Afrogallonism: Attukwei Clottey at Framed
The hands-in-pocket, head-tilting, quiet, full-absorption mode happens to me just the same when I visit a gallery with a mask on as it used to without. I was pleased to discover this at Framed Gallery in December. So much of the art that lines the walls, all by African American artists, national and international, called out to me with vibrancy, movement, and range. There were about 20 artists on display in the collection that gallery owner Stacey Bartels curates and rotates. The gallery offers open hours weekly, same as always, with the support of the gallery assistant Bianca, who greets me warmly on the phone and in person.
Walking in, I was fascinated by the well-lit storefront gallery, the broad geographic scope of the artists on display, the sheer undertaking that running a gallery must be, and the vibrancy of all of it. I had as many questions for Stacey about small business/gallery management in Covid times as I did about the art and artists, and she answered all of them like we were old friends.
“We have always had individuals or small groups of people coming in, so we decided to keep our hours and stay open”, Stacey told me when I asked how they have weathered the pandemic. “Being open makes a difference, and we want to continue to welcome people in to see our art.” I was pleased to hear that 2020 was a great year of growth for Framed Gallery. “People are home, looking at their walls” she shared, when describing the growth of online sales. Most of it comes from outside of Cleveland, but as a North Collinwood resident, this place and its walkability from her home is just right for her. It feels just right for Cleveland too.
The artist I was really there to absorb was Serge Attukwei Clottey. Serge, as they refer to him at Framed Gallery, is an artist based in Accra, Ghana. His artistic work is broad, but what I was most excited to see was his body of work on reused plastic. the yellow plastic. Researching beforehand, I picked up his term “Afrogallonism,” described on his website as “An artistic concept to explore the relationship between the prevalence of the yellow oil gallons in regards to consumption and necessity in the life of the modern African.”
Serge’s show at Framed Gallery includes some Afrogallonism art, and they’re immediately my favorites. Plastic gallon bottles whose tops have been cut and formed into shapes like faces looking right back at you, displayed on vibrant African patterns. And bigger wall art of yellow plastic cut into squares, draped and attached like geometric tapestries, each individual unit wired to others. All of them feature a past life of use and reuse. Hung against the black gallery walls, I can almost hear and feel movement. Art that feels part of one world, displayed in another. Art that feels like travel. Art that tells me what it was.
Serge’s plastic pieces are tactile activism, fueled with social messaging about our global relationship with plastic, particularly how five-gallon plastic jerry cans represent the migration of materials and their environmental impact on his community in Ghana. Accumulating in communities like his where there is not proper recycling, Attukwei Clottey sees the yellow plastic jugs as a constant material to work with, and one that carries broader messages on materials migration and environmental hazards. I’ve learned that the plastic tapestries are cut, prepared, wired together and sourced by workers he hires in several studios in his community. The gathering of the jerry cans is an artistic, theatrical, community process and its outcome (like what I see on the walls of Framed Gallery) also serves to challenge the migration of this plastic into the community of Accra, Ghana, then exportation out as art. Based on a BBC World podcast I listened to*, it’s intentionally a communal process meant to highlight bigger social issues.
These pieces emote something for me. They feel like visual storytelling, and I stand still and quiet a long time, absorbing the stories. Worn, weathered, pocked, colorful, some painted, some with paper labels still attached, all together used, the individual squares weave together a purpose. The larger pieces in the Gallery make me long to see Serge’s huge outdoor installations, made the same ways, from the same materials. They stir me, and I suspect stirring is what they do for others too, these components of daily life transformed into something repetitive, larger than the sum of their parts. Gathered, handled, now hanging.
I dabble in reuse art myself, and my work running a non-profit called Upcycle Parts Shop is about connecting used materials to possibilities for creative reuse, connecting people to the materials, to their own creativity, and to neighbors and others around them. In learning about Serge I feel a connection to him too, to the work he does that challenges only plastic pollution, waste, and social issues, but also to engage people in the community he calls home. Serge’s work is about using art to address social issues, and this resonates deeply.
Head tilted, I stare at the plastic pieces, drilled and delicately wired to one another, and feel the connection. A friend and collaborator of ours at Upcycle Parts Shop, Cleveland artist Ron Shelton, counts Serge as a deep inspiration over the past 4 years. After seeing the show Ron shared with me how Serge is one of a group of Ghanian tile artists, working in a range of secondhand materials but with similar tapestry-building approaches, and with environmental messaging as a common thread. It’s a thread that Ron has picked up too, most recently through an art hat project in which Ron constructed hand-wired art hat frames and offered them to artists and community members to embellish with their own plastic waste. At Upcycle Parts Shop we collaborated with Ron and the City of Cleveland Department of Sustainability on an Art Hat virtual workshop this September, followed by a sidewalk parade in October on St. Clair Avenue to showcase our designs. It was exhilarating, connecting around the problem of plastics pollution with creativity and community.
After talking about Serge’s work and inspiration on us both, I ask Ron how he balances his own artwork with social messaging and art for the sake of art. He shared:
“Art is a tool to bring a message. At High Art Friday [the non-profit he runs] part of our mission is art now for social, environmental, political engagement. There is a level of aesthetics that first grabs people’s attention. But then, beyond the beauty, there is a broader message, a deeper message that is behind it, its primary purpose. That’s what art can do, and that’s what we do, we share that art and its message and connect it to others.”
It also seems to me to be what Ron does as an artist, and maybe too what I do in my work too. It’s a connected world we live in, and I leave Framed Gallery, feeling connected locally, globally, and socially. Stacey tells me to come back soon and smiling under my mask, I know that I will.
Nicole McGee is founding executive director of Upcycle Parts Shop, a non-profit, Creative re-use center in Cleveland.
More information on Serge can be found here