Child Artist prodigy, Eugene Ankomah, has certainly been prolific with his work over the years. As an avant-garde experimental and walking installation of his art, Ankomah was responsible for the Ghanaian flag which was raised above Buckingham Palace for the HRH Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. We managed to catch up with the artist who infamously insured his hands for one million quid ahead of his recent Soho exhibition, “Future Image,” to delve into his mind and unpick his creativity.
I read that you were a self-taught artist. When did you realise that you were interested in art as a practitioner?
“I have vague memories of always being able to draw from an extremely young age. I was always drawing, scribbling things, feeling a very happy whenever I would see other people’s drawings, or paintings, and things people had made. I always had an attraction to seek out this whole art thing, even if it were basic paintings that had been made to decorate the local garden centre, as we had next to our house in Ghana. But I didn’t necessarily really understand why I felt so comfortable looking at images, I still don’t perhaps. So I can only describe it as an already automatic, in built interest that I was born with. It just feels like it’s just always been there.”
How does the hiatus in Ghana during your early childhood affect your work?
“I was very young when my parents returned back to Ghana, I think I was just a bit over a year old if I can correctly remember what my parents have told me. So in that sense, I have no memory of that period, in terms od what I did before Ghana. I was probably still learning to hold a pencil properly. I guess I was too young to even know that a major transition had taken place. All I am told is that once I had grown up a bit more, I would often rather be sitting next to my mum drawing whilst she sewed and designed clothes for her clients, instead of playing football with friends outside, after they had called me out. Not miss the football all the time, but most times I preferred making art. However, living in Ghana, the imagery, the culture, books, stories, the environment and everything else I had observed and experienced would later show up in my work, especially in one of my earlier projects – ‘Tribal Sculptures’ or ‘Tribal performance’.”
Did your perspective change after you returned to London in 1990?
“Upon returning to London, yes I am pretty sure all my influences and collected visual memories had been influenced by life in Ghana. Well I was old enough, so no doubt. But again, you only know and experience what you have known and experience once it starts to show up in what you produce and make. I was aware that England, or London was going to be different, I had no real experience yet that my perspective was about to be shaken up with everything that was in London was to offer, example, with school, new friends, church, art galleries and so forth. At times it was quite a lot to take in, in what felt like a lot of changes in a very short period of time.”
How does it feel to be labelled as a ‘child prodigy’ at such a young age?
“In terms of being labelled as a ‘child prodigy’, I had no real deep understanding of it growing up, it didn’t matter or affect anything. But he’s the thing though. I had consistently noticed that everything I would put effort in drawing, or make or create would somehow create some kind of reaction or amazement. It didn’t even matter if I didn’t really like something I had made, it would some how still create some kind of positive reaction or joy in someone. This was the beginning of me realising and becoming conscious of the fact that I was able to do things with art, which many people, especially friends around me found difficult to do. It was through those experiences and feedback that I started to realise that I had something special perhaps. I realised in a profound way, even as a child that it’s as if I had a magical power to think, then create stuff that brought myself and other people happiness. That particular feeling has never ever left. It’s an incredible feeling!”
Do you think that this title comes with a lot of expectations, and is it cumbersome?
“It’s a good question. The great thing is, like I mentioned before, I didn’t even realise the wider meaning or implications of the title ‘child prodigy’. I realise when looking back, that it was a great thing I didn’t allow the amazing things people would say to me to create pressure. For me, I had always been the way I am, as far as I was concerned, it meant that it was always other people’s opinion of what I was capable of and not mine, if you get my point. So in that sense, I felt no huge expectation. However, when I was more grown, and started reading about other artists and well known figures and their early lives, and I am here talking about historical prodigies, namely Pablo Picasso, Leonardo Da Vinci, or say Mozart or a footballer like Diego Maradona, I began forming a solid idea as to what it was all about. Now, I had always been ambitious and prolific as a child artist, but I now began to consciously push myself further, creating work I wanted to still be seen as great many years from that moment. So I became conscious to do my very best all the time, to create works that would demonstrate my various abilities. So, in that sense, the expectation I put on myself was greater than anyone else’s expectations on me. I am still the same now.
Having said all of that, it started becoming cumbersome when half the school I attended wanted a piece of art from me, even some of the teachers. So I was being constantly chased and asked to drawings. That was sometimes tiring.”
