This interview is published in Art South Africa Magazine
Professor Ablade Glover was born in Accra (Ghana) in 1934. His paintings are intensely textured explorations of oil paint layered onto a surface with a palette knife. Human figures and places – and allusions to bodily gestures, movement, light and atmosphere – are fleetingly, ambiguously glimpsed, through surfaces that speak to artist’s processes, time and the ephemeral. The artist’s deliberate, self-reflexive practice of observation, and his particular (subjective) exploration, and translation, of the world, overlays the private, internal space of studio painting engaged by the rich materiality of paint. Glover’s own imaginative relationship to vision (and its memory) and painting as an immediate, physical activity, is suggested in the evidence he leaves behind: tactile fragments of thick, overlaid colour remain. The everyday tools of the painter – palette and palette knife – drive the work and the surfaces made visible to us: the appearance of a seamless, untroubled surface is resisted. Paint is pasted on with a palette knife; layer upon layer: evidence of scraping, caking, peeling, flaking remain. Suggesting a historical relationship to abstraction in art, as a broad field of inquiry (and its dialogue with representation, materiality, affect, the body, process) Glover’s paintings contribute questions of significance to the art historical work of thinking through histories of art, and the African continent.
October Gallery (London) presents Ablade Glover: 80th Anniversary until 2 August 2014.
Yvette Greslé: I am interested in your relationship to paint as a medium and in your process as an artist (whether this is described as a creative or research process, or a process of observation). Do you work from particular sources? What are the interests that drive the work you do as an artist? I am struck by the way you work with oil paint, the dense layering of paint to a surface.
Ablade Glover: I do not know quite how and when the process developed. I started painting, like all students, with a brush. At some point, when I was at the University of Newcastle (studying art education) I met an art teacher who saw me using a brush and told me that my way of painting would do better with a palette knife. I tried it and I thought that it responded to my temperament. I like the immediacy of it. I can apply paint and take it off, that kind of thing. It gripped me and since then (this was 1964) it has been the palette knife. I like to produce quickly, and with immediacy, before I lose the inspiration to make something. Then, I will come back to the work later (maybe a day or two later) I might add something more or I may leave the work as it is. This has been my painting process.
For me, painting is also always a learning process. For example, I might paint a scene and be happy with it. But simultaneously, through the process of making this work, I might see a door opening to another piece. In this way, an idea or inspiration will carry through to more then one painting.
YG: What is so interesting for you about marketplaces in Ghana?
AG: I don’t think it’s the market as such. It’s the people who interact there. But more then this it is the movement, the tempo, and the change of colour that you see. Every minute the market changes. When you walk through a market you don’t necessarily observe very closely. But when you begin to look you see amazing things. The market changes every minute: people move and the colours change. There is something bigger then the market; taking place through the process of looking. It becomes, for me, a subject that must be studied and pursued. I am intrigued by markets and people’s behaviour in them. Particularly in our markets [referring to Ghana]. Our markets are dominated by the women. The women like to engage you or each other. You might go to a woman and ask the price on a piece of yam. It is an insult to her to pay her the price she tells you at first. The market is a place for interaction. The market women want you to negotiate, to engage. Sometimes you know each other and you talk. It is very interesting to watch these characters and their performances. This interest in markets has led me to watch other crowds, other people. People’s behaviour do change when they are in a group. I have learnt that people are different when they are in a crowd.
YG: Which part of Ghana do you come from?
AG: I come from a small town called La. La became Labadi under Danish colonial rule but was changed back to La (after British Colonialism). Apparently Labadi came out of the Danish language: The place was used by the Danes to swim because it has a beautiful beach and Labadi refers to a batheing place. I was born in the city Accra. La is part of Accra but we like to think of ourselves as separate. My father was from Accra and my mother from La. I went to a boarding school when I was fourteen. It was a Presbyterian school: it was started by the Basel missionaries. During the war the British brought in the Scots, who were Presbyterians, to take over the schools. We were raised, at school, by Scottish people.
YG: Ghana’s history of visual culture is very interesting: objects such as Akan gold weights, and Asante stools and textiles. When did you begin to think of yourself as an artist?
AG: In Ghana, and in Africa more broadly, art is historically not separated from life. It is part of life. You don’t think of art as a thing that is detached from everyday life. Art is a thing that is part of day to day activity. It is not a thing that you put on a wall and come to look at. I didn’t see art in this way until I went to teacher training. Then art was taught as part of the training process (so that when you go to a school you can teach it). The art teacher was always saying to me: ‘That’s very good. That’s very nice’. I thought he was just being encouraging because few people loved art; and he wanted people to come to his class. I finished my teacher training and I began to teach. I realised that I didn’t like teaching at all. I taught for a year and by the end of the year I knew I wouldn’t be able to go on (I hated the classroom setting of having to stand in front of 45 children, that kind of thing). And so I applied to study art – to be an art teacher. I was accepted to train at the Kumasi College of Technology (now Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology).
