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Godfried Donkor

Born, 1964 in Kumasi, Ghana

Godfried Donkor is the history man. His paintings and montages depict history. Not history book history, but a living breathing history that engages and interfaces with a wide and potent range of contemporary concerns. His pictures are multilayered, multifaceted affairs that have a powerful, modern day resonance. His work strikes a variety of chords and nerves. Hardly surprising. For many of us, history refuses to be a lifeless and dull conglomeration of boring dates and events from which we are terminally disconnected. Instead, our take on history, more often than not, constructs it as signifying earlier episodes of our current existence. We are, in the twenty-first century, the latest instalments of our history. And as such, like Donkor, we are scarcely able to downgrade its centrality and importance in our lives.

In the words of one source, Donkor’s work looks back to look forward, it raises questions about prejudice and stereotype, slavery and humanity, the African diaspora and its heroes, and how they have struggled to become acculturated to the western world. (1) But looking at Donkor’s work, one rapidly gets the sense that no one interpretation, no matter how wide ranging, is adequate to summarise his practice. We are obliged to look at Donkor’s work from many different angles and from many different perspectives, if we are to avail ourselves of its multiple dimensions.

One of Donkor’s most engaging and celebrated series of recent work was his Slave to Champ paintings. This series featured near iconic depictions of Black boxers, some of whom were from way back when, some of whom were from more recent times. In the lower part of these paintings Donkor had first laid down reproductions of lithographs of slave ships, depicting their human cargo packed below deck like so many sardines in a tin. The origins of these drawings of slave ships and their contents date back to the abolitionist movements of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The abolitionists had seized on this simple but effective graphic device as a means of driving home the horrors that had to be endured by captured Africans during the middle passage the nightmarish journey by sea that took captured Africans from their homelands to slavery and death in the new world. As one historian has noted, “Of all the details of the slave trade that appalled anti-slavers, the most immediate because the easiest to visualise were those of how the human cargoes were stowed. The arrangements were made widely known in drawings.” (2)

But these powerful lithographs would in time take on a significance that went way beyond their propaganda value of their day. The passage of time did little or nothing to diminish the memory of slavery on the collective and individual psyche of new world Africans and their descendants. Indeed, a century and a half after the abolition of slavery by the British, plans of laden slave ships were starting to become iconic shorthand graphic signifiers not just for the miserable, wretched history of slavery , but also for the myriad ways in which that history spawned a thousand Black liberation struggles.

This is one of the most profound ways in which slavery has, for many people of the African diaspora, become a powerful indicator of identity. So Donkor’s use of the slave ship motif encapsulated and signified much in the way of Black history. The signifiers of enslavement, exploitation, bondage, torture, and death are never far from our readings of the slave ship image. Nor are the redemptive signifiers of survival, perseverance, and the struggle for humanity.

Metaphorically and literally rising out of Donkor’s slave ship plans were the imposing figures of Black boxers mentioned earlier perhaps the most well known being Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. Ali (and other boxers) appeared with his head crowned by a golden halo. By montaging the slave ship motif with that of the Black boxer, Donkor was animating a range of narratives that centred on the framing of the Black athlete. As one commentator noted, Donkor “places his black boxer towering aloft like a giant above a cross section of a slave ship, which recurs as a diagram from painting to painting.” (3) Within Donkor’s portrayals of his boxers there is warmth, humanity, and the perseverance of an almost righteous and spiritual struggle for manhood.

It’s almost as if, in Donkor’s view, the slave ship gave birth to Black people, the slave ship brought Black people from there to here; subsequently and consequently, giving birth to Black people as New World Africans. These are complex works, reflective of both overlapping as well as divergent narratives. Slavery giving birth to particular types of racism, including the idea that Black people are more physical than they are intellectual. That they should be noted for what their bodies can do, much more than their intellectual capacities and achievements. In some regards, the image of the Black boxer is the epitome or the single most enduring icon of this racism. And yet, Donkor’s boxers are triumphant, sensitive survivors. They are human beings who evoke a humanity that racism has tried (and continues to try) to strip from them. Within these works, the slave ship exists as a metaphor for how far we Black people have come, for how far these different boxers have come. From slave ship to heavyweight champion of the world. Donkor invites us to ponder the troubling question of just how far is that distance from slave ship to champ? Is it very far, or not far enough?

In subsequent pieces of work, Donkor continued to utilise the slave ship lithograph but substituted images of dance hall queens for prizefighters. Titled Browning Madonnas, these depictions of provocatively dressed, scantily clad dance hall performers also appeared with halos offering an intriguing view that totally inverted the dominant societal view of women (in this case, Jamaican show girls) who flaunted their sexuality.

As one curator has noted, Donkor’s significance as an artist lies in his “creative response to inherent tensions in an environment where cultural spheres overlap.” (4)

Donkor was one of five artists selected by Rose Issa for inclusion in her exhibition Routes, at Brunei Gallery, SOAS, London, 1999. In her introductory catalogue essay, Issa wrote, Godfried Donkor was born in Ghana, and his series, From Slave to Champ, combines two elements: 18th century prints of slave ships and images of black figures who became boxing icons of the last two centuries. His oil paintings, mostly in black and white, reflect the nostalgic mood of early silent movies. His interest in classical iconography is reflected in the process by which he realises his ideas. Donkor’s early boxers, who fought in the muddy fields of Britain, with bare knuckles, have genuine rags to riches life stories. His heroes, however, rest in places far from the territories where they were born. This hint, that England became a multicultural society the moment ships started arriving from America and the colonies, is ever present. [from Singing Your Own Song, Rose Issa, Curator]

(1) Bonhams catalogue for Modern and Contemporary African Art Sale, September 2000, p. 32

(2) Susanne Everett, History of Slavery, Bison Books, London, 1978, p. 46

(3) Routes exhibition catalogue, Brunei Gallery, School of Oriental and African Studies, London, 22 January - 26 March 1999. Essay by Everlyn Nicodemus. Catalogue unpaginated.

(4) Routes exhibition catalogue, Brunei Gallery, School of Oriental and African Studies, London, 22 January - 26 March 1999. Introduction by the exhibition curator, Rose Issa. Singing Your Own Song, catalogue unpaginated

His web site is www.donkor.net/

Related items

click to show details of Routes

»  Routes

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 1999

click to show details of There is No Redemption/Origin of End

»  There is No Redemption/Origin of End

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 2002

click to show details of Transforming the Crown

»  Transforming the Crown

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 1997

Related exhibitions

Related venues - view 5

»  Bonington Gallery, Nottingham Trent University

Nottingham, United Kingdom

»  The Bronx Museum of the Arts

United States of America

»  Caribbean Cultural Center

United States of America

»  City Gallery Leicester

Leicester, United Kingdom

»  Studio Museum in Harlem

New York, United States of America