When he first moved to the United States in 1980, 20-year old William Kwamena-Poh found that people in his home country of Ghana knew a lot more about the U.S. than Americans knew about Ghana.
“When I got here, people started asking questions about where you lived, where are you from; crazy questions,” he said. “People had no concept of Ghana or any other country. They think you don’t live in houses.”
People asked him whether Ghanaians lived in trees, whether they wore clothes, and a common response, Kwamena-Poh said, was to jokingly tell people he had never worn clothes until he got to the airport.
That was obviously a joke. But it explains why he thinks he was something of a troublemaker growing up. “I was not the best of kids,” he said, “but by American standards, I was not that bad. We never fought with guns or knives, we were just prank-ish.”
He flunked out of school when he got older, but great art teachers got through to him. An early art lesson, he said, was when an instructor told him to master painting a bamboo grove. His teacher taught him that if he could master the complex shadows of so many bamboo plants, Kwamena-Poh said, he could paint anything.
And throughout his career as an artist, Kwamena-Poh has wanted to teach people about his culture through art.
He compared telling people about his home country to telling a joke translated from another language to English. Sometimes the punchline doesn’t quite make sense.
It wasn’t that way with art.
“If I give you a painting of a little bit of where I’m from, you get it. You get what I’m trying to tell you,” Kwamena-Poh said.
His paintings — many of which feature Ghanaian scenery and people, like fishermen on docks and women shopping in marketplaces — have bright, intense colors. The colors might seem embellished for the canvas, but, if anything, he tones colors down for the canvas. That detail is true to life, he said, because the place where he grew up, the Ghanaian city of Kumasi, lies less than 500 miles from the equator.
“We’re in the heart of the sun,” Kwamena-Poh said. “The sun also magnifies the colors a little bit. It gives me a way to show people what the country is.”
Kwamena-Poh has spent the past 40 years far from the heart of the sun here in the United States. When he first came to the U.S., he moved with his father to Alabama. His dad, a history professor at the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, received a teaching position at Talladega College in Alabama. Nowadays, Kwamena-Poh lives in Savannah, Georgia, where he has his studio.
Kwanena-Poh’s primary medium is paint. He also experimented with screen printing, but has always returned to painting. As he gets older, he said, he finds that he looks at the world a little differently. “I feel like when I was younger, my eyes could see very well,” he said, “but your inner eye, the older you get, is much better. That allows you to sit back and see what you’re doing.”
His works often focus on the figures of African people. By presenting Black people from the perspective of a Black person, he said, he provides levels of detail and love that he wanted to see more of when he was just getting started as a painter.
“The issue is not about, ‘Let me paint somebody who is my color,’ it’s, ‘Let me paint somebody who is my color to let me show their humanity,’” Kwamena-Poh said. “That’s what I’m trying to get — to show everyone their humanity.”
Kwamena-Poh’s body of work was selected as last year’s Fall Festival of the Arts – DeLand Best of Show.
He also showed off his paintings with a solo exhibition at the Jepson Center for the Arts in Savannah in 2019, and his art will be featured in an upcoming season of the Amazon Prime TV show The Story of Art in America.
You can see the artist and his art at this year’s Fall Festival of the Arts, and you can see more of Kwamena-Poh’s art on his website, www.williamkfineart.net.
To read more about the Fall Festival of the Arts DeLand, including a schedule, list of exhibits and event map please visit: The Fall Festival of the Arts Deland program.