Feeling out of place in Britain, Fowokan was resolute in his decision not to assimilate, but instead strove to maintain his ‘Africanness’. A mind-set created through experiences like being turned away from his first job due to the ‘colour bar in practice’, disallowing coloured people to perform certain jobs. Nonetheless, this harsh experience pushed Fowokan to a job at the post office, which, he says, “was the beginning of my real education”. Meeting people of all races and being able to laugh and drink with them opened up Fowokan’s world. During this time, he would also take weeks off work at a time to read the literary greats. These experiences combined to form a special kind of self-education that Fowokan values highly.
A trip to Nigeria in the 1970s seems to mark the beginning of a path that organically brought Fowokan’s creative energy back to art-making. Here he gained interest in African cultural and religious practices, amazed by the spiritual significance of African artefacts. Artefacts which have been collected by Europeans and noted purely for aesthetic purposes.
“Europeans are the ones who call the artefacts created by Africans for ritual and ceremonial purposes art. Traditional Africans did not see things in purely aesthetic terms”.
Through his artwork, Fowokan disallows the disregard of the ritualistic importance of these artefacts, in a way resurrecting their traditional spirituality. Fowokan intuitively draws on many spiritual experiences that he has gained through travel, as he details his visits to the Taj Mahal, Sistine Chapel, Parthenon and River Nile – to name a few! Studying yoga and meditation in the East, Fowokan has also put these to artistic use, practicing meditation to aid with his visualisation of objects for sculpting.
Fowokan’s artworks displayed in the No Colour Bar exhibition, Mother of the Deep Ocean (1996) and Lost Queen of Pernambuco (1989), triumph lesser-known figures in African history. Placed at the entrance to the exhibition guests “had to pay homage to these guardian spirits” before entering, enabling the ritualistic energy of these busts. Mother of the Deep Ocean is inspired by a Yoruban goddess of the deep oceans, Olokun. She guards the souls of enslaved Africans who chose to take their lives rather than go into slavery. Lost Queen of Pernambuco refers to the re-enslavement of the ‘mocambos’, who were Africans that had previously escaped slavery and settled on the border of Brazil and Dutch Guiana. In this bust, Fowokan wants to convey that freedom is precarious and “the struggle (for freedom) doesn’t end”. He demonstrates this by splitting the bust into two halves, one with traditional kinky African hair, the other with a smoothed, manufactured appearance. Here Fowokan cleverly warns the current generation of the cost of imitating and leaving African heritage under-acknowledged. For Fowokan, embracing Africanism, not only helps him to create art that is not “devoid of spirit”, a key tenet for this artist, but also enriches his life experience.
Interview by Immaculata Abba. Edited by Lara Pysden
No Colour Bar’s Immaculata Abba met George Fowokan Kelly in his studio in Ladywell, London. As a self-taught artist known for creating striking sculpted busts, three of which featured in the No Colour Bar exhibition, Fowokan draws heavily on his Jamaican roots and African ancestral heritage. The artistic methods he engages with demonstrate his dedication to African and Caribbean culture; however, he also draws on Eastern influences. Having been in the UK for sixty-one years, Fowokan has persistently and firmly chosen to maintain a strong grasp on his Caribbean and African heritage, a feeling which permeates much of his artwork. As a veteran of the Caribbean Artists Movement, Fowokan has been involved with the Huntley Archives at LMA from the beginning, and so has seen the No Colour Bar project blossom. After leaving the education system at the earliest possible point, Fowokan has championed the idea of learning for yourself. Although it seems that he was pushed in this direction by unfeeling and unenlightened teachers. For example, Fowokan fondly remembers painting during his youth in Jamaica, but this was a skill he quickly abandoned in the UK due to an apathetic art teacher.