The Artist as Alchemist — Turning Coins Into Precious Art
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he’s found a creative way to question Ghana’s economic policies.
On March 6, Ghana’s Independence Day, artist Yaw Owusu was crouched on his living room floor, putting the finishing touches on a new piece. Stretching over most of the floor, the work sparked silver and copper as the sun bounced off the carpet of pesewa coins — the country’s least valuable currency and Owusu’s preferred medium.
The artist moved nimbly, stepping between boxes of pesewas and pausing to arrange another handful of coins onto the plywood canvas. Over 24,000 coins glistened on the board.
As he worked, local TV and radio stations were buzzing with pundits debating whether or not Ghana was truly independent and if the day being celebrated by the political class was genuinely worthy of celebration.
These are the same questions that Owusu, 25, one of Ghana’s fast-rising visual artists, probes in his work.
The pesewa coins were first introduced in 2007 to redenominate the national currency and to curb runaway inflation. But when the government launched an awareness campaign to get people to use the new coin, it failed to catch on. Today, by creating mosaiclike patterns from this symbol of government dysfunction — the coins are treated with chemicals to obtain the various colors — Owusu addresses the socioeconomic fractures and failures he sees in Ghana and asks if, 61 years after throwing off colonial rule, the country can legitimately claim independence.
“The question of us being self-reliant is something I explore in my work,” Owusu says. He draws on the coins’ symbolism to point out that the currency of Ghana, a British crown colony starting in the late 19th century, is still printed by the Royal Canadian Mint.
What’s more, Owusu casts doubt on the country’s economic health. Ghana gets high marks from the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and African Development Bank — based on drops in the deficit, interest rates and inflation and an increase in oil production. IMF Deputy Managing Director Tao Zhang recently called the government’s fiscal discipline “commendable.” But, Owusu posits, “we do well in finance just so we can qualify for more loans.”
Owusu’s informal canvassing reveals that Ghana’s positive ratings don’t reflect the actual state of affairs for many residents.
Owusu regularly takes to the streets and markets in Accra, asking people how the government’s economic policies have affected their lives. His informal canvassing reveals that Ghana’s positive ratings don’t reflect the actual state of affairs for many residents, whose chief complaint is that the price of goods keeps going up at a rate that outpaces their income.
Owusu grew up in the city of Kumasi, the son of a professor and a businesswoman. He remembers accompanying his brother to more rural regions and noticing how starkly different, and more difficult, life appeared there. He initially planned to study publishing — based on his family’s ties to the field — but opted instead to study what he really wanted: painting. His parents — “the furthest thing from art lovers,” Owusu says — were not keen to see him veer from publishing. But he persevered, and by his third year in university, an assignment asking students to find their own medium of expression set him on a new course.
He went to the beach to photograph the sea and later discovered that the coins in his pocket had been altered by the salt water. He’d found a new medium — one he would use to comment on the conditions he had seen traveling the country.
“Yaw’s current investigations raise bigger questions about the tensions between a government and its citizenry — sovereignty in the age of globalization,” says Missla Libsekal, an art editor who has followed his work.
But most of Owusu’s earliest fans weren’t attracted by the larger, sociopolitical messages. They appreciated his pieces as artful recycling, an attempt to turn “useless” coins into works of arresting beauty and value.
Tarek Mouganie, an art collector and businessman based in Accra, sees more to Owusu’s methodology than merely repurposing what others discard. “Many artists make their statements upcycling, painting or sculpting,” he says via email. But Owusu is different in that he treats his materials. “He takes away and adds to the process as an alchemist/scientist,” Mougaine says. The result is a careful stripping away of the old to produce something new, while referencing and respecting the past.
Considering the artist’s not-so-hidden criticisms of governmental policies, it might be surprising to learn that his Trail of Change was acquired in 2018 for the Ghanaian president’s residence. The company that handled the acquisition could not be reached for comment, but Owusu says he is pleased “not because of the prestige of my work hanging in the presidency, but hopefully government officials might later encounter the story behind the work, see beyond its appearance.”
It is surprising, and revealing of how far the artist has reached in a brief span of time.
It was only in 2015, during his final year of university, that Owusu was discovered by Marwan Zakhem, who was about to open Gallery 1957. Zakhem, who still represents the artist, was instantly taken with his work and invited Owusu to participate in the gallery’s debut exhibition. Two years later, he was given a solo exhibition, and today his work is in the collections, among others, of the World Bank in Washington, D.C., the Museum of African Contemporary Art in Marrakech, Morocco, and the Seth Dei Foundation in Accra.
Owusu names as inspirations American sculptor Richard Serra, who works in steel, and British artist Damien Hirst, who famously created a diamond-encrusted skull. But he is primarily focused on refining his craft: “I’ve grown to be a student of my own work,” he notes.
For now, he is exploring other African currencies and plans to begin his inquiry into precolonial Egypt, where sophisticated economic systems were in place prior to foreign invasions. History, Owusu has found, can be a profitable teacher.