Woman is the Key: Interview with Ghanaian Wood Sculptor Ken Gwira

 I love my Facebook page. The feedback and messages I receive are so encouraging and I always get to meet interesting people who I instantly want to share with the world! A case in point – Washington D.C.-based Ghanaian sculptor Ken Gwira.

Born in Takoradi, Ken spent his early childhood in Sierra Leone where his father was stationed as the Ghana High Commissioner. After being shipped off to England from 7 to 13 years old, he spent his teens back in Ghana culminating in his enrollment at the University of Ghana, Legon. A precocious talent, even in those younger days, he knew he was destined to be a sculptor.

“I was a child who enjoyed drawing and painting in middle and high school but I did not pursue it in college. After a year as a teaching assistant at the university, I wanted to start a business making things. At 24 years old, I just knew I wanted to design something that would be a symbol for Africa and the world. Initially, I thought the answer was to mass produce designs in plastic. But back in 1981, the plastic industry in Ghana was not developed. So I chose wood as my material because it was plentiful. The rest is history.”

He recalls laughing the launch of his first collection recalling that the sturdiness of some of his maiden pieces was questionable. “Some sculptures were perfect and others split. I even sat on one [of my creations] and it broke!”

One of Ken Gwira’s larger pieces – A Conversation Seat.

Women seemed to have inspired the budding sculptor early on. The failings of his first collection took him back to the drawing board and the message “Woman is the Key” came to him as though in a dream. It has remained his muse and mantra ever since and the theme now runs through nearly two and a half decades of work. “Now that my daughter is going to college, I want to imbibe this philosophy into people’s hearts and minds. Woman is the Key is an idea that should influence the next generation, help in the development of Africa and beyond. This thought alone could make a significant contribution to progress.”

He describes his favorite woods as Afromosia and Kokrodua because they are beautiful and easy to work with. Ebony by contrast he finds more difficult to work but adds that it does lend itself well to more complex designs. His advice to amateur wood sculptors? “Always use kiln dried wood, or be able to verify that the wood has been properly dried. Observe and remember how the wood reacts at every stage of production. Learn about other aspects of the wood industry that may impact you. For example how local carpenters finish their work.”

Having sold a piece for as much as $3,000 Ken reflects on the business side of things given that he views sculpting as his passion but not his primary source of income.

“I actually pay to show my work a lot of the time, and then there may be a commission taken out of the selling price as well. The hardest part about being an artist is having to treat your work like any other commodity out there.”

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Table art by Ken Gwira.
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Sculptural art pieces by Ken Gwira

After participating in an exhibition at the Arts Barn in Gaithersburg, Maryland in the USA earlier in the year, Ken explains that his years in the field do not preclude him from proactive marketing and promotion. “I went to the [Art Barn] gallery for another exhibition and saw a ‘call for artists’ memo. So I called and sent photos of my work to be approved. I did as much word of mouth as possible and even handed out flyers to encourage patrons to come to my exhibition there.”

His design process is as multilayered as his marketing approach. Ken explains that his design process is not free hand but planned, and involves drawing sketches to guide his hands. “I draw on paper then full scale on the wood itself. Some sculptures have to be created in a particular sequence. Once I get started though, it’s hard to put down the tools. I keep working deep into the night sometimes.”

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Stages of the design process in Ken’s atelier.
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Close up of Ken’s creations.
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The finished piece by Ken Gwira.

The sculpture above is one of Ken’s recent pieces. It has three movable parts: 2 earrings and a necklace, all made from one solid piece of wood. “I made one earring and then the second. Then to keep them out of the way, I taped them so that there would be enough room to work on the necklace. I also taped the nose to protect it as I made changes to the mouth. After all is done then I removed the tape for the individual parts to hang loosely.”

The scultor says he and his wife fully intend to live in Ghana again in the future and hope to build an art gallery and studio. “We are first looking to have a kiln to dry the wood and other basic machinery before the big move of course!”

America, enjoy his works while you can.

Follow Ken here!

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