Luminous critiques: Yaw Owusu
We Bled for This, 2021
Stainless steel and US pennies
Yaw Owusu (b. 1992) is a painter and sculptor, known for his private artwork and public installations featuring coins, namely Ghanaian pesewas and United States pennies.
Owusu began his career as a painter, but a fascination with metals and a strong urge to critique political and economic institutions in his country led him to use the beautiful but virtually value-less Ghanaian pesewa in his work. Owusu was awarded Ghana’s top prize for contemporary artists in 2018 and subsequently moved to the United States to study for a master’s degree at Pratt University in Brooklyn. Since graduating in 2020, Owusu has remained in New York where he recently completed a commission at Meta’s New York headquarters, installing 90,000 pennies in one its elevator lobbies.
“I quite extensively use metals in many forms and other found objects…I believe [metals] reflect the trajectory of economic and political hegemonies that have pre-existed and continue to demarcate our world today. They reflect class and societal formations. I’m interested in delving into the past of the materials, and to analyze its present circumstances to then suggest a future.”
Image credit: Nii Odzema
Yaw Owusu grew up in Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti region in southern Ghana. He studied painting in his hometown at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, where he graduated with a BFA in 2015. Owusu’s interest in politics and economics was reflected in his early days as a traditional painter, when his primary subjects were historical figures in politics, pop culture and royalty. But Owusu was also fascinated by processes of transformation. He started experimenting with reactions between metals like aluminum and steel. His economic interest led to the idea of incorporating the Ghanaian pesewa in his work. By using coins, metals and other found elements, Owusu felt more freedom to use imagery and symbolism to portray compelling, complex narratives.
The pesewa, the base unit of currency, equivalent to a penny or shilling, was introduced in Ghana in 1957 following independence from British colonial rule. Subsequent political and economics disruptions led to a high inflationary environment that has lasted much of Ghana’s history as an independent nation. As a result, the currency has been devalued significantly. In 2007, in an attempt to re-peg the Ghanaian currency to the US dollar, a new pesewa was introduced. The value today is one eighth of what it was in 2007. The most recent devaluation is a direct result of a shock to oil and wheat prices, caused by the Russian invasion and blockade of Ukraine.
Ghana Inflation Rate
Image credit: Matrotrends.net
Because of its low value, Owusu was able to get pesewa to use in his artwork from commercial banks. As his artistic practice grew and he need more coins, he turned to the Ghanaian central bank. In 2017, the 60th anniversary of Ghanaian independence, Owusu created an iconic public installation called Back to the Future. The work featured an artistic rendering of the Ghanaian flag assembled with treated, colored pesewa coins affixed to the wall of a former women’s prison in Jamestown, a poor township in Accra. The installation conjured powerful symbolism of the promise of the flag, with the collapse of its currency amid an economically distressed area of Accra. The installation culminated with an unfortunate but predictable conclusion. Most of the valueless coins were torn off by local children.
Back to the Future, 2017
Image credit: Yaw Owusu
2018 was a banner year for Owusu. Despite his critiques of the government, his work Trial of Change was acquired for the residence of Ghana's president, Nana Akufo-Addo. In the same year, Owusu was honored as one of Ghana’s leading contemporary artists by winning the Kuenyehua Prize. Later that year, he moved to the United States to pursue a MFA at Pratt University, where he graduated in 2020. Owusu is still based in New York City.
Memoir of The Quiet Folk, 2021
US Pennies, Ghana Pesewas, Stainless steel, wood
Owusu’s luminous work features a variety of metallic sheens of yellows, reds, greens, blues and other colors depending on the treatments applied and the angle of the viewer. The geometric shapes formed by the circular coins and rectangular strips of metal evoke an industrial or constructivist aesthetic. Owusu counts among his inspirations the sculptor Richard Serra, whose site-based installations often feature metal. Other inspirations are El Anatsui, Serge Clottey, and Ibrahim Mahama.
Image credit: Meta
Owusu’s process starts with his treating of coins and metal sheets with different solutions, mainly salt and vinegar-based. These treatments produce different colors and effects based on the chemical reactions. He then affixes the treated materials to wood panels, walls, fabrics and other mediums. Despite their sculptural elements, Yaw still likes to refer to his metal-based artwork as paintings.