Ghanaian artist William Kwamena-Poh is a mostly self-taught painter whose work is familiar to many in Savannah, where he’s been a resident since 1995. He joined me on this week’s episode of Art on the Air to discuss how he came to be an artist and his current exhibition “The Journey Is Mine: Chapter One,” at Telfair Museum’s Jepson Center.
Kwamena-Poh wasn’t necessarily born into art. His grandfather was known to possess some talent, but he’d died long before William was born, and his father was a history professor. Somehow, though, Kwamena-Poh found himself drawn to self-expression at a very young age. “In my spare time or when I was down, I [would] go sit somewhere quiet and draw,” he reflected, “And that’s how [it] developed.”
Kwamena-Poh’s distinctive style came out of the need to use a technique that was faster than what he was doing (stippling, which might be the slowest form of drawing ever invented). He thought watercolor would do the trick, but ended up with gouache by mistake. “I went to the store to buy watercolor. And the watercolor tubes [were] half the size of this other brand called gouache. I’m like, ‘no, we’ll take this.’ And I thought, since I’m self-taught, I thought there was a brand called gouache. So I bought that. It took maybe five or ten years before somebody said “you know, William, that gouache isn’t watercolor.”
But by then he was hooked on the medium.
His father ended up receiving a Fulbright scholarship to teach African History at Talladega College in Alabama, which brought Kwamena-Poh to the United States. William was firmly committed to art at that point, and was working to refine his technique. “Most of what I was doing was from photographs,” he explained, “And so when you’re looking at a photograph, you want to try to copy it as much as you can. And so that’s where the initial indirect training came from, to get the body to look better.” Technique-wise, the work that Kwamena-Poh does today has its roots in his time at Talladega. But the “why” came later.
His gallery, located upstairs in City Market at 309 West Saint Julian Street #8, is called “Osibisa Fine Arts.” As Kwamena-Poh explained, ‘osibisa’ means ‘to ask,” and he feels like his role as an artist is to answer. “When I first got here, people were asking me questions like ’do you live in huts? Do you drive cars? Do you live in trees?’ And I’m listening to all of these crazy questions and I realized, you know what? I’ve got to show where I’m from.”
And that’s exactly what he’s done.
“What I’m trying to do is an indirect documentation of fishermen, and their storied lives,” he said, “And I can use Ghana. I don’t know about any other place, but I grew up in Ghana. At the end of the day you want a window that you can show people that you are familiar with.” But for Kwamena-Poh, it’s about more than just depicting the people of his homeland. It’s about connecting.
“I want to keep showing my culture so that we can understand each other better,” he told me, “To make sure that when I shake your hand, I give you a little bit of me, you give me a little bit of you, and we get a little bit of understanding of each other, and the paintings do the rest.”
Listen to my entire conversation with William Kwamena-Poh with special guest co-host Kiri Williamson, as well as my Field Note interview with the organizers and artists involved in Arts on Waters, embedded here!
Tune in to “Art on the Air” every Wednesday from 3-4 p.m. on WRUU 107.5 FM in Savannah, and streaming worldwide at www.wruu.org. Next week’s guest on the show will be Kelly Boehmer.
Art off the Air is a digital-only column that is posted every week on dosavannah.com as a companion piece to the WRUU 107.5 FM show “Art on the Air.”
Rob Hessler is an artist, host of the radio show Art on the Air on WRUU 107.5 FM Savannah, and Executive Director of Bigger Pie, a Savannah-based arts advocacy organization.