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Fowokan: a Sculptor through two Lenses


Fowokan with Camcorder. Photo by Claire Sheppard.

Fowokan’s interest in photography was rekindled a few years ago when a friend introduced him to the digital camera which led him into experimenting with both the still camera and the camcorder. Fowokan went on a mad spree taking photographs of his sculptures, people, landscapes, exhibitions, everyday events and of the scenes in the many countries he visited. He was fascinated by the ease with which digital technology allowed him to master techniques he had struggled to learn some 40 years earlier. He began taking photographs as a boy of thirteen in Jamaica, using a box camera he was given as a birthday present. Later in England he was able to acquire greater knowledge of photography through books from the library and access to the equipment and chemicals necessary for developing and printing. By the age of 17 many hours were spent locked in a cupboard below stairs in his parents’ house in Brixton south London, in what he called his darkroom.

Fowokan immersed himself editing and enhancing the photographs that he took with the digital camera, treating the process with the same attention that he paid to his sculptures. He also read about the new technology and about the use of software such as Photoshop for editing and manipulating pictures. Once he’d satisfied his curiosity and developed a degree of mastery with the still camera his interest turned to the camcorder and the possibility of making short movies. On a trip to Ghana in 2002, he made his first attempt using the video facility on a medium format digital camera he had bought. At Donko Nsuo the Slave River in Assin Manso, Cape Coast, Ghana, he filmed the motion of water being scooped with hands from the river to wash his face and upper torso. This was an attempt to capture the image of those enslaved Africans after their long journey from the interior to Elmina Castle; during the transatlantic slave trade. At Assin Manso they would be washed and fattened, warehoused in Elmina Castle, and then transported as cargo to the Americas.

The footage captured with the video facility on the digital camera at Donko Nsuo inspired Fowokan to purchase his first camcorder. On a visit to Carriacou, he had used the camcorder of a family member to video an interview with Canute Calliste, the well known ‘naïve’ painter and quadrille violinist in Carriacou, Grenada. He edited the video using supplementary information from the Carriacou museum and books and music from his local library in London. The finished product had still images of a selection of Canute’s paintings and an in-depth interview with the artist talking about his life, his inspiration and his work. The video also included a commentary which provided continuity and contextual information to support the visual images and the interview. This first edited video took several weeks of reading and trial and error to produce; Fowokan later handed over a copy to the museum in Carriacou.

The level of commitment to the production of these short videos, as with digital photographs, was similar to the attention Fowokan pays to the production of his sculptures has characterised his artistic expression for the last three years. He has recorded himself at work in his workshop, documenting each stage of the process of producing a piece of sculpture from the primal lump of clay through to the finished bronze. Following two operations and several short stays in hospital, Fowokan has spent less time in his sculpture workshop and more time taking photographs, capturing video footage and editing them on his home computer. In the last three years, it’s been rare to see him without a rucksack containing a digital camera and camcorder, leads and tripod. He records at the drop of a hat, from the police stopping and searching Black young men, to the police harassing a middle age Irish man in an expensive car and every event he attends. He has videos of concerts, his frequent trips abroad, art exhibitions, funerals, birthday, parties, conferences and things and places of interests such as 19th Century/ early 20th Century buildings and public statues around London.

After each videoing, Fowokan researches the wider context of the subject/s and in the editing; he not only refines images and removes trivia but provides captions with background and historical information in print and through narration. All his videos contain music to reflect the cultural context, location and mood. He provides copies of his films to the relevant individuals and to archives in London such as the London Metropolitan Archives. If he considers the video to be of interest to a wider audience he produces a vignette which he uploads onto youtube. Fowokan’s youtube vignettes include Jazz in Brixton, Sonny Bradshaw’s and Frank Critchlow’s funerals, and Alexander D Great’s performance at the Haitian Fundraising event at Acton High School, among others. He also captures the stories on DVD of Black people within the community whose lives are of particular interest. So many of our stories are unwritten and Black life often goes on and dies unrecorded. He has a collection of DVDs with stories of Black activists, Black performers, artists and ordinary as well as famous Black people’s lives in 1940s Kingston Jamaica and from the 1940s to present day London.

Much of Fowokan’s photographs and videos are for the record, however, his attention to technical detail, his robust approach to researching the contexts of his subjects and his artistic eye as a sculptor produces engaging and inspiring images. He has chosen these two sets of lenses as his current tools of expression. He does not simply create videos and photographs but offers the viewer a creative experience in which you learn as you watch.

After more than 30 years of producing art, this could be a period of reflection and introspection for Fowokan as well as of instruction. Through these lenses, he is capturing his sculptures in the way that he wants the viewer to see them. Through these lenses he is bringing to the viewer images, words, people and their stories that are currently ignored by the mass media. Artists photographing their work is not new. The renowned Romanian sculptor, Brancusi took photographs of his own sculptures because he was dissatisfied with the way his work was depicted by photographers of his day. But an artist out of his own interest, creating and bringing to a wider audience moving images and stories of Black life previously un-captured by the media is new and is proving to be popular based on youtube data. Who knows where this will all end…the media may well take its lead from Fowokan, because we know that, where there’s an audience, there’s money to be made. So let’s watch this space…!

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Dr Margaret Andrews
January 2011