Kwame Akoto-Bamfo: Hard Realities
Meet the Ghanaian artist behind the sculptures at the newly built National Memorial for Peace and Justice located in Montgomery, Alabama.
By: Christopher Casey
Image Courtesy of Kwame Akoto-Bamfo
Sculptor Kwame Akoto-Bamfo uses his medium to portray the African slave trade across the transatlantic passage in a brutally realistic way. Hailing from Ghana, his intention is to make it known that the pain of African-Americans is felt by continental Africans as well. In 2017, the civil rights non-profit Equal Justice Initiative commissioned him to design sculptures of slaves to be held at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The six acre memorial in Montgomery, Alabama is dedicated to African-American lynching victims, the first of its kind. Its primary structure features 800 six-foot steel columns hanging from the ceiling, each containing the name of a person who was lynched at the hands of white supremacists. Akoto-Bamfo’s installation at the memorial, titled Nkyinkim, features the painstricken faces and tortured bodies of seven shackled slaves.
Akoto-Bamfo’s works are highly detailed and precise, revealing the humanity behind such a cruel series of events in human history. Another installation revealed in Accra, Ghana in 2017, entitled Faux-Reedom, features 1,200 concrete heads to represent the ancestors of Ghana who faced enslavement and colonization. In showcasing the history of the slave trade through sculpture, he seeks to help with healing the wounds and trauma still felt by people across the African diaspora.
The 800 hanging columns for 800 lynching victims part of the National Memorial for Peace & Justice located in Montgomery, Alabama. Image Courtesy of the Equal Justice Initiative
What inspired you to begin sculpting?
It started more as a passion than an inspirational. I was too young to know what inspiration was when I started sculpting. I didn't even know what a sculpture was when I started sculpting. I was 3 or 4 years. Later in school I would be introduced to a whole lot of art masters, but I liked more than one and wasn't set on one particular art master.
How does it feel having your work featured in The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama?
I absolutely love what EJI represents and it is more of an honor to be a part of the NationalMemorial for Peace and Justice.
Something that struck me about your work is that, while your sculptures depict those who endured the transatlantic slave trade, they are modeled after living people in Ghana. How do you choose these individuals?
The Nkyinkyim installation is made up of over a thousand sculptures right now. The number is nowhere near what I'm going for, but the whole idea is to get enough realistic examples to allow people to see themselves in the sculptures. I'm not trying to create some "idealistic body type" which will only end upromanticizing an otherwise terrible experience for any human to endure.
How does your perspective of America’s history of chattel slavery and lynchings differ as a person from Ghana where slaves were traded?
They are two sides of the same coin. In Ghana there isn't enough money to go around to address this properly. We are only 61 years old and although we sometimes have tribal tensions we were not segregated and we didn't lynch our neighbors based on the color of their skin. In America, I presume there is enough money to "tackle" this situation but it appears that racism is not up on the list of the problems America wants to solve.
Close up image of one of the sculptures featured at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Image Courtesy of Kwame Akoto-Bamfo
Is showcasing the brutality of the events you’re depicting an intentional choice?
I don't think my sculptures are brutal enough. If I were to try and show the full extent the museum would have been classified a horror house.
What message do you hope to convey to African-Americans who view your work?
That their pain is felt on the continent of Africa too.
How do you think viewing your work can empower and galvanize members of the African diaspora who are still suffering from the repercussions of slavery and colonialism?
I wish that viewing my work alone would be enough. I fantasize that my art alone will be the answer but it won't. That is why I add other activities to my art to try to really empower the African diaspora, take the Ancestor Project for an example.
How do you choose which materials to create your pieces with? Do certain materials convey particular messages?
I choose the materials based on the project and the location. Sometimes the material is symbolic.
Has social media allowed your work to reach new audiences?
Sculptor Kwame Akoto-Bamfo hard at work getting the details just perfect. Image Courtesy of Kwame Akoto-Bamfo