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  • 'I won’t say I’m juxtaposing the classical with the unexpected, but I’m throwing light on the evolution of image-making; who makes the image, and where those images are shown.' —Serge Attukwei ClotteyVisually arresting and formally inventive, Ghanian-born Serge Attukwei Clottey’s 2020 Fashion icons belongs to a series of portraits exploring fashion, image-making and identity construction presented in his solo exhibition Beyond Skin held at Simchowitz Gallery, Los Angeles earlier this year. Composed from carefully selected strips of duct-tape arranged on cork boards, Fashion icons draws on the powerful agency of everyday objects that forms the conceptual basis for Clottey’s ‘Afrogallonism’ movement. Using repurposed yellow plastic jerry cans originally intended for importing oil and now a symbol of water scarcity in the region, Clottey and his arts collective GoLokal create elaborate costumes and tapestries in their politically charged installation and performance work. Engaging with a specifically West African history of visual and material culture, Clottey’s portraits take cues from mid-century black and white photographs as means not only of rethinking the past through the lens of the present, but of scrutinising the legacy of colonialism and interrogating embedded notions of gender and sexuality in the present day. 

     

    Portrait of Serge Attukwei Clottey at his exhibition, Beyond Skin, Simchowitz Gallery, Los Angeles, April 17—May 8, 2021. Courtesy of Simchowitz Gallery

    Strike a Pose: Fashion, Fabric and Photography 

     

    Taking the visually striking and beautifully staged black and white photographs of Malian masters Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé as a starting point, Clottey’s bold and vibrantly coloured treatment of the two ambiguously gendered three-quarter length standing figures in Fashion icons at once restores a sense of immediacy and vitality to these historic source materials and reframes their observations on image-making and the expression of individual identity for contemporary audiences. Redefining the African subject outside of the gaze of the coloniser in joyous and artful ways, these mid-century photographs align with Clottey’s highly articulate interest in the role played by social media in shaping the stories that young Africans tell about themselves, their communities, and their continent. 


    Diligently recording the likeness of thousands of Malians that passed through his studio in the 1950s and early 60s, Seydou Keïta’s photographs are fascinating documents of mid-century Malian life, employing bold fabrics with vibrant, contrasting patterns that find visual reinterpretation in Fashion icons compositional arrangement, juxtaposition of pattern, and playful confusion of the spatial relationships between figure and ground.   

     

    Seydou Keïta, Untitled, 1956-57 ©Seydou Keïta/SKPEAC 

    Similarly, in capturing a moment of transition in Malian culture as the country moved out of its colonial past and into independence, Sibibé’s photographs bring fashion to the forefront, capturing the stylish blend of Western stylistic influences such as Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles and more traditional codes of West African dress within Bamako’s burgeoning 60s and 70s youth culture. Capturing the beauty and self-determination of their subjects, both Keïta and Sidibé create a world where fashion is equated to freedom – the right to determine one’s own identity and creative potential against oppressive colonial rule or outdated notions of the performance and presentation of gender or personhood. 

     

    A Matter of Materials

     

    As art critic and former MOMA curator Robert Storr has commented in relation to Sidibé: ‘No African artist has done more to […] increase our awareness of the textures and transformations of African culture in the second half of the twentieth century’.i It is this sense of a dialogue between texture and transformation that Clottey’s sensitive and considered use of materials in the duct-tape portraits most pressingly responds to. As always in Clottey’s work, the everyday materials he has chosen to work with here are not incidental. Arranged over four cork boards, the fantastically vibrant composition is constructed primarily through alternating strips of brightly patterned and block-coloured duct tape which is playfully arranged and well-suited to evoking the rhythmic intersections of figure and ground, and the sharp edges of a coat lapel or the flowing line of a dress. 

    'I’m always looking at how materials can significantly influence a work, and how it fits in the ideas I explore […] instead of using paint to design the dresses of the characters, I use a material, [like duct tape] that will let me cut and join materials like the designers, tailors and seamstresses do in their shops and fashion houses.' iiDuct tape also carries significantly darker connotations as a tool of oppression and violence used against the Black body, as in the case of Marcus Omofuma referenced by Clottey. In using it to create the bold and highly patterned attire of the couple depicted in Fashion icons, the artist transforms the material into a symbol of pride, self-determination and protection as it traces, celebrates and works with their bodies rather than used against them. Referencing the community notice boards that operate as important sites of exchange and transmission of information for the good of Clottey’s local community in Accra, the cork boards are highly symbolic and emotionally resonant objects for the artist. Moreover, in their warmth, textural qualities and specific tone ‘which can change with exposure to the sun [cork] mimics the look of black skin’.iii   


    While clearly deeply rooted in a history of Ghanian material and visual culture, in its scale, commanding presence and highly decorative, flat qualities, Clottey’s Fashion icons visually resonates with Gustav Klimt’s most celebrated ‘Golden Period’ portraits. Master of the Viennese Succession movement, Klimt’s iconic use of gold not only strikes up a visual dialogue with Clottey’s enormous and ornate yellow plastic tapestries but, as with Clottey’s recovery and reuse of the ubiquitous plastic jerrycan, Klimt’s choice of material was steeped in personal biography.

     
    While not unusual materials in and of themselves, in his innovative recontextualization of cork, duct tape and archival or social-media photographs, Clottey turns them to unexpected uses. As in the memorable 2016 performance procession My Mother’s Wardrobe, in Fashion icons Clottey uses fashion’s proximity to identity and the construction of the self as an incisive tool for subverting conventional notions of gender and sexuality. 

     

    Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, 1907-08, Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria Bridgeman Images
    Detail of the present work

    Collector’s Digest

     

    •    Based in Accra, Ghana, Serge Attuwkei Clottey is one of the region’s most significant contemporary artists who works across various mediums in his exploration of ideas around migration, identity, materiality, and the environment. 

     

    •    Beyond Skin is the first of Clottey’s critically acclaimed duct-tape portraits to be presented at auction. 

     

    •    Receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Brighton in 2019, Clottey has exhibited widely internationally. Recent solo exhibitions include Gallery 1957 in both London and Accra, Simchowitz Gallery in Los Angeles, Feuer/Mesler in New York and Vestfossen Kunstlaboratorium Foundation, Oslo.  

     

     

    i Robert Stoor quoted in Pryia Elan, ‘Malik Sibibé: The Photographer Who Changed the Idea of Black Beauty’, The Guardian, 15 April 2016, online
    ii https://www.wallpaper.com/art/serge-attukwei-clottey-beyond-skin-simchowitz-los-angeles
    iii Beyond Skin press release, Simchowitz Gallery, online
     

    • Provenance

      Simchowitz, Los Angeles
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Los Angeles, Simchowitz, Serge Attukwei Clottey: Beyond Skin, 17 April - 8 May 2021

1

Fashion icons

signed and dated 'Attukwei Clottey 2018' on the reverse
oil and duct tape on cork board
180.3 x 120.7 cm (71 x 47 1/2 in.)
Executed in 2020-2021.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate
£30,000 - 40,000 

Sold for £340,200

Contact Specialist

Kate Bryan
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Olivia Thornton
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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 15 October 2021