A Conversation with Kojo Marfo - whynow

Kojo Marfo does not seek to divide – he strives for universality. The rising star wants to express frustrations, anxieties, fears, and social pressures through the intimate setting of the canvas. whynow went to his London studio to find out how.

Heartily welcomed into his top floor flat in Streatham, I find myself on one of two bar stools in the middle of Kojo Marfo’s studio.

Lockdown difficulties have meant Kojo had to create his own workspace, and it is a room to behold. One wall-size painting in progress dominates the space, around which are a litter of paintings, magazine clippings, paint pots, brushes, upturned and broken chairs, loose canvases with paintings on them, one on top of the other on top of the other. Reams of tarpaulin hang over the banister, each an artwork in its own right. Bags with paintings inside are pushed against one another underneath the window, which is complete with a startling view over central London.

Kojo’s upbringing in the Akan culture of Ghana, alongside divergent family religions, gives him a certain understanding of art. It taught him to be respectful to other cultures and gave him a visual language to draw upon. I asked what is unique about it and how it has influenced and manifested in his work.

 “Akan culture is just like any other, Dorset or Devon culture – but it is very broad, and there are different groups within the umbrella. Where I come from, we have these carvings, some are gods and others are dolls, and I saw both sides.

“On Saturdays you would go to traditional priests and healers – in England you would call it Voodoo – with drums, colourful clothes, and the things I saw shaped my understanding of social cohesion, that you can be part of it without having to assimilate, you can be there and be respectful, no-one expects you to act the same and wear the same things, and this has shaped my approach in terms of art.”

Kojo wants his paintings to be political without being divisive. As a result, the vibrant figures are not depictions of living people, instead they come from his imaginations, based on those Akan carvings of dolls and gods he encountered as a child. Is that the main drive behind producing work?

“My work is based on society – big society – inequalities. People’s happiness and understanding of family. I take the images I saw when I was growing up, those traditional African carvings and stuff like that, and then I recreate these images in my own understanding, based on my dreams and childhood memories.”

Those traditional Akan carvings are typified by their round heads, armless bodies, strange shapes, but here Kojo mixes in double-head masks, inspired by the Yoruba and Fulani people in Nigeria and northern Mali, respectively. I wondered how he saw his style developing.

“I don’t stick to one style,” Kojo replies, “a lot of these things change. I’m doing a lot of these faces right now; I don’t know how long these things will last. I want the face to look like a collage, I had a friend who had vitiligo, that’s where I got the idea from. I will move on as soon as I have mastered it.”

The collaged faces make for shifting identities on the canvas, they separate themselves from any discernible race, which is something Kojo is keen to continue.

“I’m always very wary about identity politics because it divides people – anything that pushes anyone away is not what I practice.

“People are worried about their lives, about rent, about food. I want to address universal struggles from my own experience, and not paint people. I don’t want to be part of the problem – I want to address issues that are major to their lives, people are just trying to find balance.”

This idea of balance is important to Kojo, one that seeps into the painted image. They are pictures in fine equilibrium, the product of continuously seeking a common ground and a compromise that does not sacrifice his core beliefs or objectify anyone else’s. This stems from his youth and how he was raised.

“I don’t come from ‘the other side’, in terms of a ‘traditional Akan upbringing’. My mum was a Jehovah’s Witness, my grandma was a Catholic missionary’s town guide, and my great grandma was a traditional healer.

I had all these things in one pot. It gave me this broad outlook, looking to find compromise, balance, and common ground between families and people.”

London is a major influence on Kojo’s painting. This is where he gets his spark, his understanding of societal feeling, through simply overhearing conversations in the park, photographing people on the high street, or riding the night bus across town. To create his symbolic and textured canvases, he pulls city influences into his nostalgia, memory, experience, and empathy for society.

“There are different types of people everywhere.” Kojo asserts, “London is a melting pot. Everything comes through in my work. Every day of my life. I just want to tell my story.”

The Artist

Rampa  They Will Be