Yaw Owusu: In The Cool Of Day

18th October – 20th December 2022

Efiɛ Gallery, Dubai United Arab Emirates

In the Cool of Day at Efie gallery in Dubai presents a selection of Yaw Owusu’s sculptural wooden and golden plates, laden with intricate metallic elements laced with the artist’s observations, cultures and encounters in the Arabian Peninsula. Partitioned into glowing verticals and horizontals, the sculptural pieces invite the viewer into a multi-dimensional realm to delve deeper into what lies beneath their glittery surface.

Born in Kumasi, Ghana (b.1992) Yaw Owusu received a BA from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), the influential research-led and innovative art institution which counts internationally acclaimed artists El Anatsui and Ibrahim Mahama as its alumni. There, Owusu studied sculpture, painting and chemistry before moving to New York to pursue a Master’s in fine arts at the renowned Pratt Institute of Art. He is the recipient of the prestigious Kuenyehia Art Prize for Contemporary Ghanaian Art (2018) and the Pratt Circle Award and Outstanding Student Award (2020).
Owusu’s cross-disciplinary studies at KNUST and the university's experimental approach to material and art history influenced Owusu's desire to venture outside the traditional media of painting, an aspiration which materialised while he was on a journey to the southern coast of Ghana. While at the beach, Owusu stumbled upon coins which had changed color into variant shades of greens, blues and reds. Composed of copper-plated steel, the Pesewa, equivalent to a penny or shilling, was first introduced by the Ghanaian government in 2007, but their value plummeted due to inflation and thus became obsolete. Intrigued by the effect that salt and water induced on the metallic pieces, Owusu negotiated with the Central Bank of Ghana to acquire thousands of pesewa coins. He began to research their history and was bewildered to learn that the coins had not been produced in Ghana, but rather by the Royal Canadian Mint, an offshoot of the Royal Mint of the United Kingdom, Ghana’s former colonial power.

This realization prompted the artist’s use of pesewa coins as a device to interrogate Ghana’s economic and political independence and examine the shifting nature of value. He made his coins undergo organic and chemical processes to convey the impact of trade and time, which alter both the appearance and worth of the currency. Further intrigued by the demarcations of power, he converted them into detailed colourful surfaces resembling cartographies as exemplified in Untitled 2, 2016. The sculptural tapestry is inspired by Owusu’s compiling of archival maps of Ghana which delineated the way the country’s railways were drawn along regions where timber, gold and other natural resources abounded.

Since his graduation in 2020 at the Pratt Institute of Art, Owusu lives and works in New York. The artist has expanded his palette to include US pennies that he juxtaposes with pesewas onto his panels and structures. His work has been celebrated in the US and internationally: in 2021, Facebook commissioned Owusu to realize a fifty feet site specific permanent installation containing 90,000 pennies from around the world. He has recently exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary African art in Marrakech in 2017, and at Christie’s in London with Efie gallery in May 2022. In September 2022, following his artist residency at Efie gallery in Dubai, the artist was invited as a resident artist on the Pacific Coast by the Institute of Contemporary Art in San Diego, California where he has another solo exhibition until 7 November 2022.

Owusu’s extensive body of work has been deeply informed by his environment and its complexities, and coins remain his central source of material. However, it is his artistic residency in Dubai at Efie gallery this past summer which truly marked a turning point in Owusu’s artistic career. The physical quality of his work and its underlying concepts took on entirely new meanings in the Emirates, as he explored new directions which the artist had not undertaken before.

The selection of works for In the Cool of Day embrace all key elements present in Yaw Owusu’s previous works,yet mark a significant shift in his practice as this is the first time the artist interweaves fils, the Emirati dirham coins with pesewas, and US pennies.

Yaw Owusu’s residency journey in the UAE unfolded in three parts: First, a preparatory time in New York where he began to work on five works based on his initial impressions of Dubai and his imagination. Then, his stay in the Emirates with Efie gallery where he created sculptural pieces based on his in-depth experience of the Persian Gulf. Last, his return to New York for the completion of the works and the creation of a monumental piece which symbolised the culmination of his rich experiences during his residency.

