Celebrated Ghanaian artist Kojo Marfo is renowned for his beautiful and undeniably vivid works. They are influenced by traditional Akan sculptures, carvings, and other art forms from his formative years and his experiences living in the terrain of New York City.
These influences have led him to forge an aesthetic that is uniquely his own: bold, daring, and different. Marfo views art as a medium to delve into his cultural heritage and to shed light on societal issues. His evocative paintings, brimming with symbols and motifs, bring depth and complexity to his oeuvre. The Akan Fertility Doll is a pivotal source of inspiration for him, blending seamlessly with art-historical references to illustrate shared human stories and personal experiences.
The Akan people perceive themselves as a unified nation. The term “Akan” translates to “first and foremost,” symbolizing enlightenment and civilization. Embracing this heritage, Marfo has reimagined the fertility doll, presenting it with curvaceous forms and serene, dignified expressions. Adorned with traditional beads and Elizabethan ruffs, these figures pay tribute to the fashion choices of bygone eras while melding the old with the new. His emphasis on the Vitiligo skin condition, which results in pale white patches on the skin, repositions it as a beauty feature in his portraits, narrating a story in itself.
my creative drive remained intrinsically motivated by my desire to reimagine the artefacts of my youth in Ghana. I was continuously drawn to subjects and narratives that were often undervalued or underrepresented
Yet, it’s Marfo’s distinct iconography—from his figures’ deep black skin tones to the inclusion of flowers, sacred cows, ruffs, and beads—that truly captivates. Under his touch, portraiture is redefined. He skillfully intertwines societal cues, cultural symbols, and heritage themes, distinguishing himself in the process.
This unique approach caught the eye of Jean-David Malat at JD Malat Gallery. Marfo’s inaugural solo show at JD Malat Gallery did more than just debut—it deeply resonated, making an impact in the art community and enchanting both art lovers and connoisseurs.
Exploring Marfo’s work is akin to journeying through cultural corridors. Every detail, be it a subtle gesture or the choice of attire, tells a story of his Akan roots and experiences in the West. In the ever-evolving art world, Kojo Marfo isn’t merely present; he’s charting a new path.
Hi Kojo, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. To start off, please share a bit about your path as an artist. When did your passion for art begin, and were there any pivotal moments or individuals that significantly shaped your journey?
Kojo Marfo: From a very young age, I have had a keen interest in the arts. Growing up in my hometown, I often witnessed individuals carving wood to create figures. As a child, I enjoyed experimenting with different mediums, including applying cooking oil or Vaseline to A4 papers to create tracing paper. I would then use it to trace images from comic books like Tintin and Asterix. However, my understanding of art changed upon discovering Picasso’s work.
I realized that art could serve different purposes, whether as a force for good or as mere decoration. I chose the former. My interest in art was still in its infancy, though, as I had many other interests that competed for my attention. It wasn’t until the early-2000s that I decided to pursue art wholeheartedly.
You have a rich international background, from being born in Ghana living in New York City, to now being based in London. How have these places influenced and shaped your approach to art?
Kojo Marfo: The 90s were a fascinating era to witness in both New York and London. During this time, many artists were exploring unconventional ideas that were not necessarily considered traditional forms of art.
This period granted artists a level of artistic freedom that allowed them to express themselves without fear or hesitation. This unusual approach empowered me to experiment with bold, vibrant colours in my work, without concerning myself with whether it might appear “over the top.” However, with the passing of time, people’s perceptions of art have also evolved, and what was once seen as cutting-edge may now be considered mainstream.
Some of the incredible art that emerged during the 90s in New York and London is still waiting to be discovered or appreciated fully. While I certainly drew inspiration from external sources and fellow artists, my creative drive remained intrinsically motivated by my desire to reimagine the artefacts of my youth in Ghana. I was continuously drawn to subjects and narratives that were often undervalued or underrepresented, and this is reflected in the unique approach I take with my art today.
Your work poignantly touches upon themes of identity and multiculturalism. With inspirations drawn from European court paintings to Akan iconography, it offers a self-referential take on the black image. Could we delve deeper into your practice and the underlying themes in your work?
Kojo Marfo: I paint not only to showcase my cultural background, but also to use my platform to shed light on societal issues. I have come to the realization that sometimes, we all move in the same direction without even realizing it. This realization has motivated me to use my artwork to promote alternative perspectives and help others realize their dreams, hopes, and aspirations.
The subjects I address through my art are universal human issues, and I recognize that there are infinite stories to be told. Every story, whether it is fictional or based on real-life experiences, crosses racial boundaries. We all face certain dilemmas and forms of oppression, although some groups may experience harsher issues than others. However, these stories are fundamentally human and deserve to be shared because someone else may encounter a similar situation in the future. I believe that if an idea can be conceived in the mind, it is possible for someone to experience it.
On the note of inspirations, a recurring figure in your work is your reimagining of the Akan armless wooden fertility dolls. These dolls have cultural significance, traditionally carried by women hoping to conceive or to ensure the attractiveness of their offspring. How do these figures resonate with your broader themes of universal heritage, identity, and multiculturalism?
Kojo Marfo: The dolls possess a remarkable uniqueness, not only in their appearance, but also in their lack of gender. These distinct features serve as a source of inspiration for me, stimulating my creativity, and allowing me to integrate diverse cultural symbols and groups, thus cultivating a personalized artistic style.
