The previous day, I had the pleasure of viewing Arthur’s work at the 1957 gallery in London. I was immediately struck by how vivid and beautiful his work is. The colour spills over the canvas as the objects of his work look you straight in the eye. “Perhaps that colours my perspective,” Timothy says. “Maybe it’s the weather here that I’ve been trying to adjust to ever since.”
Timothy’s work has, up until 2018, been strictly a hobby. After opening his own architecture firm in 1986, he was encouraged by his sons to share his work with the world, a far more daunting prospect than the confined rules and regulations that come with designing buildings. Since then, his work has been displayed at the Royal Academy and Ronchini Gallery in London.
Timothy started drawing as a child, sitting in his mother’s textile studio in Sierra Leone with his brother. When he was nine, the family moved to Bayswater in London. “My first oil painting was when I was nine years old when we moved to Bayswater. Artists used to sell their artwork along Hyde Park,” he says.
“I did a landscape painting on cardboard and I thought it was just as good as some of these paintings, so I snuck out and stood by the railings and held the painting in front of me. Lots of people commented that they liked the painting, but no one bought it.”
A lot of it comes from my reading. I was reading about the historical background of Sierra Leone and Freetown, and the way it was promised to the returning slaves.
This newfound freedom to create is wholly evident in his work, which in this most recent collection – Postcards from a Promised Land – brings to life photographs taken by Timothy during family trips to Sierra Leone, where he spent most of his childhood. The photos were taken over almost four decades – from 1985 till today.
“Growing up in Sierra Leone was a really lovely period, but going back you realise things are not as you remember, more corruption, lack of maintenance of places,” Timothy says.
The postcards focus on the city of Freetown and its layered history as a city founded as a settlement for freed slaves, which has since experienced Ebola, and civil war and is still a great natural beauty. Timothy’s work blends the dreams and failures of this “promised land”, which the city offered for the displaced Creoles that make up part of his heritage.
“A lot of it comes from my reading. I was reading about the historical background of Sierra Leone and Freetown, and the way it was promised to the returning slaves. This was meant to be the land of milk and honey and they were meant to cultivate their own society. This is really looking at what has happened since,” he says.
In Lakka and Genesis, we see nature taking back the buildings that once offered so much hope. Isabella’s Head Start is a snapshot of a family race on a beach in Lakka where everyone was given a head start depending on how old they were.
This fond memory makes Timothy chuckle. “My daughter was four and a half years old. We gave her a huge headstart – something like 75 meters! It was ridiculous. My son Duval was behind and Miles was further behind. I was right further back. Erica started the race and Isabella, as we approached and passed her she started crying. I was determined to win.”
His previous collections include Grandma’s Hands which first showcased in Accra, looking at the post-colonial period in Ghana after 1957 – the year Timothy was born. After his father’s death, Timothy stumbled upon a trunk filled with black and white photographs that he has since breathed colour into.
“I don’t think my father was a good photographer, but he seemed to take quite a lot of them,” Arthur says, in reference to the thread between these two collections, a treasure trove of photographs.
The work mirrors Ghana’s elite and a period of incredible promise.
With prominent African journalist Bankole Timothy as a father and distinguished barrister Francis Dove as a grandfather, the artist was surrounded by Ghana’s elite at a very young age. An integral part of Ghana’s media landscape, Timothy was a friend of Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, and coordinated the press for Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Sierra Leone.
Shortly after Ghana’s independence, Nkrumah’s government deported Timothy’s father over statements he had made in his column as editor of the Daily Graphic. He had criticised the president’s decision to put his face on Ghana’s currency and a statue in front of parliament.
With such vivid personal and historical imagery, it surprised me to hear Timothy’s previous collection has been sold in its entirety, with this second due to be sold as part of art fairs around the world this year. How does he feel about selling a part of his history?
“I have paintings that I have done of my family that I keep. If I’m painting and my wife Erica likes it and thinks it is quite personal we will decide to keep it,” he says.
Postcards from a Promised Land is showing at Gallery 1957 in London until 28 January 2023. Admission is free.
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