YG: Were you politically engaged as a student, for example, during the process of independence (led by Kwame Nkrumah)?
AG: No, not at all. I am still not interested in politics.
YG: That is interesting for me coming from South Africa where there is a very strong relationship between art and the political.
AG: I do not think that in Ghana there is that pressure as an artist.
YG: You also studied in England (at the Central School of Art and Design and then at Newcastle University).
AG: I first came to study in England for a specific purpose. Nkrumah wanted to open textile and textile printing companies, concerns, big factories. There were advertisements for young people with an art education (at the time I was an art teacher). I was encouraged to sit for the entrance exam at the Central School in London by Mary Kirby (who taught at the University of Science and Technology). I passed the exam but could not afford to go. One year passed and then an opportunity for a scholarship came along. My particular assignment was to be fabric design and printing. When I first came to London it was specifically to study textiles and that is what I did. But it was the school that turned me into an artist. You had to take a major and a minor. My major was textiles but I took drawing and painting as a minor. I loved my minor more then my major: if I had had a choice I would have taken painting as my major. But I had no choice and did what the scholarship required of me.
After I returned to Ghana the factory for which I was being trained was not yet completed. This is how I came back to Britain. I then came to the University of Newcastle to study art education. I aimed to teach in a Higher Education Institution.
Yvette Greslé: When did your work as a painter begin?
Ablade Glover: I made paintings after I returned to Ghana from the Central School. But the motivation was to make work to sell so that I could return to Britain to study further. I gained admission to the University of Newcastle but again could not afford to go and there was no possibility of a scholarship. I made a collection of paintings and wanted to exhibit them. I needed someone to open the show for me, someone with a good social profile, and people suggested Mrs Du Bois (Shirley Du Bois, the wife of W.E.B. du Bois). She was then the head of Ghana Television. I went to her and asked her (I think she thought I was very brave approaching her like that). She agreed but said she wanted to see the work first. This was a bit embarrassing for me to take this important woman to my home. I lived in a slum. Anyway, we had an appointment and she said she’d come in the morning. My uncle was then the Chief of the town and he had a hall and so I went to ask him if I could use it. He agreed and so when Mrs Du Bois came I took her there. She agreed to open the exhibition and bought one of the paintings.
Yvette Greslé: What were these early paintings like? Did you also work with the thick layering? Was it figurative work or abstract?
Ablade Glover: No, I hadn’t got to that stage and I was using a brush. It was figurative work mostly. I was painting a lot of the construction work going on in Ghana.
After the exhibition Mrs Du Bois asked me what I wanted to do and I told her I wanted to go back to Britain to study, to enter the university and teach. She asked me if I’d like to work in broadcasting and support her in the design area. At the time things were politically dangerous: this was the time that young people were trying to overthrow Nkrumah. People wanted to kill him, and if there was any suspicion about you you’d just be arrested. There was the Preventative Detention Act where you could be arrested and detained for years. It was a very bad period. I didn’t like the atmosphere. This is one reason why I wanted to get out and study at Newcastle.
One day Mrs Du Bois sent her driver to fetch me saying she wanted to see me immediately. I went with the driver to her home and she said to me: ‘I’m taking you to see the President. He wants to see you’. I was scared because of the atmosphere of violence but somehow I trusted her and went to the President’s office. Nkrumah stood up from his desk and we shook hands. Mrs Du Bois said: ‘This is the young man I spoke to you about’. That is when he turned to look at me properly. He said he heard that I wanted to go back to Britain to study and that ‘it’s all been worked out’. This brought back my fear again. I thought: ‘What has been worked out?’ But then finally I was given a letter by his secretary. I went to the Ministry of Education with the letter and they asked me when I wanted to go. I said: ‘Today’. They told me to return the next day to pick up a letter and the day after that I was flying out.
This is an edited version of a conversation (between Yvette Greslé and Professor Ablade Glover), 3 July 2014 at the October Gallery, London.
Ablade Glover: 80th Anniversary at the October Gallery runs through to 2 August 2014. An exhibition catalogue, with an essay by Gerard Houghton, was published on the occasion of the exhibition, and is available from the gallery.
Address: October Gallery, 24 Old Gloucester Street, Bloomsbury, LONDON WC1N 3AL.
Opening Times: 12.30-17.30 from Tuesday to Saturday.