What did you do with the £900 that was part of the Peter Evans Award you received?
“The money awarded to me with the Peter Evans Award went straight into my bank account. I think in the end, a majority of it was spent on my siblings and I.”
Why did you choose to do your degree at the University of Westminster instead of Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design where you did your Foundation course?
“I chose to apply to the University of Westminster because at the time, Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design did not have a course dedicated to painting, which is what I thought I was solely interested in. Upon reflecting on my true desires in moving forward, I then decided to apply to the university of Westminster because my time at Central Saint Martins had not been the best for me, so I wanted to leave. However, the Illustration course I saw advertised at the University of Westminster sounded so diverse and interesting to me that I was sold on the idea that by applying to that course, I would potential have true freedom to explore other mediums and approaches to art. That was exactly what the course was. I was at a stage where I was getting other ideas beyond drawing and painting, and it was the perfect course for me to start really delving into the depth of my mind.”
Did you feel that meeting Karl Barrie helped you to gain a wider audience for your art?
“Meeting Karl Barrie was surely a blessing. He loved what I was making, was so supportive and encouraging. Not to mention introducing me to his collector base and audience. So in that sense, yes he helped to expand my audience.”
Can you tell us what the Brent Artists’ Register is, and how it helps artists like yourself?
“The Bent Artist Register was a community group founded by a group of artists who would initially come together to create and organise exhibitions and sometimes art workshops. They encouraged all artists in the borough of Brent and beyond to register and to create artworks especially for their themed monthly group shows. It was with the Brent Artists Register that I took part in my first professional exhibition. I also won my second ever art prize with that first exhibition.”
Do you have a favourite exhibition or show that you’d like to share with us?
“There are several exhibitions that spring to mind. One of them being a show that was put up by gallery Kaleidoscope’s owner, the late Karl Barrie. Who was a real championed of my early work, as mentioned before. His ambitious show covered I think two floors at West London’s Whitelys shopping centre. It was titled One Woman. I was the youngest artist in that show of about 65 chosen artists, from England and mostly from various European countries.
We had all been asked to create a portrait of a woman called Scheherazade, the Portuguese wife of a rich Englishman. That experience was wonderful and surreal at the same time, as it was the first time I had being in a show with other well- known artists of the time. I received a lot of attention for my two pieces of work, paintings I had made to interpret a person I thought was quite eccentric, but bold. I had lots of wonderful feedback that stuck with me for many years. Psychologically, it felt like I had arrived. Like I had achieved something great!”
You seem to have accrued a following amongst various well-known individuals -how does it feel to be known outside of the usual ‘arteratti’ crowd?
“It’s great. I have never wanted to be pigeon holed in any way form or shape, so that contributes to my sense of freedom.”
Did you actually meet Melvyn Bragg when you were chosen to do your solo show, “The Birth Of…” as part of the National Campaign for the Arts?
“I had always wanted to meet Melvyn Bragg, so being chosen by an organisation he was heading was I thought my moment and opportunity to meet him, but I never got to meet him. Instead I had to deal with representatives of the National Campaign for The Arts, who were in their own right very lovely people.”
How did you get the Ghana High Commission ‘gig’ to design the flag to commemorate HRH Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee?
“That opportunity came out of the Blue. My dad worked at the Ghana High Commission. At a certain point in his his time there, had been made aware by several of his colleagues that they were aware his son (myself), was an artist, and that they had seen my profile in the press, after I had received one of the awards given to me competitions and exhibitions I had entered.
One the back of that, they chose me to design and re interpret the Ghanaian flag. So I excitedly took on the challenge and did my thing. I only found out it would be represented with other flags on top of Buckingham Palace a week after I had designed and painted my flag design.”
What were your thoughts when you saw it flying on the roof of Buckingham Palace?
“Even knowing where it was going to get displayed was quite mind blowing. I remember when I had a call from a friend who had caught a glimpse of my flag on TV, and quickly called to let me know. All that made it so surreal, that it’s quite hard to articulate the feeling. However, the most important lesson I learned from that whole experience was to continue to always do my very best. Be it with little projects, simple commissions, major commissions and so forth. To always try and do my best, as you can never tell who gets to see your handy work. As mentioned earlier, I had no idea where that flag design would end up.”
