By Stephen Williams
For the acclaimed Ghanaian painter Ablade Glover, art has been a way of life for more than five decades.
He celebrated his 85th birthday earlier this summer with a major exhibition at the October Gallery in London, titled “Wogbe Jeke - We Have Come a Long Way”. The show comprised vibrant new works that reflect Glover’s passion for Ghana’s culture and energy, and it garnered him new fans who found themselves diving into oceans of colour: reflecting marketplaces and crowded streets.
Ghanaian artist and professor Ablade Glover.
(Photo: J. Greet. Courtesy October Gallery, London.)
Those familiar with his work know that the paintings appear to be composed in a simple manner but are, in fact, highly complex and skilful, and this becomes apparent the longer one looks.
As the October Gallery says: in addition to Glover’s “fearless use of colour”, it is his use of perspective that also draws the viewer in.
“Often the perspective that Glover employs is from a high vantage point overlooking the crowd. From this position, Glover effortlessly transports the viewer into the scene,” the Gallery adds. “Almost every single painting reveals a double aspect, being at once an explosion of colour and a detailed observation of reality. Abstract shapes transform into flocks of birds, bustling market scenes or townscapes.”
A Life Fellow of the Royal Society of Art in London as well as a Fellow of the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences, Glover has had an important impact on contemporary arts both in his homeland and internationally. In an interview during the London exhibition, he told SWAN how his career began and progressed.
Glover recalls his early years as being a happy time, bucking the myth that an unhappy childhood makes for great art. His upbringing might be considered uncommon in some ways, however.
Ablade Glover, Red People IV (Detail), 2019. Oil on canvas,
152.5 x 152.5 cm. (Photo: J. Greet. Courtesy the Artist and
October Gallery, London.)
“I was born in Accra and I come from a family where the father stays in one house and the mother in another,” he said.
When he was around six years old, he was taken from his mother’s house to stay with his father.
“It was a perfectly natural system, even a traditional arrangement, although it is dying out now; usually boys were raised by their fathers and girls with their mothers,” he told SWAN.
Schooled at a Presbyterian boarding school, Glover went on to train as a teacher for a year.
“I realised general teaching was not for me, I didn’t have the patience, so I went back to college to train as a specialist art teacher at the Kumasi College of Technology,” he said.
Having completed a two-year diploma, he found it difficult to attain the specific teaching position he wanted. But he came across a government advertisement to work in a new textile factory to be built in Tema that involved being sent to London, to the Central School of Art and Design, for a four-year training course in fabric design and printing.
“It was so-o-o cold,” he recalled with a chuckle, “but I stuck it out. I was missing Ghana, although London was very interesting, and after completing my studies I went back home.”
Glover was to discover that not only had Ghana’s political climate become very volatile, but the proposed textile factory at Tema had not even begun to be constructed. “I was left high and dry,” he said. “I wanted to get out.”
Ablade Glover, Market Scene, 2019. Oil on canvas.
(Photo: J. Greet. Courtesy the Artist and October Gallery,
Meanwhile, he had to find work, and so accepted a general teaching post in the town of Winneba (which, after living in London, he found a little slow); later he joined Ghana’s Ministry of Information in Accra, producing posters, which he freely admits was akin to creating propaganda.
He continued to paint, however, and had a powerful mentor through his friendship with Shirley du Bois, wife of the famous civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois. The couple had been invited to Ghana, and Shirley would arrange soirées at her home to exhibit Glover’s paintings, inviting her friends to come, view, and hopefully buy his works.
He confided to Mrs. Du Bois the problems he was having in securing a second overseas stint - having received one scholarship, getting another seemed unlikely.
She readily agreed to help and organised a meeting with President Kwame Nkrumah, but Glover was nervous at this prospect. “I had heard the rumours doing the rounds in Accra that Nkrumah sometimes killed people!” he explained.
“After about a week or so, she sent a car for me and then we both went to the presidential offices, were shown into a room when another door opens and in walks Nkrumah. ‘This is the young man I was telling you about,’ Mrs du Bois announced. That’s how I met the president!"
The upshot of the meeting, this brush with history, was that Nkrumah wrote Glover a note to take to the relevant ministry. He was then able to register to study textile design at Newcastle University in the UK.
It was there that a tutor, watching him paint, suggested that he use a palette knife. “I took his advice and found a new way to paint. I dropped the brush,” Glover said.
Later he was invited to the United States to complete a doctorate and went to study at Kent State University, Ohio, in 1972 - an institution infamous for the shooting of anti-Vietnam war demonstrators on the campus by home guard soldiers just a few years previously.
His being able to attend Kent State was thanks to a benefactor (in fact a tutor) who covered his tuition fees. “I was very touched by that generosity,” Glover said.
But whether painting in the UK or the US, the subject of his paintings always revolved around his home, Ghana. He admits to being fascinated by Ghana’s markets and market women.
Many of his works have been market scenes in a style that has been imitated but rarely equalled by others. These paintings in many ways echo his appreciation of the Dutch master, Vincent van Gogh.
For the future, Glover says he will continue painting and exhibiting. He is represented by galleries in Nigeria and South Africa as well as the October Gallery in London and has his own gallery in La (sometimes known as Labadi), a suburb of Accra where he was given land to build the Artists Alliance Gallery. Glover opened it in 1993, and his wife is the administrator. It has become one of the landmarks for Ghanaian arts.
Stephen Williams is a London-based journalist who writes about African arts and culture. He contributed this article to SWAN.