Art & Culture

The DIY Issue: Harold Offeh

The Accra-born, London-based multimedia artist takes over our art section with his pick of the creatives currently capturing the essence of DIY.

In January 2020, nestled among the familiar retail outlets of the Centrale & Whitgift shopping centre in Croydon, a new, Instagram-friendly installation was catching people’s attention. A makeshift shopfront bearing the name Croydon Plays Itself had appeared out of nowhere, its walls painted vibrant purple, pink and yellow. Despite looking like a trendy pop-up from the outside, the interior of the “shop” told a different story. Imagery, video and artefacts offered a visual history of Croydon, allowing local residents to revisit and reanimate aspects of their own history. The person responsible for the installation was esteemed artist Harold Offeh, whose output isn’t confined to a particular medium but instead stretches across video and photography to performance art and club nights.

Born in Ghana in 1977, Harold moved to London with his mother in the early 1980s. While she spent long hours working at a light-bulb factory, Harold went to a progressive north London school, where he had what he describes as a “good education experience”. It was this schooling that effectively defined the choices that led to him becoming an artist.

“I was going to a really amazing comprehensive called Highgate Wood, which had really encouraging teachers. It was an incredibly diverse school, sitting in the north London borough of Haringey. [There were] kids from all over the world. It was born out of a progressive, liberal, 1970s education and, in the 1980s, somehow survived the reforms in terms of its outlook,” he says of his informative teen years. He recognises that his own education was vastly different from the current model, saying that he was actively encouraged to pursue a career in the arts. After school, he was lucky enough to secure local funding that allowed him to do a foundation course at Middlesex University. “I discovered fine art and art practice really allowed me to explore ideas. Fine art as an area of study is so enabling – [it allows you to] define the area of knowledge and the skills you want to explore and shape the context.”

Describing himself as naive but driven, Harold was keen to focus on art and to “see where it goes”. He never imagined it would become a long-term career, but his first steps into the art world came when the YBA movement was starting to gain recognition in Britain and, for perhaps the first time, new contemporary artists breaking into the industry had examples of people who were making a living from their work.

Since then, he’s made a successful career out of making art, with his work having appeared in solo shows in London, Barcelona and Stockholm and group exhibitions around the world, including in Japan, Norway, the Netherlands and the US. He often covers tough subject matter, but he utilises humour to make the topics more digestible for audiences. He’s especially drawn to social histories and storytelling, using a multitude of mediums to explore the past. “I discovered I was really interested  in ideas, research, and the process of things coming together like dialogue and conversation,” he explains. “I think when you’re driven by the idea of research, conversation, interaction or social dynamics, it gives you freedom to think about what the outcome might be. I might do ceramics, or I might put on a 12-hour club night or we might make prints or photographs or video. At the heart of it, my practice is about framing my own learning, and that’s why that often ends with multiple outcomes.”

This is particularly apparent in his long-running project Covers, in which he recreates iconic album artwork with himself as the subject. One work from this series features Harold standing naked and gleaming in oil, recreating the iconic cover of Grace Jones’ acclaimed album Island Life (1985). “[This project] started with my ongoing obsession with Grace Jones and looking at her album-cover imagery. I was trying to re-enact that image and really thinking about the construction of identity through the album cover, especially looking at Black women and really thinking about 1970s and 1980s artwork as historical artefacts and as a representation of Blackness and gender.”

With the theme of this issue focusing on DIY, and that subject matter particularly lending itself to artists, I wonder just how much Harold feels his work fits into the realm of DIY. “To a certain extent, a lot of art practice is defined by this idea of ‘do it yourself’. Agency and the power of artists determining, fashioning, constructing  or deconstructing and dismantling – I think they’re key components of that,” he offers. “In moments of crisis and trauma, there’s this sense that self-reliance and personal and collective agency become key things. Like how [during] an economic crisis and [times of] austerity, people have fashioned new tools to dismantle structures, and that’s what I’m drawn to in certain artists and practitioners.”

As guest art editor of this issue, Harold has tapped three artists who he feels perfectly capture the art of DIY in all its guises. The first is Plymouth-born Tanoa Sasraku, who Harold met while teaching as a visiting lecturer at Goldsmiths. A recent fine art graduate, she specialises in filmmaking and sculpture; she has also garnered attention for her flag-making, through which she seeks to celebrate her Ghanaian heritage. “Tanoa is part of a really exciting generation of young and contemporary artists, queer people of colour who I think are creating structures and forums that are plugged into music and cultural forms of art-making,” Harold says.

Also among his selection is London-based artist Michelle Williams Gamaker, who he exhibited with in 2001 as part of New Contemporaries, the UK’s most prestigious open-selection graduate show, held at Camden Art Centre in north London. Rooted in a love of old Hollywood cinema, Michelle’s work explores race and representation by recasting and restaging segments from famous films. “Michelle draws upon histories of cinema and references in pop culture,” Harold says. “We recently picked up conversation again, thinking through the space of art school, education and learning, trying to create new platforms.”

Harold has only recently become familiar with the work of his final choice, Zadie Xa, a Korean-Canadian artist with a particular interest in Indigenous land ownership rights, as well as Black, feminist approaches to community. She is trained in painting but focuses on costume design and film. Harold is particularly drawn to her costuming and the movement language that is incorporated within some of her work, which he says is “part of a broader spectrum of speculative fiction and the idea of storytelling and myth-making.”

Together, the four artists featured in this section offer a diverse range of works that seek to explore, and in some cases rewrite, artistic and cultural history. Over the next few days, we take a deep dive into their practices and their relationship with the topic of DIY. Tanoa, Michelle and Zadie also all reflect on a question that Harold has put to them: “What tools, either real or metaphorical, might you employ to dismantle or construct an aspect of contemporary culture?”

On this, he expands: “My question for each artist relates to the context and metaphor of DIY and doing it yourself. As any good practitioner of DIY knows, you need good tools. I’d like to know which ones they are using to dismantle or construct their practice and future projects and, more widely, our culture. I’m using ‘tooling’ as a metaphor partly in reference to writer Audre Lorde’s assertion that ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’. There is a challenge to create our own tools in order to dismantle and reconstruct. I’m interested in [these artists’] approaches, and I hope that readers of HUNGER will be, too.”

 

The DIY Issue is out now, get your own copy here.

12 January 2021