In the Studio with Gideon Appah

Words by

Sofia Hallström

In the Studio with Gideon Appah

SH: How to Say Sorry in a Thousand Lights is currently on view at Pace and marks your first solo exhibition in the UK. Can you talk us through the title of the show, where did it derive from?

GA: It was chosen because it evokes a sense of beauty and wonder. I thought that it sounded like a beautiful title and it relates to the imagery of lights and stars, a recurring motif in my paintings.

SH: When did you start painting? Did your upbringing affect the way that you paint now?

GA: When I was a young boy, I started using watercolour on paper with a small palette. I began with that and then progressed to more advanced techniques. Eventually, I grew tired of copying images in books and began creating my own art from my imagination. I started painting professionally in 2014-2015 after completing my BFA in 2012-2013. At first, things were slow and I wasn't sure what to do. However, by 2015, my work started getting attention and I realised that if I kept working hard and stayed focused, I could make a career out of it.

Gideon Appah, Seated Man, 2021- 2022 oil and acrylic on canvas (148.3 × 148.4cm) © Gideon Appah Photo: Robert Glowacki 

SH: Can you talk us through your process in the studio? You have spoken about the build up of many layers of paint applied onto the canvas…

GA: I first decide on the tool I want to use, the colours I want to incorporate and the texture I want to create. Sometimes I apply a very thin layer of paint to add ambiguity and depth to the painting. This technique involves letting the paint flow freely on the canvas, creating a thin layer. While this layer isn't the final product, it adds a lot of tonal depth when combined with different layers of colour. I experimented with different techniques when I was younger, such as using a blue and white palette to paint a blue sky.

I have two assistants in the studio who help with mixing colours and clean brushes, but I will also paint them as life-models onto the canvas, the figures in the paintings are partly based on their form and in part from my own imagination.

SH: The way you utilise the paint is so varied too, from thick and rough applications of acrylic contrasted against the very thin layers of oil that are often how you depict the figures in the paintings. How did you develop this style?

GA: This started because I allowed the paint to drip freely onto the canvas whilst I was working outside. I build up many layers of oil paint for the background, I use up to three different colours and layer them on top of each other over the course of several days. After a week, the layers create a unique texture, tone and colour, sometimes I am surprised by the effect and sometimes I arrive at a colour that doesn't need changing, and I wouldn't have achieved it without the layers of colour beneath.

Gideon Appah The Sensitivity of Everyday Things, 2021-2023 oil and acrylic on canvas (220.5 × 200 cm) © Gideon Appah Photo: Damian Griffiths 
SH: Your colour palette is very distinctive – nostalgic blues and deep green landscapes feature in almost all of the paintings – what draws you to the colours that you use?

GA: I like using bright colours, simply because I like them, it doesn't have any deeper meaning or reason behind it. Bright colours can bring happiness.

SH: You reference a diverse array of visual sources – including music videos, cinema and stills from Youtube clips. What is it that draws you to this imagery?

GA: Personally, I believe that I have a great eye for composition, as I am always looking for interesting moments and settings, not just focusing on figures. It's about having the ability to choose what works well together and creates a visually pleasing composition. I always keep an eye out for interesting sights and scenes that I can use for inspiration.

Gideon Appah, The Contemplation, 2023 oil and acrylic on canvas (200 × 300 cm) © Gideon Appah Photo: Damian Griffiths 
SH: Many of the paintings are quite literal, and draw from your surroundings in Accra but there is also a surrealist approach to the compositions. I'm thinking about the painting The Sensitivity of Everyday Things in which incongruous objects and a disembodied head are collected at the foreground of the image. How do you arrive at these compositions?

GA: This painting I created in 2021 was the first one to go too derivative for me, so I placed it aside and started on other ideas. As you can see, I have many ideas that come to mind, and I enjoy experimenting with different materials, such as chalkboard paper. Some of the resulting works are more interesting than others, and require more effort to develop. If I am able to do this successfully, I may end up with 16 good pieces out of 20 attempts. It's also about combining elements in unique and unexpected ways. It's a beautiful concept that I will continue to explore further. I believe that some pieces will need more time to fully develop and be ready for display, perhaps in 10 or 20 years time.

SH: What impact do you hope your art will have on viewers? Are there any particular ideas that you hope to communicate?

GA: From a technical standpoint, I believe that a good painting should be appreciated by others as well. When I exhibit my work, I am interested in hearing people's opinions about it. In terms of the recent show, I think the message was conveyed effectively. Personally, I am still exploring and trying to figure out many things about my own work. I am not entirely sure what everything means, and it depends on the context. I am open to interpretation and feedback.

Gideon Appah, Swimmer, 2021-2022 oil and acrylic on canvas (240 × 300cm) © Gideon Appah Photo: Robert Glowacki 

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Pace Gallery, London © Gideon Appah, courtesy Pace Gallery.