Meet the Obuobis, Yaw and Sharon

And Check Out AADAT

Sharon ObuobiSharon Obuobi divides her time between New York and Ghana which is her springboard for travels through West Africa. But, in aiming to connect her strong, lifelong interest in visual art to African empowerment, her bailiwick is really the whole wide African diasporic world. To make the connection, she constantly employs multiple forms of social networking and digital media, particularly through African & Afro-Diasporan Art Talks (AADAT).

In conversation about areas of mutual interest between IRAAA+ and AADAT, Sharon Obuobi shared information about her personal relationship with art, developed from her observations of her father, Yaw Obuobi, an architect and artist who invented a form of 'painting' with fibers, not pigment, by deftly manipulating and precisely applying yarn to board.  

Yaw Obuobi's ingenious and extremely painstaking technique of 'painting' with yarn reminded me of the beading expertise evident in the traditional Zulu artifacts on view at the Hampton University Museum.  Once, when looking at them, I regretted that, because of the disruptions of the slave trade and colonialism, opportunities were lost for the artful and inventive skills of African peoples of those times to be transferred to technical invention and development on the continent. “The intricate Zulu beading reminds me of a computer bitmap!,”  I said in an email conversation to Richard Woodward, curator of African art  at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, who replied, "And just think about the calculus of Kuba textiles!”

As an extension of that conversation, I asked Sharon Obuobi about her father’s work. Among other things, I was amazed at how he can replicate fine details with string! Her reply follows. — ed.

Yaw Obuobi, Preservation and Invention

 Yaw Obuobi, Echo, 2010, yarn on board. Image courtesy of the artistOur family comes from the Akan tribe of Ghana, known for its invention of kente. Originating in the Ashanti kingdom, kente is a royal fabric that was worn in the most sacred of occasions, and was reserved only for the kings. Though its use has become more common among everyday citizens, kente is still an important component of our culture. Yaw Obuobi observed the local crafts of the weaving of kente cloth through his travels between Accra and Kumasi. 

 Yaw Obuobi, Forebearers Tune, 2011, yarn on board. Image courtesy of the artistInspired by the woven aesthetic of kente, Obuobi devised a yarn medium to emulate painted brush strokes.  The process of ‘yarn painting’ was developed to achieve the effect of depth perception and effects of brush strokes. Developed over 30 years, his technique of intricately manipulating the yarn to achieve various textural effect was the result of a fascination with the deconstruction and reinvention of materials into other forms. “I connected the threads of Kente to transform the use of yarn as a form of expression, passing on a heritage of a proud people to a form of painting in place of watercolor, acrylics and oils in a flirtation that links cultures and worlds,” says Obuobi.

Like the blood that holds us together, art and creativity are a common theme in my family lineage.  My uncles who embraced the visual arts during their youth and my aunt, their eldest sister studied textiles as part of her degree in art. My paternal grandfather was a legend of his own. Born in 1915, he built a career as a draughtsman – the equivalent of today’s architect. From 1945 to about 1980, my grandfather designed and built churches, houses, and commercial properties in Ghana; the Krobo Odumase Presbyterian Church was one of them. My late mother, Henrietta Obuobi, was a fashion designer among other things. 

I grew up surrounded by blueprints of house designs, my father’s artwork of African musical scenery, and my mother’s clothing designs that I proudly modeled. This was all set to the soundtrack of a wide jazz collection.  Jazz set the mood for many road trips and peaceful days at home. Art was a normal way of life, expression and a component of the way things were. Though I never imagined that I would fervently take art on as an advocate, I’m hardly surprised that I did.

Over the years, art has come to take on new meanings for me. It is a form a communication, which I believe should be used for advocacy and to inspire conversation on social issues. Exploring the arts through self-study and documentation with African & Afro-Diasporan Art Talks, has built my passion for art’s influence in African society. I was accustomed to my father’s work as “the way things were,” but by applying my newly strengthened love for African art to investigate the themes in his art, I discovered new meaning to what I do. 

Yaw Obuobi, Rhythm of Life, 2010, yarn on board. Image courtesy of the artist Yaw Obuobi’s body of art derives inspiration from daily life experiences in African countries with Ghana in particular. His work is driven by the personal philosophy that art is an effective recording instrument to combat the threat of human forgetfulness. For this reason, he preserves memory through his documentation of traditional African cultures.

In examining his work I ask myself, “What are we in danger of forgetting?” As a member of the young generation that’s rising to take over the continent, this echoes in my mind as I witness a dynamic shift in culture among young Africans.  We’re moving towards a more globalized, reinvented, contemporary way of life. It is natural, because culture can never be static or stagnant and must change in response to external and internal forces. So I see my father’s work as pivotal for its role in preserving the memory of history and culture.

 Yaw Obuobi, Intrigued, 2011, yarn on board. Image courtesy of the artistHis "painting" involves techniques of yarn interlocking, weaving, contouring, layering and shredding to embody the effects of brush strokes. In using this medium, he challenges the conventional expectations of painted portraits, using an Akan-inspired medium in place of Western-developed medium of paint. 

His choice of yarn also conveys the idea of connections and community. By incorporating different colors and textures of yarn to create one visual picture, he projects themes of diversity, plurality, multifacetedness, all challenging the oversimplification of culture. Looking closely at what may seem to be a simple image will reveal a complex arrangement of yarn threads carefully placed together to create images of people, often performing a musical or dance piece. 

Centered in his work are four themes; the realism of still life, the spirituality of African societies, the abstractive interpretation of traditional symbols and beliefs, and the expressiveness of individual portraits. With the realism of still life, he works to capture objects and artifacts in their most representative form. Combined with expressive portraits, it reflects a joyful, soulful people. It is a documentation of who we have been, and who we are. 

As part of this new generation of young Africans, I am inspired by the work of my father to connect with my generation of Africans and descendants of Africans through art. It is crucial that we preserve our memory by documenting stories and showcasing histories through art. Art serves as a platform to showcase and explore various aspects of ideas and values for an informed, progressive collective generation of Africans.