Wholesome Encounters – Abena Otema Danquah, BArch 2023
A GUIDE – FRED OKO
The past few weeks have been nothing short of nourishing – this is me trying not to repeat the word wholesome, but honestly nothing else can describe my experience so far. I started my journey slightly earlier than my comrades (Fellows) as I got to Ghana shortly after the school semester ended, deciding to do some exploring of my own before my internship officially started. My dad being extremely excited about my proposal, as someone also passionate about local artistry especially in the wood and metal industries, connected me with one of his classmates Fred Oko Mate.
Fred has been an artist for as long as he can remember. He is actually a sculptor, with his works ranging from large sculptures to miniature carvings on wooden canvases he’d create. I met with Fred on a Thursday morning at his home studio where he had some of his works up on display. We spoke about his journey as a sculptor in Ghana from his education to his establishing himself as a sculptor, his market base and the community of artists and artisans he engages with.
Prior to starting this experience, I had specific questions about the local artisan community in Accra ranging from the impact of their individual cultures (per tribes or ethnic groups) on their work if applicable, support of their respective crafts both from locals and the diaspora, the government or even expatriates and tourists, how they navigate the industry and if there’s a network or association that some of these artisans connect through. When speaking to Fred, a lot of my questions were naturally answered in our conversation. Interestingly his work is largely supported, not surprisingly by the Lebanese community in Ghana as we both acknowledged how investing in art or supporting artists and artisans financially is still a culture more and more Ghanaians from the older and now more, younger Ghanaian are warming up to. A large group of his market also are in the diaspora interestingly! More so the middle aged to older diaspora, among also certain ministries in the government, hotels, restaurants and banks. We conversed about the value of his work, the accessibility it sort of opened him up to market-wise and the legacy he is leaving. He actually trains younger sculptors and his son works alongside him also, establishing his own crowd of supporters and patrons! I could go on and on about my time with Fred, but my biggest take aways from this meeting was how he urged me to continue engaging more with local artists and artisans, even giving me contacts of fellow artists and crafts workers in his network to connect with. Engaging with him was truly a blessing! He was so passionate about his work, and learning how he was encouraged by his family to pursue his craft, while also passing it along to his son was even more heart warming. We spent almost 4 hours engaging and I’m dedicating so much of this first blog to my encounter with him because so far it has been super helpful and resourceful in shaping my experience!
Shortly after meeting with Fred, I officially started my internship on the 12th of June. I met with my direct supervisor and the head of the Diaspora Affairs Office. We discussed how we would be working together officially and be of best service to each other during the journey. I shared some of my insights from my meeting with Fred, alongside running some ideas I had following my first engagement experience and we had a fruitful conversation as they also shared some ideas also concerning how we would be working together from adding to their database, getting familiar with the office and meeting other members of the team officially. Since then, I have been working closely with my supervisor, updating him on some of engagements while also figuring out our database and how we will be proceeding with that, one of the most important parts of the project.
JOURNEY SO FAR
I’ve crossed paths with a number of artisans, some who I met randomly by passing by their shops and others through word of mouth or recommendations. “Crossed Paths” because we’ve mostly just been in contact, setting and scheduling times where we can meet to engage properly. With the rainy season, a few arrangements have had to be rescheduled among personal scheduling differences on both ends. I’d say between the weather and personally getting Covid for a bit, there’ve been slight delays in my engagements. However I was able to connect with a few people still, especially two other amazing artisans – one I was connected with through Fred and another I actually met 2 years ago and have been able to reconnect with!
I was given Happy’s contact through Fred, and when we scheduled a meeting for me to visit his studio, it turns out I’d actually already visited his workspace with my cousin two years before when she was looking for some ceramics. Happy shared his ceramic journey with me, also encouraged by family to go into this trade. I was glad to hear how although his support started of largely from non – Ghanaian support, more recently a lot of local and diasporic Ghanaians have actually been engaging with his work. He was excited to connect with me, clearly passionate about his work and the opportunities and impact that would come out of being included in the office’s database. This was a very heart warming connection for me because he confirmed how necessary this process is, connecting with artists and artisans, sharing their work and pushing support is. We spent another afternoon with his son and they gave me a pottery class (a service he also provides aside making Ceramics with his wife). As we were working together, we spoke more about how he actually wanted to be an architect but fell in love with ceramics in university, the impact of first 9/11 and then Covid on his business, his personal influences in his work and how he went from partnering with a group of ceramists under the renowned Unique Ceramics group and branching out to managing it on his own. He’s super cool!
Patrick and I had to connect over the phone because he had a number of orders he was working on, and he lives outside the city so meeting in person hasn’t been possible so far. I’m mostly documenting my interaction with him because he was actually one of the people who inspired my interests in engaging and learning more about and from local artisans. I met him once in traffic, he was selling bags he’d woven and they literally caught my attention, I had to buy one on the spot because I had never seen anything so exquisite. We had been in touch since then but business was pretty slow for him. Although we haven’t been able to meet in person since, I’m glad his work has gathered such large orders for him in this period ( to the point where he hasn’t been in the city in weeks because he’s been over booked)! He shared how he’s been getting a lot of local support recently, and we talked over the potential of him being a direct contact for diaspora and local interested in his work which he thought would be amazing! He currently has a few people working with him, whereas when I first encountered him 2 years ago he was working alone. He is self taught, making these bags he shared with me from his personal influences and inspiration from his akan background. I personally have one of his works and I was so drawn to it because his bags are so authentic to his style, something I’d almost describe as an Afro-modern take to oversized multi purpose bags. I’m excited for the potential being connected to more people through this experience could have for him!