On one of the hundreds of yellow plastic segments cut and woven together to form Serge Attukwei Clottey’s monumental tapestry work, someone has written in black marker, so small you might miss it amongst the waves of bright colour, “Exodus 17”. It’s unclear if the scribbled allusion has been added by the artist or whether it remains from the material’s previous life as a jerry can, used to carry cooking oil and then water in drought-hit areas of Ghana. The relevant chapter of Exodus tells of the liberated, but wandering Israelites, who “thirsted for water” and began to turn against their leader, Moses. God responds to his messenger’s desperate entreaties: “Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink. And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel”.
Bringing water from stone, and doing so theatrically in front of the elders, Moses the migrant is interested in faith, performance, and thirst. So is whoever wrote that Biblical reference on their water-can, either as a kind of joke or as an invocation in a time of need, a staunch act of either wit or will, depending on whether the can was empty or full. So is Clottey, weaving his tapestries and his narratives.
The jerry cans used to create these strange and beautiful works were imported into Ghana from Europe and Asia full of cooking oil and then became cast-offs, adding to the country’s growing plastic-waste problem. Reclaiming and sublimating them through his craft was important for Clottey, but there’s a further active resonance here. The cans began to be repurposed by locals during droughts to carry potable water over the miles to their homes. It was an unhealthy but widespread practice which became symbolic of Ghana’s water economy during the presidency of John Kufuor. Clottey doesn’t simply want to repurpose materials: he wants to rewrite a country’s symbolic language.
Clottey has used these ‘Kufuor Gallons’ before. In his 2015 ‘Plastics journey series’, he separated the tops of the cans so that they perversely resembled Ghanaian ceremonial masks, but with gaping openings desperate for water. In this latest iteration, the material forms paths which promise, yellow-brick-road-like, prosperity and fulfilment, but necessarily include insecurity and danger. These are the treacherous routes of the world’s migrants.
The enormous floor-tapestry trails down the entire length of Fabrica gallery in a former Regency church near the waterfront in Brighton. It’s draped from narthex to altar, regal and dull at once in its gold and blue tones. It creaks and crunches underfoot, but also seems to ‘shimmer’. The palette is not unlike a gold-leafed Gustav Klimt painting. Clottey deliberately calls out European fin-de-siècle ostentation, providing a galling reminder of the pleasures of the flesh whilst staring unflinchingly at its desperate preservation.
In creating something beautiful, Clottey’s art manages to avoid beautifying its serious subject matter. The richly allusive work, and its positioning within a church on Britain’s south-facing shore, begins to feel like a kaleidoscope of contemporary ideology, a complex of viewpoints and beliefs and materials, which clamour together, but finally ring true with one clear concern: human needs and human rights. Positioning oneself at the church altar and looking down this strange road into a strange future is a potent reminder that we among the privileged can, to an extent, choose how and when and why we enact our faith. Others, quite literally, live and die by it.