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The Essence of African Art: Isshaq Ismail


In the very first edition of our “The Essence of African Art” Interview Series in partnership with Afrikart.Ghana, we showcase the craft of visual artists, photographers, multimedia artists, and more whose original works evoke the essence of Africa! In this edition, we speak to a Ghanaian artist who paints grotesque images and textures to address social, cultural, and political realities and their impact on one’s identity – Isshaq Ismail.


Isshaq Ismail is a multidisciplinary artist and a product of the Ghanatta College of Arts and Design. In the scope of his aesthetic strategies, he investigates and explores grotesque figures and textures in his paintings.

In 2015 and 2016 he was shortlisted as one of the top ten artists in Ghana for the Kuenyehia Art Prize for Contemporary Ghanaian Arts. That same year he was chosen as one of the top 100 finalists at the Barclays L’Artelier Art Competition which was held in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Ismail’s work is a conversation on place and identity taking inspiration from his hometown Accra. His work deals with social, cultural and political realities living in the 21st century and how these realities impact one’s identity 

Could you start by telling us about yourself and what art is to you?

I am a visual artist, collaborator, and filmmaker. Art has been a catalyst of solace for me to escape solitude since childhood because I grew up in a space where art wasn’t part of the conversation. Furthermore, it was a great tool for me to investigate, question, and explore political, social, and cultural narratives by making polemic statements.

How did your journey begin and at which point did you decide to take it seriously?

The journey pretty much began during my final year in art school. After I graduated from Ghanatta College of Art and Design, I met some protégés who encouraged me to work hard but after a few years of practicing as an artist, I realized it’s not all about hard work but also about working smart. So I had to unlearn and learn. During this process, I began to understand that art goes beyond just the sublime, mundane, ephemeral, and utilitarian qualities rather art should make a “statement” and that spurred me on to pursue art professionally.

What is your earliest memory of art?

Hmm…when I made my first painting. I remember it was a still-life painting of empty product containers with my protégés art materials (laughs) and it was an oil painting on a flour sack as my support (canvas). For the record, by then I wasn’t yet in art school.

How has your roots or upbringing influenced your art?

My upbringing is a vehicle for me to change the stereotypes of being an artist in the space I grew up, as a result, my art now is a tool to advocate for the voiceless and represent the masses.

What is self-knowledge to you and what impact has it it’s had your craft and career? 

I believe it’s imperative to acquire knowledge. Moreover, in order to infiltrate any system, you need information, that’s where self-knowledge becomes very vital. The ecology of the art world is very complex, with the proliferation of artists, galleries, collectors, etc and in order to survive in the art world, you need knowledge.

What keeps you inspired?

Anything on identity, space, and time because I believe it helps us touch on the past, represent the present, and prophesy the future. 

How does your faith affect your art?

In as much as I am producing very powerful artworks, I need to acknowledge the master of arts that’s God. For me, faith is the key to creativity.

Who are some of the artists you look up to first in Africa, and beyond?

In Africa:  Ablade Glover, El Anatsui, Serge Attukwei Clottey, and Ibrahim Mahama. And beyond I have an affinity for the works of  Jean Michel Basquiat and Francis Bacon.

What makes your art unique and how has the uniqueness helped your career?

I have a leitmotif that runs through my work, I am fiend to subtle and vibrant hues fictional images and surfaces (grotesque forms) this has made my art practice very honest, raw, and authentic. Furthermore helping me reach more organic patrons who have an affinity for my works.

Does art give you a sense of purpose?

Yes. Art gives me the luxury and autonomy to explore and investigate.

Do you have any major interest outside art or painting?

For now, no. 

What would you say is the biggest challenge facing artists from the continent?

Well, life is full of tribulations and tranquility. I can speak for my space (Ghana) because that’s where I operate for now. The biggest challenge is awareness. I believe if 90 % of Ghanaians understand art it will go a long way to change the negative stereotypes associated with artists and their work.

What challenges, in particular, have you faced?

Very few art patrons actually invest in contemporary Ghanaian art.

How was the feeling like having your first exhibition? Do share the experience.

(Laughs…) It was more like you proposing to a lady and finally you get the response “YES”, the feeling was simply amazing! My first ever exhibition was at the African Regent Hotel, Accra, Ghana in 2013. I didn’t even have a theme for the exhibition I guess I was so excited (laughs again).

What is your vision for change in the creative industry and how do you want to be part of that?

For me, I believe in the power of collaboration and support. I have a foundation Isshaq Foundation, hopefully, I will soon establish a residency and exhibition project courtesy of my foundation.

What tip do you have for anyone wanting to start a career in his industry?

Passion and joy,  because these two things will keep you going when the battle becomes tough and you feel like giving up.

Lastly, are you currently working on any new project? What is next for you?

Yes. I just finished a residency called Quarantine Residency in my studio in Accra. The project was inspired by the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown situation. I will also be revisiting and continuing a body of work titled Onipa Anim Series in my studio in May 2020.

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