Yaw Owusu (born c. 1992) is a visual artist who creates sculptural installations that repurpose found objects, shifting otherwise – worthless materials into encounters of value, and things of other realities. Using steel, gold, silver, copper and found objects in foils; sheets and coins – through activities of change and transformation; removal and attachment; and de-materializing. An approach rooted in a sense of playful alchemy that embraces the dynamics of currency, symbolism and meaning. Owusu was the recipient of the Kuenyehia Prize for Contemporary Art in 2018.
Glimmers of Transformation written by Rebecca Anne Proctor
In the work of artist Yaw Owusu, old objects of value are reappropriated with a new purpose and narrative.
They scintillate and glimmer like shiny colorful jewels with their abstracted geometric forms, made from found objects, like Ghanaian Pesewas, US Pennies, stainless steel, and wood. Yaw Owusu’s (b. 1992) sculptural installations easily transfix the spectator with their mesmerizing forms and hues that come to life through the shiny texture of the incorporated found objects—objects, as Owusu will explain, which delve into histories of global trade and colonialism to address politics on global and international levels.
Owusu’s installations create beauty and value from objects otherwise considered worthless. Long a signature component of the artist’s work is his incorporation of numerous pieces of loose change known as “pesewa” coins for which he had to negotiate with the Central Bank of Ghana, still the only bank in the country to distribute the pesewa, a bureaucratic process that the artist also refers to through his creative practice. The coins were first introduced in Ghana in 2007 to counteract the country’s inflation. Yet today these small copper coins are largely insignificant in the country and have no value in Ghana’s challenging financial climate that continues to struggle amidst challenges of inflation, which hit its highest in April 2022 since August 2009. For Owusu the valueless coins have another purpose: through his art he hopes to not only create objects of beauty but to address urgent questions surrounding questions of economic and political independence in contemporary Ghana.
Owusu, who obtained his Bachelor’s in Fine Art in Painting from Kwane Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, went on to obtain a Master’s in Fine Art from Pratt Institute in New York, where he is now based. His work has been showed in Accra and London, group exhibitions in New York, Accra, Kumasi, Malibu, Marrakech, Berlin, and Dubai. In 2018 he won the Kuenyehia Prize for Contemporary Art and in 2020 he obtained two awards from Pratt Institute where in 2020 he was also a Visiting Artist Lecture Series Coordinator. Owusu has also given visiting artist lectures at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Technology.
“When I moved to the US, I wanted to try out new materials,” he explains. “It took me back to the coin and to the idea of value. I began studying the penny, the significance of its copper and relationship to mining. I thought again about the transformation of material into value and how the representation of the penny is also the representation of President Lincoln’s head and what that means in terms of liberty and black liberation, particularly coming from Ghana which was once the epicenter for the slave trade.”
A poignant work that is on display as part of Material Earth, a group exhibition staged at Christie’s in London with Efie Gallery, is Determined Measures (2021). A mixed media work, which the artist made in the US from a compilation of stainless steel, copper, US pennies, Ghana pesewas and wood, invites the viewer to consider the effects of the transition of a natural world into a material one due to environmental waste—a principal theme of Material Earth. Through Owusu’s subjects focusing on found objects and repurposed US and Ghanaian coins, the viewer is prompted to consider the urgency in rekindling what is being lost not only in terms of material goods but in terms of culture and community.
“I am now using both steel and copper as well to look at the meaning behind these simple materials and how they are extracted to transform the currency that they create as well as ideas surrounding labor used to create them,” he explains. “At the end of the day, they are just pennies being tossed around. What does it mean to transform these objects into works of art and how in so doing they become new currencies to perpetuate new dialogues to explore new ways of looking at histories?”
Important to the artist’s work is understanding the contributions of blacks and minorities to global trade and society. “How were they reimbursed and compensated,” he asks. “How did their work turn into social engagement?” Owusu went onto the streets of New York to ask these questions and the resulting interactions influenced his work.
“I was thinking about how robust American capitalism is and how it seems like steel. The New York buildings have always been used in the creation of new buildings that keep being built,” he adds. These structures, while made from indestructible materials, could, in a blink of an eye, be destroyed with their surrounding communities erased.
“Using steel, which seems very robust and almost indestructible, has its own limitation,” he adds. Owusu cuts the steel like he would a piece of paper. “I weave the steel and twist it and so that it becomes something very soft that appears not as solid and robust as we think it would be.”
This is the artist’s commentary on the forces that have long governed our world through global commerce, impacting people, nations, culture, and communities. “I have been influenced by this rapid development or change of society that is either pushing out some people or introducing a new set of people,” he adds. “Black communities or minority communities are always being pushed out.”
Owusu’s glimmering, mesmerizing structures, on view in Material Earth, are an attempt to look again at how power has long inflicted its grip on the global social structures. It is his attempt to re-write the narrative and to give hope and newfound beauty and purpose to all that was seemingly lost. Read more...