What does you family think of your art/success?
‘My family now, gets a lot of what I do, not everything, but most of it. My father never really got it, but appreciated how committed I was to my art. I think they really appreciate it all a lot more, because I stuck to it, and they have all watched me develop with it, and watched me express my pain and joy through it. They have seen how I never slowed down or doubted my abilities, but just kept going. I have always kept them updated with every new award I received or when I would appear in the press. They have enjoyed and been thrilled to see all my many re inventions and unpredictable creativity. In a sense, they are just as much fans and followers of my work as anyone else. Most importantly, they know art is not just something that I do, but it’s who I am. That it’s totally a part of my DNA make up.
My brother recently said, I quote “It’s always interesting to see what you are gonna come up with next”, after experiencing the opening of a recent exhibition I had. I think that says it all.”
You describe yourself as avant-garde; who/what are your influences?
“Although I started of making what many would consider ‘traditional art,’ my influences are really very wide and perhaps different to what people would think or expect. Once I became aware of my other interests in theatre, fashion, music, film, history, reading, psychology and so forth, I started to amalgamate these influences in my whole presentation, not just in my art, but on myself as a person too. The moment these influences started taking effect in my work, everything became much more of a vision. I could see something much greater ahead all the time. Like the path was laid for me to travel on. The work started to look even more individual than it did before. I was no longer just a painter, but a Performance Artist, a Sculptor, Installation Artist, a Sound Artist and so forth. I had set my imagination and inner identity free. All this resulted in me creating work that was unusual and had power of a different type. It was at once both relatable, but also taking the viewer somewhere else they had not being before. In that sense, it felt like I was dealing with ideas and concepts that were ahead of time. Some people told me so.
My other influences also came from musicians, and especially those of the 80’s, such as Michael Jackson, Prince, David Bowie, Madonna, Stevie Wonder, Miles Davies, Fela Kuti and a few others. One the other side, I was also influenced by the passion and shear force of the stories and music of classical musicians such as Mozart, Beethoven or Paganini the violinist. I felt like I could relate to their eclectic and in some cases “erratic” sense of style. Be it their dressing, experimentation, innovations or rule breaking, progressive antics.”
Is it true that you insured your hands for £1million?
Congratulations on winning the ‘Best Creative Artist Award’ at the BBEA last year. What have you been doing since then?
“Thank you!. Since then, I have pushed forward my new project, the ‘Brain Wave‘ digital series of paintings, and beginning to explore some of the innovative ideas I have for it. I am also creating yet another persona of myself. Its going to be part of the Brain Wave series, so I am very excited, as usual!”
Can you tell us about your latest exhibition: Future Image?
“Future Image was the first time I held a solo show where the aim was to introduce and share the ‘Brain Wave‘ series with my audience and the world. It was an exhibition designed to challenge those who know of my work, and to re introduce them to where I am currently. Thematically, the concept questions the digitally ‘heightened’ versions of reality in our contemporary culture and the estrangement from realness that can come from digital attempts at perfection. It asked the question, whether the enhancement erodes our freedom?, or does it decrease our human nature and experiences?
Furthermore, the works also explore a kind of refreshing return to simplicity, to drawing and painting like a child. Seemingly care free, exploring colour, movement, form, texture and instinct over carefully planned stuff. I have also been excited by the simple contradiction in the material I’m using (Samsung Galaxy Tablet), a technological gadget of the 21st century, which I have been using to create very naïve, sometimes “primitive” looking images, which refers the viewer back to our basic “primitive” instincts, our unpolished selves. So whilst the works take cue from expressionistic painting, at the same time they challenge painting, whilst also questioning “digital art”, and its obsession with images that are obsessed with looking smooth and real.”
So what’s next -a holiday?
“Well, I wanted to take it easy for a couple of weeks and refresh after Future Image, but I have been approached by a young, current, up and coming South London MC, who has an important gig coming up in April. I have been asked to conceptualise the environment she will be playing in and create something of an ‘experience.’ It’s an unusual project to undertake, and it excites me. So I’m afraid that holiday is going to have to wait. Hahahahaaa.”
You can checkout Eugene Ankomah’s work on the following links: