Brixton Skank

Brixton Skank


Zagba Oyortey looks at the work of FOWOKAN


At a superficial level Fowokan’s sculptural piece Brixton Skank packs many messages but look deeper and you find a unifying thematic thread that weaves effortlessly many narratives across time and space. It was the first piece I fell in love with and although I have met many of his creations, I guess for me this will always be a case of ‘love at first sight’, and I am not only talking of the music in her hips.

On one level, the piece is a testament to an important energising principle that runs through much of African people’s sense of spiritualism –the idea of invocation and divination- in this case implied by the bowl and the persona of the subject of the piece. By using red the sculptor extends the invocation into an evocation of life –red as in blood the life force. Skank is a dance move and the equation of the protest/uprisings of the eighties in Brixton which the piece was made to commemorate, is also poignant with layers of meanings.

The eighties, when the piece was made, was a time when, on a daily basis, the media was filled with images of young people dancing the toyi-toyi as they confronted the might of the apartheid state, often represented by armoured tanks. Beyond the immediate anger of the confrontations and the throwing of stones one saw in the dances a sense of a celebration of the real possibility of freedom and change. It is this ability to combine an elevation of freedom to something that can be divined or foretold and the elevation of that desire to a sacred space,as well as the joy of anticipation that makes this piece so special and prophetic. It is true to history not simply through a recreation of a sociological polemic but by offering a poetry of hope- after the anger and the upheaval. Dance like rain to ‘wash al de bad feelin’.

Zagba Oyortey
Feb 2008


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Review first published in Artrage March 1995



The present state of Africa and of Africans abroad is one of the strands that informs the thinking and artistic practice of Fowokan (George Kelly) one of the most important living visual artist within the African/Caribbean community.  The other driving influence behind the work of this unique sculptor and jeweller is the search for an understanding of himself as “an African born in the Diaspora”.  Having grown in a culture that devalued the attributes of ‘Africanness’ he has had to seek out the positive features of that heritage and assert them.  This process which is spiritual, philosophical and physical manifests itself continuously in Fowokan’s work and it marks him out to be in Olasheni Gansallo’s words  ”a powerful mind and one with the ability to take on vast sensibilities of African philosophy.”


As far as artistic rendition of these ideas and sensibilities go, Professor Stuart hall see Fowokan as “…looking anew, looking not at but through the aesthetic prism of an African aesthetic…” This appraisal is a good basis as any to begin evaluation of the artist’s work.  Each of Fowokan’s pieces manages to condense a sense of time and place and celebrate the virtues of race in a quiet yet unambiguous way and with consummate artistry.  When one considers the materials he uses, his themes and his artistic statements his distinctiveness becomes clearer.

A number of elements that recur in Fowokan’s work are human heads, the female body, ancestral veneration, history and dramatic use of colour.  The repetitive representation of the human form according to Fowokan derives from the fact that his main mode of communication is with other humans and he sees this as coming from the African’s desire to focus on the human element.  To questions of weather this precludes the abstract; he counters this by saying that his human forms are not always fully representational.  For this artist, the use of colour is also a level of abstraction used to emphasise mood or ideas and to express none human qualities or behaviour patterns that are not human but are of concern to humans.   Good example of this is seen in the poetic colour of the purple piece “Within the Seed Infinity within Infinity the seed”.  Here the colour expresses solemnity, is majestic and mystical at the same time.


Made of cement Fondu and resin it is a 48 inch full figure of an African woman wearing an ochre wrapper and with a purple body.  The figure points with one hand at a seed held in the other hand and looks upwards in a kind of contemplatory/supplicatory pose.  Gesture and movement that are almost reminiscent of a movement from Adowa (a canonical Ashanti dance). 

Each detail of this piece including the three solid circular silver necklaces around her neck are significant and all contribute to making it (Infinity) work out as a homage to eternal beauty and truth and the possibility of life itself.  In this instance, colour, African womanhood and spiritualism seem to be united in a very thought-provoking way.  It needs to be seen to be fully appreciated.

Similarly and on the subject of colour, the red used for the startling and evocative “Brixton Skank” is precisely to portray the living, burning African spirit in the middle of Brixton.  Done after the riots, this piece of a girl caught in movement functions more as a high priestess than a soldier and shifts the mood from pure physical rage to a spiritual response.

Going through Fowokan’s studio at Brixton and in the work space he has created at Ladywell in Lewisham, one is struck by a large number of human heads in different positions with faces reflecting strength, character and above all radiating prescience.  “Masai Head”, “A Vision of Isis”, “Mary Seacole”, “Man from Redemption Grong”, etc.  Why this penchant for the human head? Heads are fascinating, Fowokan insists, “… because that is where the human senses are concentrated and the part of the human body that communicates most; and within certain African belief system it is the Centre of the human essence and is the seat of the soul…”.  Fowokan believes that he can express as much about the individual with other parts of the body but chooses the head because it introduces several levels of understanding.  Instances are offered in the bust entitled “Metamorphosis of Mr X” and Mary Seacole, the averted gaze and avoidance of head-on stare suggest near yet distant possibly beyond the viewer in the former and the pondering of things beyond words in the latter.  These condensed messages are achieved with economy rather than understatement and achieve their objectives. 

These heads are the sub texts of ancestral themes – Steeped in the commemoration of those gone before which is respect for heritage and acknowledgement that the living are always linked to the past and products of other times and other efforts.  “…Weather it’s acknowledge by Christians or not, Christ is an ancestor and so are the saints…, of course some ancestors are of greater value so deserve more veneration.  We are the result of our ancestors so by looking at where we came from we appreciate where we are going.  This is common to all religions and so in the case of Africa …the only thing with Africa is that like all things African it has been devalued…”  The attachment of the label “ancestor worship” with its simplistic connotation is to devalue.  “…It is part of our struggle therefore to stand and say that our things are of the same value to those of other people…”.

Meditations Beneath Duppycherry Tree

Two pieces that illustrate the above and demonstrate the sense of spiritualism in Fowokan’s work are “Mediations Beneath Duppycherry Tree” (resin 48 inches) and “Beyond my Grandfather’s Dreams” (low melt alloy).  In “Duppycherry”, the subject is caught in a meditative silence with head bowed.  In its making, the resin was buried for several months after the death of the artist’s mother.  This makes the piece work at the subliminal level with a message of transformation and reconciliation with mortality.  The centrepiece of Fowokan’s recent one-man exhibition at the Jamaican High Commission in London was “Beyond my Grandfather’s Dream”.  This piece is a lyrical expression of pure beauty, unadorned.

Beyond My Grandfather's Dream


Slavery which fractured and threatened the “African Universe” had sought to dehumanise the African, and denied the enslaved the opportunities to see themselves as objects of beauty; the figures of Black people caricatured as simpletons in a variety of guises comes to mind.  To those who suffered beyond our comprehension Fowokan dedicates this piece which is elaborate a song as sculpture can get.  Fowokan’s work demonstrates positive links between history, pride and development.  It is a paradox of our times that such talent is not centrally placed and accessible to the many people it speaks for and to.


First published in Artrage March 1995.