Atta Kwami’s Legacy on the Grounds of Serpentine

Serpentine presented print maker, independent art historian, curator and the 2021 Maria Lassnig Prize winner Atta Kwami’s last and final mural at its North Gallery Garden, expanding its public art programme.

With a career spanning 40 years, Atta Kwami’s practice brought together painting, architecture, sculpture, and education. Born in Accra, Ghana he trained and taught for 20 years at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana. Kwami lived primarily in Kumasi and later in Loughborough, UK, keeping a studio in both cities and drawing inspiration for his paintings from both global and local art histories and traditions. His compositions of geometric strips, stripes and grids particularly connect to Northern Ghanaian wall and house painting, street vendor kiosks, commercial sign painting, woven textiles, Ghanaian music, and jazz.

Alongside making paintings, prints and artist’s books, Kwami also became known for painting constructions – kiosks and archway sculptures – that were conceived as expanded three-dimensional paintings within outdoor spaces.

The mural at Serpentine originates from a painting that Kwami was reworking in his studio in 2021 shortly before his death, making this the final, landmark public work of his pioneering oeuvre. The commission results from Kwami winning the 2021 Maria Lassnig Prize.

Joy and Grace, 2021-22, embodies Kwami’s vibrant palette and abstract painting style. It characteristically plays with the colour and form improvisations that are distinctive of Ghanaian architecture and African strip-woven textiles, especially kente, made famous by the Ewe and Asante people of Ghana. The mural dynamically connects with the surrounding garden designed by Arabella Lennox-Boyd by quoting the blues of the sky, the pinks, greens and browns from the foliage and simultaneously contrasts with its natural forms. It is a visionary response to the garden and it resonates with the planted landscape, and the wider environment of the park over the course of a year.

The work is painted on wood, the surface Kwami used for outdoor constructions, by the artist’s widow Pamela Clarkson, who shared a studio with him for over 30 years, and his friend, designer, Andy Philpott who collaborated on Kwami’s constructions in Amsterdam, Folkestone and Loughborough.

While in recent years public art at Serpentine has included recent projects by artists in the wider Park, including Sophia Al-Maria, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, and collaborating with Christo on a floating sculpture on the Serpentine lake, the wall at Serpentine North Garden has been the site for artist projects by Jakob Kudsk Steensen and Pascale Marthine Tayou.

The artist responding at the annoucement of the Maria Lassnig Prize and the Serpentine collaboration, said, “When somebody told me that I paint with my body, just like a violinist playing with their whole heart, body and soul, expressing themselves, I never believed it. But the expressions and emotions that I come up with are like Maria Lassnig, also painting with her body. In jazz there’s the body and soul balance that Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker and all these great Jazz musicians have, and I love Jazz music abstraction which is an influence along with the architecture of northern Ghana, textiles traditions of west Africa, Ghanaian kente and abstraction which I incorporate in my work. For many years now, I have been working without global acclaim, but I have made many things: two films, sculptures, architectonic constructions, paintings, prints, lithographs and I respond to Lassnig’s work very well. So, it’s an honour and thank you very much Serpentine for playing a part in this with the Maria Lassnig Foundation. I am happy to associate myself with you in this endeavour. Thank you.”

The mural at Serpentine will be accompanied by a major new book published in 2023 exploring Kwami’s prolific career, his impact on art history and his lasting legacy, according to Serpentine authorities.