In a world where reality creates endless divisions, an alternative reality is necessary to emphasize the universality of our human desires, needs, and fears. It is through this alternative reality that we gain an improved perspective, recognizing that our own motivations are similar to those of all humanity. This separation from reality is a requisite step in addressing the challenging social, cultural, and political realities that exist amongst us – as humans – and forging bonds that stem from our shared experiences.
Can you walk us through your creative process? from the initial idea to the finished piece?
Kojo Marfo: Usually, I try not to have any preconceived notion of what I’m doing. The art I create draws on my current thoughts and feelings, while also incorporating random moments from my day to create a piece that conveys raw and immediate energy. When inspiration is lacking, I turn to images of traditional African carvings that I have collected for reference. The quiet of nighttime is the optimal time for my artistic process. By working under peaceful conditions, I am able to cultivate the focus and calm necessary to create something beautiful.
To prepare for painting, I often spend some time sitting and gazing at the blank canvas, allowing myself to become fully immersed in the moment. Occasionally, the desire to create isn’t immediately present, and taking this patient approach helps me to enter into a creative mindset.
Your upcoming exhibition, ‘Crucible of Hope’, set to be showcased at London’s JD Malat Gallery during Frieze Week, delve into the intricate balance of success, happiness, and the burdens that mould our existence. Could you shed light on the essence of this exhibition and give a glimpse of what visitors can anticipate?
Kojo Marfo: As we come into this world, our innate yearning for freedom and happiness drives us forward. However, there are challenges that are beyond our control, passed down to us by our forebears through fate. These burdens shape our destiny and impact the course of our lives. While some individuals have been able to overcome these limitations and achieve great things, others continue to struggle and find it difficult to reach their full potential.
Despite our unique circumstances, we are all united in the human experience. We share the same fundamental expectations, hopes, and burdens as we navigate the obstacles that life presents us. Looking forward, I believe that the pieces showcased in this exhibition can help people find balance, order, rhythm, and harmony in their lives. Through their beauty and message, they may provide the inspiration and guidance needed to navigate life’s challenges and find fulfilment.
Among the diverse pieces you’ve created, is there one that resonates most with your artistic vision or holds a special place in your heart?
Kojo Marfo: As an artist who is passionate about portraying human experiences through my work, it’s challenging for me to single out a favourite piece. However, I cannot help but shine a spotlight on “SANKOFA,” which holds a special place in my heart. This creation aims to remind us of the importance of occasionally pressing the “pause” button and reconnecting with our most essential human sentiments, which we might forget while striving for success or material possessions. By turning our attention back to our origins, “SANKOFA” urges us to rediscover our humanity and to avoid abandoning it in our pursuit of fame, wealth, and otherworldly rewards, which can make us lose sight of what truly defines us.
How do you hope your art will be remembered or discussed in future years?
Kojo Marfo: Through my creative expression, which delves into social issues, I anticipate that the future generation will reflect on my artistry and perhaps perceive me as an artist who explored the human condition and sought to rewrite history through my creations. However, above all, I aspire to be remembered as the innovative artist who introduced a distinctive flat style art that captivated audiences with its stoic figures and poignant human narratives.
I sought to tell compelling stories that often went overlooked or were not taken seriously, with the ultimate goal of sparking real change in how we perceive and treat one another. Thus, I hope that the future generations will view my work not solely as a reflection of our present society, but as a driving force towards a brighter, more empathetic future.
Artists often consider their studio a sacred space. Could you share three essential elements that define your studio space?
Kojo Marfo: There are three integral components of my studio that I simply cannot do without. The first is my beloved armchair, which serves as my go-to spot for deep reflection and meditation. Not only does it provide me with a sense of tranquility and inner peace, but it also allows me to ponder on issues that might otherwise go unnoticed or unconsidered. My armchair is not just a piece of furniture, it is an extension of my creative self – a source of solace and inspiration.
The second essential element of my studio is the collection of little African artifacts that are scattered around the space. These artifacts serve as a reminder of my heritage and offer me a sense of purpose and direction. They help keep me grounded and allow me to reconnect with my roots, as I am able to mentally transport myself back to where it all began. These little trinkets may hold little significance to others, but to me, they are imbued with great meaning and are an integral part of my creative process.
Finally, the third crucial component of my studio is the size of the space itself. It is not overly large, which allows me to develop a strong emotional bond with my artwork. Since many of my pieces tell human stories, it is vital for me to feel a sense of attachment to them, and the smaller space helps facilitate this connection. By feeling intimately connected to my art, I am better able to bring it to life and convey its message to others. Ultimately, my studio is my sanctuary, and each of these elements contributes to the unique sense of creativity and inspiration that I experience within its walls.
What’s next for Kojo Marfo?
Kojo Marfo: After my exhibition in London, I would have another show approaching around January in Istanbul, Turkey. Once this has concluded, I will shift my attention towards a plethora of other creative endeavors that are currently in the works. I am optimistic that these ventures will come to fruition and I eagerly anticipate sharing them with the world at large.
To wrap up, what does art signify to you?
Kojo Marfo: To me, art is the conduit through which I can articulate my perspectives, feelings, communicate important information, impart knowledge and share transformative ideas with a wider audience. It is a medium that allows me to draw attention to the current state of humanity, while shedding light on the various struggles that we face as human beings.