Kojo Marfo’s Streatham studio is like the artist’s studio of your dreams. Tiny, at the very top of a slightly crumbling terrace overlooking the Common, and absolutely rammed to the gills with the Ghanaian artist’s paintings and materials. I’m surprised anyone can get in the door; I struggled, but now I’m gingerly ensconced in a small, paint-splattered armchair opposite where Marfo sits, hat on head (he is never seen without one), in front of one of his huge canvases.
And what a canvas it is, as yet unstretched, tacked onto the wall almost from floor to ceiling. Two female figures, one recognisably a black woman, the other with the almost spectral face of an Akan fertility doll (a common object where he is from, in the mountainous region of Kwahu, and a signature in Marfo’s work) stand taller than the artist himself. One holds a baby, whose head resembles a tribal mask; the other cradles a cockerel; in front of her stands a dog. The colours are popping, the context ambiguous. These two have a proud, calm presence, looking directly at you as if patiently waiting for you to state your business and go away, so they can get on with whatever they were doing.
The painting is part of a new series that will go on display at JD Malat in October. It’s the third solo show at the prestigious Mayfair gallery for Marfo, who is self-taught as an artist, and is themed around the idea of expectations. “I wanted to talk about the pressure that we go through as human beings, the burden from our parents. You know, like, ‘I want my son or daughter to become leader of the nation or a top person’,” Marfo tells me. “I know, with every single human being, when the child was born, there were expectations. But we don't really follow our parents’ dreams.”
Marfo grew up in Ghana, first in Kwahu, then in Accra, the capital city. “I come from a place where, when a child is born, there is so much happiness. I mean, for a whole month or so [after the birth], everyone will be serving the mother. Everyone will be bringing things, people in the community; you're not even allowed to step outside,” he says. “Everyone is there to do everything for you. So this happiness is channelled into the child. ‘Oh, what a beautiful baby’, all that.”
Then it all changes. “We get to a stage where suddenly, the same people who were really happy when you were a toddler, now you can speak, now you can express yourself – nah nah nah, they don't want to know you anymore.”
Marfo is grappling himself with this very issue. He has a son with his ex-partner, who lives down in Saltash in Cornwall. “When I talk to my son, recently, I was like, ‘Hey, try and do this, try and do that’ – then it struck me, that's the same thing my Mum used to do. And I thought, ‘Why am I doing that? Let him live his life, absorb everything around him, and then decide what he wants.’ But then if I allow him to do that, and it goes wrong, society will point fingers.”
Marfo lives some of the time in London, but spends a lot of it in Saltash to be close to his son, partly because he doesn’t want to replicate his own experience of growing up without his own father around. When his mother remarried, he and his older brother moved in with his grandmother. “Grandma’s idea was like, ‘No, you can't have these two boys who cause trouble, you are in a new relationship.’” He and his brother were “like twins”, only a year apart. We’ll talk about him later.
Not that his childhood was unhappy, Marfo says. “My upbringing was perfect,” he says; it was a matriarchy, with his Catholic grandmother at the top and his uncle as a father figure, while his mother, a Jehovah’s Witness, went out to work. “In that part of Ghana, where I come from, our culture we inherit from our mothers,” he says. Female figures, and emblems of his Akan culture, appear repeatedly in his paintings, and his great grandmother was a traditional healer, which is, he says, the direction he leans in his dealings with religion.
“Mine was one of those upbringings that I wish every child will have – apart from the discipline. I hated it. But I realised recently, maybe my mum did what she needed to as a single mum.”
He bridled against it at school too, where corporal punishment was meted out liberally, and would hide in the library, which is where he first came across western art, particularly Picasso, who remains a huge influence. After school, he went to study art in New York, staying with a relative, though he freely admits he had no interest in actually studying, and just wanted to see “the America I saw in the movies”. While he was there, he met some lads who were part of a graffiti crew.
“I never even worked with them. I was hanging around with them to understand, why would you go and put paint on a train. But my auntie saw me with a spray can. And then she was like, in this country, you go to prison for things like that. So you better go back home.”
This was not his plan though, so Marfo ended up in London, living with another auntie, and working (albeit briefly) in her grocery shop in Balham. He says that at first he found Britain much less friendly than America (something he, perhaps uniquely, puts down to that country’s gun culture – he reasons that if you know people might be armed, you’re much more likely to be nice).
“So I ended up talking to the older people. You know, ‘Hello darling, how are you?’” he says, with a creditable impression of a friendly old lady. “I felt a bit more welcomed by the older groups because I can’t stop talking. Jamaicans, and old Irish women; I enjoyed their company and some of them were super knowledgeable, they opened my eyes to so many things.” He used to go to the Wetherspoons in Balham with them. “The older people I met here in the late Nineties and early 2000s were super nice, and they made me enjoy living in this country.”
It was a relationship with a young woman who was studying at Central St Martin’s that turned him back to art (“I must find out where she is...” he says). He started taking his painting seriously again, with a break of a few years in order to make a bit of money. “Those days were very difficult.”
He took numerous retail jobs, but kept getting fired, he grins. “But it gave me a sense of purpose. I realised I wasn't getting on, I didn't ever like being told what to do. I don't fit into the nine to five concept.” His girlfriend had introduced him to people at St Martin’s, and he’d visited Camberwell College of Art to consider attending, but (as you may have by now predicted), it didn’t suit him. “I decided I'm going to do it all myself.”
Some of Marfo’s early painting still hangs in his studio. It got him some attention because of its similarity to Basquiat’s work (irritatingly, he says, because having not attended art school, he’d never even heard of Basquiat until someone pointed it out), but his style has developed considerably in the last decade and a half, and now is unmistakably his own. “That’s what I learnt from those students at St Martin’s and Camberwell,” he says, with a twinkle. “They were all doing the same thing. So I decided to go deep into my own culture.”
Despite looking at the world through this specific lens, what he wants to do with his work is connect on a universal level. “We have beautiful stories to tell. But we also have some serious stories to share,” he says. Him more than most, perhaps – he’s recounting a story about a woman he chatted to at Paddington Station telling him all about how her drug-addicted son nearly got killed, when he drops the bombshell that his brother, too, was murdered, back in Ghana.
“He went to visit my auntie at the school where she was working, but he went to the wrong school,” he says. “I think he was a bit drunk, and when they said there was no one there by that name, he insisted. They asked him to leave, he said he’s not leaving until he sees his auntie. And the teachers beat the shit out of him.” He was in his 20s.
Marfo says now that “initially I was blaming him. But then the more I looked deep into it, I was like, no. No. You have no right to take a person's life.” The perpetrators are in prison now, but it’s changed the way he sees people. “My brother’s death opened my eyes to the dangers of being around our fellow human beings,” he says.
His work is an attempt to communicate our common stories – what unites us, rather than divides or creates conflict. But always at a safe distance. I tell him I think they are rather beautiful, but he scoffs at the idea.
“I’m not interested in painting something beautiful, that you could hang in your house,” he says. “I’m interested in painting something someone could put in a corner to remind you of your humanity.”
Kojo Marfo: Crucible of Hope is at JD Malat Gallery from October 11-15