How Emmanuel Taku reclaims black identity in his acclaimed artwork
Emmanuel Taku may use superheroes and deities as a starting point for his work, but for the Ghanaian painter, it comes down to depicting the everyday man and woman. Growing up, he didn’t see people like him in the stereotypical depictions of power shown in books, movies, and cartoons. With the goal of reclaiming and reframing black identity, his most sought-after pieces feature individuals standing together and letting their innate beauty and strength shine through through their stature and attire. Indeed, the artist also wants to one day be a God himself, raising his fellow creatives in his home base of Accra and giving them the chance to reach the top as well. Here, he tells the Daily how it all started.
What kind of child were you and what are your first memories of art?
Growing up, I loved reading storybooks and seeing colors and painting. Very young child, I loved to draw; I drew on the walls of my bedroom and on all the books I could find. That’s how it all started, and I knew I would be an artist. I studied at Ghanatta College of Art and Design. After that, I did some teaching, and now I’m a professional artist.
Was anyone in your family an artist?
There is no artist in my family, but I grew up in a composite household and there was a man who was a painter. He wasn’t a professional artist, but I was close to him and watched him paint. He helped me try out the paint, so that’s where the interest comes from.
How does it feel to be recognized for your work?
I feel blessed to have this chance and this opportunity. It’s not easy to reach an international level, especially so quickly. Some amazing artists have been doing this for decades and haven’t been seen or recognized. I had my first exhibition in Ghana last year, after my Noldor artist residency. Through this, the owners of the Maruani Mercier gallery in Brussels saw him and reached out.
Didn’t you initially sell your work through Instagram?
Everything I follow today goes through Instagram! That’s how the founder of the Noldor Residence found me. He called me and it all started there. Without Instagram, I wouldn’t be where I am.
Do you remember the first painting you sold?
One of my old paintings, but I can’t remember the name!
Tell us about your process.
I plan sometimes, but most of the time it comes to me subconsciously. I scour social media and try to find images that match what I have in mind. Sometimes I can’t find the exact image I want to put on my canvas, so I sit down and do what I see in my head and take a picture. I don’t paint my own face though. I use divinity and superheroes.
The eyes are still empty. What does that mean?
I remember watching Man of Steel and Superman, and when they get to that level of power, their pupils disappear and they go white-eyed. To me it means strength.
Your characters are often dressed in beautiful textiles as a nod to the women you grew up with. Tell us about this reference.
I grew up with a sister who was always at her sewing machine. She liked to use floral fabrics; I think she got it from my mother. I didn’t even know I was doing it; I did it unconsciously. It wasn’t until one day when I was being interviewed and asked about textiles that I made the connection with my sister.
Are the textiles you represent from your imagination or do they really exist?
It comes naturally to me. I design fabrics, such as floral print fabrics, on the computer before transferring them to canvas. I’m like, “If I put this and this together…” and then I see what happens.
Do you follow fashion yourself?
I love fashion. I would choose a fashion show rather than a football match!
Why did you choose to settle in Accra?
I like seeing the people around me, the people I grew up with. The places where I grew up. It brings back a lot of memories. I would like to travel, but I would always like to go home and see people like me.
When did you start portraying your subjects as demigods and heroes?
I started this work with the residency last year. The residency you attended also helped foster mental health through personal counseling. How has this helped you grow? After the [first stage of the] residence, I was actually exhausted. I had this week with a psychotherapist and she guided me through this mental health journey. I hadn’t had this before. It helped me because I was able to relax, get closer to nature and regain my strength and all the energy I had lost. I was so much stronger mentally after that. I would like to see a professional like that once a year.
In your emblematic works, your subjects are rarely alone. Is it a conscious choice?
In my country, there is a saying that a broomstick breaks easily, but when you tie them together, it becomes hard to break. Putting two people together means strength and consolidation. I want to give the impression that anything is possible when we come together. When we meet, it doesn’t matter what color your skin is, white, black or whatever. If we get together, there’s nothing we can’t do. Nothing can break us because we think alike and we want to establish and achieve. If we are against each other and fight, push, pull, we will not be able to reach the top. This is why we must unite, so that we can fight and be strong. That’s why I try to make them look like one person.
Spirituality is also a recurring theme. Why is that?
In my country, we believe that the most powerful thing begins with what is beyond the eye. They are more powerful than the things we see with the naked eye. Because I project the black man as a superhero, I try to bring to life what we don’t see with my brush, paint, and journal. I try to bring in the things we don’t see but think are powerful. I want the person who sees this to believe that what he thinks is stronger than him. He can achieve that same level of power.
What about the use of newspapers in your work?
It represents what is happening in my country. I want to document what is happening with words and letters. I also believe that words can make or break us. The words we accept, we become. I follow the flow, but I put letters and words that viewers can put together in a positive way. If we want to change and become better people, we have to change the words we accept. Even if they are negative.
What words stood out to you the most?
I read this book which changed my life. It’s called The Secret of the Ages, by Robert Collier. I started accepting some words and refusing others. It helped me realize that I can do anything if I put my mind to it. Everything is possible! If you can think it, then you can have it.
What are your hobbies?
I like watching movies and I like poetry.
What motivates you ?
I think that if I allow myself to dream and push further, I can also achieve other dreams. I think if I am able to reach the top, I can also help other artists to reach the top. It gives me the strength to work hard. I was struggling once; I know how it feels. I want to help artists in Ghana. Some of these artists are very good but don’t have the visibility and don’t know where to go. Even if it’s not in the art world, I want to help other creative people who want to accomplish something. If I can do that, I also want to become someone else’s God, if I can.
What inspires you?
Books I read years ago and social media.
How do you relax?
I like water! Going to the beach or swimming pool is the best way to relax.
Which artists will always be the ones you admire?
I would say the #1 artist I look up to is [Ghanian painter] Amoako Boafo. And my use of newspapers [in my artwork] was actually inspired by [Japanese conceptual artist] On Kawara.
What’s next for you?
I have an exhibition called It Takes Two – Temple of Deities with the M Art Foundation currently in Shanghai until December 18th. In addition, the Lévy Gorvy gallery will present two paintings on its stand at the ART021 fair in Shanghai. I am also preparing two personal exhibitions in 2022.
Great things are coming!
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