Emmanuel Taku might use superheroes and deities as a jumping-off point for his work, but for the Ghanaian painter, it boils down to representation of the everyday man and woman. Growing up, he didn’t see people like himself in the stereotypical depictions of power shown in books, movies, and cartoons. In a bid to reclaim and reframe Black identity, his most sought-after pieces showcase individuals standing in solidarity and allowing their innate beauty and strength to shine through via their stature and dress. Indeed, the artist also wants to one day be something of a God himself, by nurturing fellow creatives in his home base of Accra and giving them the chance to make it to the top, too. Here, he tells The Daily how it all began.
What kind of child were you, and what are your earliest memories of art?
Growing up, I loved to read storybooks and see colors and paint. As a very young child, I loved to draw; I drew on the walls of my bedroom and on any book I could get. That’s how the whole thing started, and I knew I’d be an artist. I studied at Ghanatta College of Art and Design. After that, I did a bit of teaching, and now I’m a professional artist.
Was anyone in your family an artist?
There’s no artist in my family, but I grew up in a compound house and there was a man who was a painter. He wasn’t a professional artist, but I was close to him and I watched him paint. He helped me to try out painting, so that’s where the interest came from.
How does it feel to be recognized for your work?
I feel blessed to have this chance and opportunity. It’s not easy to get to an international level, especially this quickly. Some incredible artists have been doing this for decades and haven’t been seen or recognized. I had my first exhibition in Ghana last year, after my Noldor Artist Residency. Through that, the owners of the Maruani Mercier gallery in Brussels saw it and reached out.
Didn’t you initially sell your work though Instagram?
Everything I am today is through Instagram! That’s how the founder of the Noldor Residency found me. He called me and everything started there. Without Instagram, I wouldn’t be where I am.
Do you remember the first painting you sold?
One of my old paintings, but I don’t remember the name!
Talk us through your process.
I plan sometimes, but mostly it comes to me subconsciously. I go through social media and try to find pictures that correspond with what I have in my mind. Sometimes, I’m not able to find the exact image I want to put on my canvas, so I pose myself and do what I see in my mind and take a shot of it. I don’t paint my own face though. I use deity and superheroes.
The eyes are always blank. What does that signify?
I remember watching Man of Steel and Superman, and when they get to that level of power, their pupils vanish and they have white eyes. To me, it signifies strength.
Your figures are often clothed in beautiful textiles in a nod to the women you grew up around. Tell us about that reference.
I grew up with a sister who was always at her sewing machine. She loved using floral fabrics; I think she got it from my mom. I didn’t even know I was doing it; I did it subconsciously. It was only one day I was interviewed and asked about the textiles that I made the connection to my sister.
Are the textiles you depict from your imagination or do they actually exist?
It comes to me naturally. I design the fabrics, like floral print fabrics, on the computer before I transfer them to the canvas. I think to myself, “If I put this and this together…” and then I see what happens.
Do you follow fashion yourself?
I love fashion. I would choose a fashion show over a football match!
Why have you chosen to base yourself in Accra?
I love to see the people around me, the people I grew up with. The places I grew up. It brings back a lot of memories. I would like to travel, but I’d always want to come home and see people like me.
When did you first start depicting your subjects as demigods and heroes?
I started this body of work with the residency last year. The residency you took part in also helped nurture mental health with personal guidance. How did that help you flourish? After the [first stage of the] residency, I was actually exhausted. I had this week with a psychotherapist and she took me through this mental-health journey. I had not had that before. It was helpful as I was able to relax, get close to nature, and get back my strength and all the energy that I had lost. I was so much stronger mentally after it. I would love to see a professional like that once a year.
In your signature works, your subjects are rarely alone. Is that a conscious choice?
In my country, there’s a proverb that says a broomstick can be broken easily, but when you tie them together, it becomes difficult for it to be broken. Putting two people together signifies strength and consolidation. I want to make it look like everything is possible when we come together. When we come together, it doesn’t matter the color of your skin—white, Black, or other. If we come together, there’s nothing we can’t do. Nothing can break us because we think the same way and we want to establish and accomplish. If we are against each other and fight, push, pull, then we can’t get to the top. That’s why we must come together, so we can fight and be strong. That’s why I try to make them look like they’re one person.
Spirituality is also a recurring theme. Why is that?
In my country, we believe that the most powerful thing starts with what’s beyond the eye. They are more powerful than the things we see with our naked eyes. Because I’m projecting the Black man as a superhero, I try to bring what we don’t see to life with my brush and paint and newspaper. I try to bring the things that we don’t see but believe to be powerful. I want the person who sees this to believe that what he thinks is stronger than him. He can get to that same level of power.
What about the use of newspapers in your work?
It represents what happens in my country. I want to document what happens with words and letters. I also believe that words can make us or break us. The words that we accept, we become. I go with the flow, but put letters and words that the viewers can put together in a positive way. If we want to change and become better people, we have to change the words that we accept. Even if they are negative.
What words have had the most impact on you?
I read this book that changed my life. It’s called The Secret of the Ages, by Robert Collier. I began to accept some words and refuse some. It helped me to realize that I can do anything if I put my mind to it. Anything is possible! If you can think it, then you can have it.
What are your hobbies?
I love to watch movies, and I love poetry.
What drives you?
I think if I allow myself to dream and push myself further, I will also be able to bring other dreams to pass. I think if I’m able to get to the top, I can also help other artists get to the top. That gives me the strength to work hard. I was once struggling; I know what it feels like. I want to help artists in Ghana. Some of these artists, they’re very good but don’t have the exposure and don’t know where to go. Even if it’s not in the art world, I want to help other creatives who want to accomplish something. If I can make it, I also want to become someone else’s God, if I can.
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What inspires you?
The books I read years ago and social media.
How do you relax?
I like water! Going to the beach or the pool is the best way to relax.
What artists will always be the ones you look up to?
I would say that the No. 1 artist I look up to is [Ghanian painter] Amoako Boafo. And my use of newspapers [in my artwork] was actually inspired by [Japanese conceptual artist] On Kawara.
What’s next for you?
I have a show called It Takes Two—Temple of Deities with the M Art Foundation currently in Shanghai through December 18. Also, the Lévy Gorvy gallery will debut two paintings at their booth at the ART021 fair in Shanghai. I’m also preparing two solo shows in 2022.
Big things are coming!
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