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Yvonne Osei, 2018 RAC Artist Support Grant Recipient: “A Journey to Dissect Colonial History and Redefine Cultural Identity”

With financial assistance from The Regional Arts Commission, Yvonne Osei traveled overseas to further her most recent body of work, “Who Discovers the Discoverer?,” using art to question history and redefine cultural identities.

Yvonne Osei dressed as a Ghanaian school girl “searching” for Diogo de Azambuja in Lisbon.

As a German-born transmedial artist of Ghanaian descent, Yvonne Osei took an interest in history and how it has shaped the identities of present-day nations and their people. In particular, she was intrigued to dissect the roots of her own identity and explore the impact of colonialism on formal education in West African cultures. This curiosity led her to pursue her latest intercontinental project titled, “Who Discovers the Discoverer?,” in which she engages in a series of public performances to usher in a new lens to examine colonial history and encourages people to use their voices to challenge unilateral narratives that have taken root in their respective societies.

While pursuing an art residency at the Cité Internationale des Art in Paris in 2018, Osei received an Artist Support grant from the Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis (RAC) to help her expand “Who Discovers the Discoverer?” During her residency, she realized she would need to broaden her scope of creative research from solely France to other European nations to portray the fuller breadth of West Africa’s colonial past. The grant from RAC provided her the necessary financial support to further her creative research and production to other parts of Europe, including Spain and Portugal.

Three Ghanaian women and artist Yvonne Osei dressed in custom-made Ghanaian public school uniforms at the opening of “Who Discovers the Discoverer?” at Bruno David Gallery in St. Louis in August 2018.

“Travel has always been a huge component to my practice because it translates my work from the realm of theory to being tangible and real, informing my perspective on a lot of the topics that I am interested in. Experiencing these countries first hand is a way to bring my audience along on a journey to witness the very soils that carry the DNA of history that I unpack in my art,” said Osei. “The Regional Arts Commission played an influential role in helping me, financially, to expand my work and bring my ideas to fruition.”

In Lisbon, Osei pursued a five-day search for a Portuguese man named Diogo de Azambuja, who is given credit for being the first to ‘discover’ the Gold Coast, present day Ghana, in 1471. Diogo de Azambuja also oversaw the building of the Elmina Castle in Ghana in 1482, which became one of the most important stops on the transatlantic slave route.

Osei’s video titled, “Estou à procura de Diogo de Azambuja,” or “I am looking for Diogo de Azambuja,” shows the artist as a grown woman dressed as a Ghanaian school girl and holding a megaphone, announcing her search for Diogo de Azambuja in groceries shops, various neighborhoods and attraction sites in Lisbon. Osei mentions how shocked she was to realize that Diogo de Azambuja was far from being a common name known to the natives in Lisbon. Osei added, “Some Portuguese nationals asked me if Diogo de Azambuja was my lover, and others thought I was looking for a street. A colonial history I was taught to memorize and consider significant when I was in middle school in Ghana held little to no relevance for the Portuguese in Lisbon.”

Junior high school students seated in their Ghanaian public school uniforms, also known as “kokonte’ and ‘abenkwan” pinafores.

“Who Discovers the Discoverer?” has secured solo exhibitions at the Bruno David Gallery in St. Louis (August 2018) and Sterling College in Kansas (April 2019). As she reflects on the series, Osei believes one of the most significant takeaways is how passion catches on. She hopes to inspire others who are oppressed to find their voice and question societal norms.

“As an artist activating public spaces, I realize just how contagious passion truly is. People will stop to listen to you when they can sense your drive and relate to your zeal,” said Osei. “Ultimately, once we change our lens and question the way we have come to understand our world, we can start telling our own story.”

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