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Ghanaian Traditions Lead to New Ways of Working

Ghanaian Traditions Lead to New Ways of Working

Founded in 1992 to promote cultural study and sustainable development in West Africa, the Kokrobitey Institute outside Accra, Ghana offers an inspiring welcome to visitors from around the world. The tranquil seaside campus served as home base for 25 RISD students in a Wintersession course led by Bolaji Campbell, an assistant professor in the History of Art + Visual Culture who specializes in the art of Africa and the African Diaspora. Through a program of artist demonstrations, lectures, field trips, workshops and independent research, students explored the history and culture of Ghana, concentrating on visual communication systems, traditional design and the built environment.

“Ghanaian culture is rich in artistic tradition and non-verbal communication systems, making it a fascinating milieu for students of art and design,” says Campbell. Local artisans introduced the RISD group to both traditional and contemporary practices such as glass bead making (from recycled bottles), dyeing with natural pigments, fabric stamping and basket weaving. Lectures and museum visits covered a range of topics, including the cultural significance of Adinkra, an ancient communication system based on symbols rather than letters, and Kente, the brightly colored woven fabric associated with royalty and sacred occasions.

Engaging in independent study and hands-on practice during the final stage of their three-week visit, students focused on traditions that appealed to their curiosity and aesthetics. Along the way, many discovered that study of art practices led them to broader cultural insights.

Alison Kizu-Blair, a junior in Painting, worked alongside a professional basket weaver to learn the intricacies of his craft. Miles Stemper, another Painting junior, researched the Adinkra symbol system and came up with a new set of visual icons representing his experience of Ghanaian culture. Startled by the prevalence of Christianity, the consumerism of tourists and threats to the natural environment, he invented symbols that expressed his mixed feelings about Ghana’s hybrid culture—a blend of ancient tradition and more recent European imperialism and exploitation.

Like many of the RISD travelers, FAV junior Lauren Diliberto found that exploring Ghanaian culture through a visual lens “opened my eyes to a different way of seeing and working.” In addition to the artisans they got to know and the specific crafts they learned, students also gained new perspective on the complex interplay between world societies—and perhaps most importantly, valuable insight into the cultural significance of their own art practices.