Power of Imagination, Golden Hour, To Believe, Something from Nothing and Infinity (2022) are reflective sculptural pieces flush with colour and vibrancy, inspired by the artist’s early perception of the city-state of Dubai as a land of abundance, wealth, limitless possibilities and futuristic architecture; a city bustling with creativity which fascinates and attracts the whole world to its shores. The savvy amalgam of texturally treated coins in reds, yellows and blues evoke the elegance of Dubai’s opulent edifices that emerged from the Arabian sands at tremendous speed in only a few decades ago. The superposition of translucent metallic plates gives the sculptural pieces a three-dimensionality reminiscent of Dubai’s towering and imposing sky-scrapers, as exemplified in Infinity or Something from Nothing (2022)

He visited cultural and historical landmarks such as the Al Shindagha Museum, the former residence of the ruling family of Dubai, the Maktoum (which has converted to a world class heritage museum) and the historical Etihad Museum. Owusu toured the Sharjah Art Museum, a visit facilitated by MidEast Art, a digital storytelling platform of art and culture of the Middle East region and did a studio visit of the esteemed Emirati artist Dr. Mohamed Yousif, one of the UAE’s foremost sculptors. Owusu’s unique experiences were made possible by Efie gallery in collaboration with Dubai Culture and Arts Authority. His experience was capped by a trip to Abu Dhabi to visit the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Sheik Zayed mosque.

Meeting local communities brought further depth, scale, and spirit to Owusu’s work and allowed the artist to delve deeper into the core fabric of the Arabian peninsula's culture. He recalls one encounter when he visited the farm of an Emirati farmer who had extended his hospitality to the artist. Owusu witnessed their sober lifestyle, enjoyed communal meals and learned about their traditional customs, which still prevail despite rapid modernization. Though abstract, Going with the Wind, Singing Dunes and Tranquility (2022) reverberate with life and humanity. They bear a quiet quality and seem less extravagant in colour, texture, and shape compared to Golden Hour or

To Believe In (2022). It is also fascinating to notice the presence of unprocessed coins, reflecting his experiences during the second part of his journey, a vivid contrast with the first body of work realized in New York. Going with the Wind and Singing Dunes allude to his encounters and experience in the desert, the sights and sounds of shifting dunes depending on the time period, and how the desert morphs in unpredictable ways. The desert triggered a creative epiphany for Owusu, who, absorbed by the land's topography, contemplated the characteristics of its climate and how economic activities are planned around weather conditions or the time of day, a fact that distinctively shaped his aesthetic decisions. Owusu became captivated by the desert, and he is just one of countless modern and contemporary artists who have been drawn to the boundless landscapes of sands, serenity, and the respite it offers. Contemporary Malian textile artist Abdoulaye Konaté recounts how some of his works arise from his childhood memories of the Sahara desert, particularly his interactions with Berber, Fulani, and Malinke communities and the visual effect of moonlight falling on dunes. One can discern various hues of blue in Abdoulaye's work titled 'Blue Moon. (2019). American artists such as Agnes Martin, Bruce Naumann, and Georgia O'Keefe, among others, have felt a profound connection with deserts, their materiality and geology, a place that has made a lasting impression on them.

The sculptural pieces Heart of Place, In the Cool of Day, and Morning Sun (2022) are resplendent and gilded surfaces. They depict the culmination of his experiences before, during and after his journey with Emirati culture and its lands. Upon his return to New York, Yaw Owusu’s monumental piece Heart of Place, and completion of In the Cool of Day and Morning Sun embody his effort to render a balanced view of the demarcations between the Emirates, shedding light on their distinctive natures and qualities. Yaw Owusu’s large-scale wall sculptures realized during his residency with Efie gallery mark a significant repositioning and represent the most critical body of work the artist has ever created. His usual investigations around value evolved into new shapes, forms and riveting structures that capture the attention of spectators.

- Written by Kami Gahiga
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