In the photograph, two women draped in vibrant batik wax-print fabrics stand against a sky of luscious orange. Over-full baskets balance on their heads, and a sea of aquamarine is just visible in the background (see left-hand image below under The Divine Feminine). You’d be forgiven for thinking that this photo was taken with the latest and most expensive camera, and styled by a team of lighting technicians, but this is the photography of Ghanaian visual artist Prince Gyasi, and it was snapped using only an iPhone.
“As an artist, to be able to contribute to the solutions of the problems in Ghana, I have to use my art to tell these stories to create awareness. For the new generation, I have to tell these stories in a beautiful way, so that when kids see them, they know they can be great people in the future. This signifies hope.”
Photos on the fly
Gyasi started taking photographs in and around Ghana’s bustling capital of Accra and the smaller, historic district of Jamestown in 2011, and he bought his first iPhone in 2014. Using a phone camera allows him to capture lived moments in the thick of communities grappling with the social burdens of endemic poverty, a lack of education and the destructive legacy of slave trading that plagued Ghana from the late 15th century. Through a process of deep and considered looking, Gyasi’s photography reflects vignettes of daily life in Accra, and explores themes of adversity and perseverance in this diverse African city.
Gyasi experiences synesthesia, where disparate senses regularly overlap, and the condition manifests as words, letters and even days of the week being associated with colours. This is why hues, tones and shades play a hugely significant role in his work. Each colour in a composition carries a symbolic and metaphorical significance that Gyasi harnesses to process and represent complex social issues in his home country, and to tell a story of hope and aspiration.
Presenting at the Skoll World Forum at Oxford’s Saïd Business School in 2019 as part of a contingent of thought leaders, Gyasi elaborated on the importance and use of colour in his photos. “As an artist, to be able to contribute to the solutions of the problems in Ghana, I have to use my art to tell these stories to create awareness. For the new generation, I have to tell these stories in a beautiful way, so that when kids see them, they know they can be great people in the future. This signifies hope.”
In Fatherhood, a young boy straddles the shoulders of an older man. Gyasi uses the colour red to evoke the passion and labour he associates with parental care and sacrifice; an incisive comment on the conspicuous absence of father figures in Ghana. A peaceful and serene blue is meant to denote mental clarity.
The divine feminine
Gyasi is acutely aware of the cultural, political and social burdens that women in Ghana have to shoulder on a daily basis. At the Skoll World Forum, he explained why it’s important to him to represent this: “In Africa, in Ghana, women usually go through a lot when they are growing up. They have a lot of responsibilities. They sacrifice. I’ve always wanted to tell the story of how powerful women are.”
Many of his works depict local women from Accra occupied with the daily routine of gathering and selling food to make a living. Gyasi photographs them as statuesque and regal, despite the social barriers and burdens they experience. In The Symbols of Womanhood, a woman gathers water lily tubers for food, the musculature of her back flexing and extending under the weight of her task as her form is almost swamped by the deep green foliage surrounding her.
Ensuring the future
Formal education in Ghana is at a premium and giving the youth a chance to excel is another of Gyasi’s passions. Children become trapped within a system of deeply ingrained social inequalities that often result in them being absorbed into the workforce at an early age. Small, local economies reliant on a steady stream of income generated from agricultural activities such as fishing swallow children up as soon as they are old enough to work. Boxed Kids, founded by Gyasi and film director Kuukua Eshun, is a platform that provides education and opportunities to creative children in Ghana so they can realise their full potential and escape the bonds of subsistence living.
A man of many talents
With a formidable reputation, Gyasi has exhibited at art fairs all over the world, including the Seattle Art Fair and the Investec Cape Town Art Fair. If you visit Ghana, you might also find him immersed in his other passion — documenting local hiplife musicians through powerful photographic projects in and around Accra’s symbolic monuments such as Independence Square. This music genre makes a powerful political and social statement in Ghana that is intimately connected to the country’s independence.
Follow Prince Gyasi on Instagram @princejyesi