August 16th, 2021 Rachel Ama Asaa Engmann
Kwame Akoto-Bamfo is one of Ghana’s most currently celebrated artists in the international art world. This story is the result of several conversations that Rachel Ama Asaa Engmann had with the artist in 2021 that focused on the intersections of art, history, heritage, social and restorative justice.
Kwame Akoto-Bamfo is a Ghanaian artist. His latest sculpture, entitled Blank Slate: Hope for a New America, is a timely and apposite intervention in the ongoing discussions around the history and legacies of the transatlantic slave trade, slavery, and monuments. The statue depicts the intergenerational struggles in the African American experience: At its base, it depicts an enslaved ancestor, bent forward with his hands behind his back, head turned sideways, face on the ground, hands and feet bound in metal chains, and a booted foot on his head. It is a chilling reminder of an image with which we are only too familiar—though it must be noted that the sculpture was crafted prior to the death of George Floyd. On top of this figure is a union soldier with a noose around his neck. Finally, is the representation of an activist mother with baby, signifying the next generation. Akoto-Bamfo describes it as “a noisy one—a protest piece that speaks against racist civil war monuments.”
This mobile art installation is currently touring throughout the United States to several locations with a history and legacy of racial injustice, including Louisville, Detroit, Atlanta, Chicago, Selma, Birmingham, and New York. Akoto-Bamfo’s sculpture can be understood as a challenge to Confederate monuments and tribute to African American history and the ongoing fight for social and racial justice, as part of an attempt to heal the nation. He conducted extensive research for though he did not know where his work would be placed at the time that he was commissioned, he knew that Blank Slate would respond to monuments that his American “brothers have issues with.” Through this work, he strives to foster dialogue, provide a platform, and elevate the voices of those historically silenced and oppressed, by inviting the public to engage with the work through an interactive screen, where their words will be shared anonymously on the slate. This interactive sculpture invites communities to contribute, not only towards his artwork, but also to wider ongoing transnational conversations and initiatives around history, memory, justice, and monuments.
First unveiled during a private viewing in Ghana, prior to its shipment to the United States, many discussions transpired amongst those involved in the project: some feared it might incite violence, others said that it represented a prediction.
Cited sources include:
- Akyeampong, E. 2001. History, memory, slave-trade and slavery in Anlo (Ghana). Slavery and Abolition 22: 1-24.
- Bailey, Anne C. 2005. African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Beyond the Silence and the Shame. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Bellagamba, Alice, Sandra E. Greene and Martin A. Klein. 2017. African Slaves, African Masters: Histories, Memories, Legacies. Africa World Press.
- Bellagamba, Alice, Sandra E. Greene and Martin A. Klein. 2013. The Bitter Legacy: African Slavery Past and Present. Princeton: Markus Weiner Publishers;
- Boachie-Ansah, J. 2009. Archaeological investigation at the Danish plantation site of Brockman, Ghana. Afrique 5: 149-172.
- Bredwa-Mensah, Yaw. 1999. Archaeology of Slavery in West Africa. Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana 3: 27-43.
- DeCorse, Christopher. R. 2001a. An Archaeology of Elmina: Africans and Europeans on the Gold Coast, 1400- 1900’. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.
- Engmann, Rachel Ama Asaa. 2019. Autoarchaeology at Christiansborg Castle: Decolonizing Knowledge, Pedagogy and Praxis. Journal of Community Archaeology and Heritage 6 (3): 204-19;
- Greene, Sandra E. 2017. Slave Owners of West Africa: Decision-making in the Age of Abolition. Bloomington: Indiana University.
- Keren, E. (2009). The Transatlantic Slave Trade in Ghanaian Academic Historiography: History, Memory, and Power. The William and Mary Quarterly, 66(4), 975–1000. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40467550
- Perbi, Akosua Adoma. 2004. A History of Indigenous Slavery in Ghana: From the 15th to the 19th Centuries. Accra: Sub-Saharan Press.