friends ended up working in banks because they were not exposed to the industry,” Swaniker said.

The lack of hands-on industry experience is only one of the perceived problems with the dominant art educational system. “Art school here isn’t one in which students are taught to investigate the medium,” Amarteifio explained. Students are encouraged to produce work according to artistic theory, not creative impulse.

Frances Ademola, 86, owner of The Loom Gallery sits behind a glass desk and gestures fondly to a colorful, semi-abstract painting hanging on the wall opposite her. The artist is Samuel Agbenyegah, also known as Samkobee.

The abstraction of Samkobee’s acrylic landscapes enlivens the vast space of The Loom. In his paintings, figures materialize from blurs of red, yellow and orange. Clusters of small houses nestle in the commotion of jagged lines and geometric shapes.

Art in Accra, Ghana

Art in Accra, Ghana

“He first came to us when he was 12 years old,” Ademola said. He carried three paintings and a humble hope of becoming a famous artist. “They were really beautiful,” Ademola remembers. But she did not believe the work was his own.

“I told him to leave the paintings here and go make some more,” she explained. “He was back in ten days, and we sold everything he brought.”

Years later, when Samkobee returned to Ademola and asked her to endorse his application to the College of Art in Kumasi, she refused. “I told him: ‘you are just going to learn a lot of theories, you will start imitating your teachers, you’ll come back arrogant and impossible to work with.’ He took this in good faith and he has never looked back.”

Frustrated by the glaring inadequacies of traditional art training, artists are trying new strategies. Successful self-taught artists like Samkobee are emerging independently of the university environment. “This means that you removed art from the university cloisters into the street,” Ademola explained.

“So you see, the effect is trickling down,” she said. “I call it a revolution actually.”

In 2011, a collective of artists in Nima, Accra recognized the artistic potential of the local youth and the necessity to encourage them to develop and showcase their talent. They founded Nima Muhinmanchi Art, a nonprofit designed to stimulate creative education and empower youth to explore artistic expression.

During weekend teaching sessions at the Nima Maamobi Community Learning Center in Kanda, children and adolescents participate in drawing, painting and design workshops lead by volunteer art teachers and guest artists.

“Society lacks a platform that can encourage the youth to develop their creativity,” Yussif Aminu Larry, 31, artistic director of NMA, said. “Secondary school and universities don’t teach that.”

The Nima group is bringing art to the streets. Locals and volunteers join the NMA team in mural painting events that turn abandoned public spaces into cultural and artistic destinations.

Along the Kanda Highway, bright splashes of color animate an otherwise neglected wall. The command “Imagine Accra,” spelled out in curving purple lettering, marches majestically across a pastel yellow background. A portrait of Kwame Nkrumah hovers among depictions of bustling city life.

NMA painted the mural in March 2013. Sponsored by Acrilex Arts and Crafts Supply Store, the event, dubbed “Imagine Accra,” invited community members to engage in artistic practice without the pressure of academic demands.

“Bringing art to public space is about bringing unity among artists and engaging larger audiences to use the energy on the street to produce creative work,” Larry explained.

The Foundation of Contemporary Arts, established in 2004, is trying to reach children at a young age. “We started working with kids in public schools and then with people who didn’t have access to quality art education,” Ato Annan, project director of FCA, said. Through workshops, the foundation encouraged students to experiment with new materials.

“We have discussions with them, trying to broaden their understanding of art,” Annan explained.

Workshops focus on producing work that is not necessarily made for the gallery space. “Art is not always the fine painting on the wall or a nice sculpture piece in the garden,” Annan said. Art is performance, video, sound, photography and street murals.

The foundation launched the Art in Public Spaces series that offers artists an opportunity to present thought-provoking pieces of conceptual contemporary art including installation pieces and voluminous sculptural works.

“Art is still very elitist. We want to step out of that zone,” Annan said. “We are interested in things that challenge what is perceived as art in the local context.”

The Art Institute hopes to join forces with community art organizations like NMA and FCA to address the perceived failure of the education system head on.

“It’s exciting when artists start making public art to generate interest and offer a platform of exposure for contemporary work that is produced quietly behind the scenes,” Swaniker said. “That’s a fantastic initiative for the institute to work with.”

While art collectives believe that the current system of art education in Accra may not prepare young artists for a career in the arts, they are beginning to find hope in the rising Ghanaian art world.

When Amarteifio started collecting art 30 years ago, there were very few Ghanaian patrons of contemporary art. The economy was in bad shape and many locals did not have disposable income. European tourists were the main patrons of Ghanaian art. “They simply wanted an African landscape painting to take back home,” Amarteifio said.

Now, artists have begun to break away from the traditional demands of the tourist market. “People have noticed in recent years that Ghanaian art has become more mature, more international and more competitive,” observed Seth Dei, Ghanaian art collector and founder of the Dei Center for the Study of Contemporary African Art, Accra.

While Ghanaians still do not buy contemporary art, there is a growing awareness about art availability in the country. The Ghanaian art community grows with every art exhibition: more locals show up, diluting the usual crowd of diplomats and international clients.

“I call every exhibition a milestone,” Ademola said.

Even so, there are still gaps to be filled in the Ghanaian of art world. “We don’t have art critics and we don’t have too many galleries,” Dei explained. “The National Museum itself is virtually incompetent and dysfunctional.”

Amarteifio agrees, pointing out that there are only a handful of galleries in Accra that effectively promote the creation, exhibition and conservation of contemporary Ghanaian art: The Loom, the Dei Center, the Nubuke Foundation and Artists Alliance.

“It takes more than the artist and the gallery,” Amarteifio said. “You need an academic system that is plugged into the gallery and you need the art critic to cover exhibitions.”

It will take time to fill these gaps. “The first important thing that should happen is the establishment of a new museum of contemporary art, so the community and the world can see what is here” Dei said.

Like Dei, Swaniker has big dreams for the future of the Ghanaian contemporary art industry. “I want to see the bar raised in this industry,” she said. “Art promotion doesn’t end here.”

— Gabriela Tama