Call and Response: Kobi Onyame vs the artist

An experimental music-art collaboration takes place this month in Many Studios in Glasgow, pairing artists with tracks from Kobi Onyame's acclaimed new album GOLD

Article by Adam Benmakhlouf | 05 Mar 2018

Throughout March, Many Studios host a unique project that began with curator Natalia Palombo putting out an open call for artists to respond to Glasgow-based Ghanaian musician Kobi Onyame’s album, GOLD. We recently interviewed the artist himself in these pages, and gave him an excellent review for the album itself. So it’s with a lot of excitement that we speak to Palombo, Onyame and several of the participating artists about the motivations that inspired this current project, and the kinds of collaboration and conversation it has already spurred between the organisers and artists.

Ashanti Harris is one of the artists in the show, and she describes first listening to the album. “When I listened to GOLD, I felt like it had a trace, that it was built on all these different things, for example a highlife influence, UK hip-hop. In a way it’s a homage to everything that’s gone before but also turning it into something new and taking it a step further.” Harris then applied out of the motivation of knowing that she wanted to make some kind of response to the album. Nevertheless, she admits, “Responding to a song is really new to me.”

Speaking about Kill the Body, the song allocated to Harris, she says: “It was really lucky. Even just looking at the tracklist, the title really jumped out at me. I already had an idea of what the song might be about before listening to it. It speaks of all the things I was thinking and more. My method of responding to it was thinking about all the different themes we talked about when I met Kwame [Kobi Onyame] and using those as a stepping stone. It started with the idea that the body isn’t you. It’s this shell, and all the different ways the body can function, as a shell, shield and separation from the soul.” 

From this point, Harris continued her own research looking into folklore traditions of West Africa, Nigeria and the Yoruba. There was the idea in parts of these traditions that the soul controls the body, and the head controls the soul. “I found it really interesting that there were these three things, then visually how you can represent the head, the soul and the body.”

Hearing how Harris responded to Kill the Body, Onyame is clear that “she nails it.” He goes on: “Some people don’t necessarily get the same thing from the song that I did. But, as Ashanti says, there’s a constant battle between your spirit and being and flesh, which Ashanti touched on as being the shell. It’s interesting to see she took it further and introduced the mind or the soul, which I interpret as being the ego, and bouncing between these three different parts. The whole album touched on that [relationship] between flesh and spirit.”

Providing another viewpoint on the album, there is the interpretation by Hakeem Adam, Ghanaian artist and founder of DANDANO, a Pan-African cultural platform for African film and music criticism. “I was particularly impressed by the honesty Kobi Onyame shared on the album, such that it was easy to follow him on each of the stories he narrated. The album had an organic pull that urged me to probe some of the themes, especially of insecurity and triumph.” Another Ghanaian artist involved, Selorm Jay, describes a similar pull to make a visual response to the album: “If it wasn’t for the call I would have personally wished to have given some visuals to any of the songs on the album.”

For Jay, the track he was allocated had immediate associations to his experience living in Ghana. “I was given a song from the album to work with. The song titled DMCRZY (democracy) is something, being an African, we question every day and fight for. We have known great names that have fought for the good of my people in the name of democracy. So I chose Fela [Fela Kuti, creator of Afrobeat, who famously married 27 women] and his wives as an abstract to my visual and also because his voice was sampled in the music I had to work with, touching on the idea of democracy.”

Whereas DMCRZY immediately suggested its wider importance to Jay, for Adam, responding to the album involved listening to the track, but then the important step of looking “beyond the music, to create [his] own experience that would parallel and challenge that of the music simultaneously.” He gives an indication of the kind of output that came of this process; “My work for the show seeks to prove alternate dimensions of two visual images, each rendered through poetry and photography.”

Also, when asked about the experience of being part of an exhibition that is entirely people of colour, Adam responds: “It is a great opportunity for myself and the other artists participating in the shows. For me I feel that it is important that we allow art criticism from people of the same heritage as the artist, as they will share certain knowledge bases that will deepen their understanding of a piece of work. I’m eager to see how the other artist received and interpreted the work, but regardless it will be a great triumph in reclaiming space in the global art world.”

Continuing to think about the broader implications of this exhibition, Onyame discusses the confidence he found after realising that his priority is putting out his message in the most effective way. For him, this naturally leads to collaboration and sharing expertise, as artists might see the potential for better communicating a certain idea in another artform, but not necessarily have the background to try a new medium or discipline alone. “Artists are allowed that freedom in some places, but perhaps not in the UK or Europe more widely,” Palomba adds and thinks that it might be a leftover of institutional distinctions between fields and forms of artmaking.

Onyame adds to this. “Something has shifted and has affected the people and annoyed the people and required them to stand up, and shout and talk. And that’s where art thrives anywhere. That’s why art thrives in a wartorn nation or one that’s suffered. An uprising causes better art… Without struggle what is the point of good art?"

Adding some qualification, Palombo goes on, “It’s not to say that there aren’t injustices that individual artists have faced in their own experience, it’s just that work has been quite insular and (subjectively speaking) not strong from what’s represented in Scotland. It’s not about a lack of social or political drive, just that the artists who are getting chosen are white middle-class artists that don’t necessarily experience that themselves. ”

With these ideas in mind, Harris speaks reflectively and generously about some of the biggest questions she faces as an artist. “I think it really is specific to certain people’s situations. I’ve started to realise this more recently as there has been a more diverse range of work being shown in Scotland, and you start to find things you connect to more. It’s because they speak to your experiences. I asked myself recently: 'Why do I want to do art?' And I decided that when I was young, it was the way I learned about things that people weren’t teaching me. I liked the fact that it was going to art [events and exhibitions] that you were allowed to question specific things that you’re being told about you or your life or the way you should be. Having something that empowers you to question that is really important.”

Kobi Onyame Versus The Artist, until 1 Apr, Many Studios, 3 Ross St, Glasgow, free entry