Sculpture by Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo at the beginning of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
Photo: Human Pictures (Equal Justice Initiative)

Kwame Akoto-Bamfo’s visa application for entry into the United States was denied last year. He’s from Ghana and was invited by the Equal Justice Initiative to build sculptures of African slaves at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which is dedicated to the victims of lynching in America. The memorial, along with the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, opened last month in Montgomery, Ala.

Akoto-Bamfo, an artist and social entrepreneur, missed the memorial’s April opening. Although he’s “not very crazy about America,” he’s hopeful that Americans will be stirred by his life’s passion of creating artwork that tells “intriguing stories of African history.” After seeing Akoto-Bamfo’s sculptures of concrete heads, the EJI contacted the artist in April 2017 to start a dialogue on how they could work together. “They educated me on what they were doing and how I could fit into it and I decided to go forward,” he shared.

There was an existing narrative that Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the EJI, wanted Akoto-Bamfo to contribute, he explained. His first design depicted slaves who questioned their freedom in America. Akoto-Bamfo said he envisioned the Statute of Liberty playing a role in that idea. His second design, he said, was a more “direct” fit: “Bryan gave me the liberty to be an artist. He wasn’t limiting. He had seen my work at Cape Coast Slave Castle and wanted something similar.”

While the memorial focuses on America’s history of lynching African-American men and women, Akoto-Bamfo’s work is focused on the heart of the matter, piercing the core of the transatlantic slave trade. “My piece is on slavery,” he said. “It’s the path that leads to lynching.”

Artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo
Photo: Naa Abiana Nelson

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On the grounds of the memorial stand seven lifesize figures. They. Are. Raw. Men, women, a toddler and a baby are chained with shackles that were replicated from real chains found at the Cape Coast Slave Castle. Each figure is nearly nude, demeaningly donned with a piece of cloth that barely covers their genitalia. An empty shackle on the ground is in place of an eighth figure. “It’s tied to the woman. It represents one [slave] who has been already sold,” said Akoto-Bamfo.

The Root spoke with Akoto-Bamfo on the process of transporting his sculptures from Ghana to Alabama, how he selected his models, why he thinks his travel visa to America was denied and his thoughts on Kanye West’s “slavery was a choice” comments.

The Root: What were you working on when the EJI contacted you?

Kwame Akoto-Bamfo: I was working on personal carvings. It’s the Nkyinkyim installation, made up of over 1,300 heads. I’ve been working on one part in Ghana. What you see at the EJI is an extension of that. 1,300 heads are at Cape Coast Slave Castle, and the one in Alabama represents the complete version. It’s a direct reference to the slave sculptures.

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TR: Tell us about the plan to create the sculptures in Alabama.

KAB: [The EJI] worked hard for me to come, but unfortunately I couldn’t get a visa. We started working on how I can have the sculptures done without me being there. We went back to the drawing board. They sent videos and a 3D panoramic view of the site.

TR: Why do you think you were denied a visa?

KAB: They didn’t say much. It’s a certain profile. You’re not married. They think you will go to America and you will not come back. Someway, somehow, I was too cool to get a visa.

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TR: How did you begin to work on the sculptures without actually being at the site where they would be installed?

KAB: I have architects and one civil engineer, so it was easy for me to create sculptures without me being there. I created a 3D version. I sent them a version that they could see. There’s a lot of technology in Africa.

TR: What type of models did you look for?

KAB: I picked ordinary people from the roadside in Ghana. Usually they show African slaves who are masculine and ideal figures who are starving. I’ve been doing this research for 10 years. I wanted body types that cut across African and black people.

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The very muscular guy has tribal marks that identify him. The big woman has marks on her belly. The teenager has a specific hairstyle that identifies her as an “Akan” royal. There are certain clues that show you that nobody was free from slavery.

TR: How did the models react to being molded into a slave wearing almost no clothing?

KAB: There were mixed feelings. To make them comfortable, I had to also strip down and my assistants had to strip down as well so that there was no master/worker relationship. It made them more comfortable. Part of the modeling was done with me in boxers for a couple of days until the model was comfortable, then I put my clothes back on. When they saw themselves come alive through the sculptures, they were really excited.

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They had to stay for a long time and improvise every now and then. They will pose and take a break, and I will use the 3D model to fill in the gaps for when they took a break.

TR: Is there a story behind the layout of the sculptures?

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KAB: The man with the marks on his face is supposed to be a guardian, yet in this situation, he is not able to protect the mother and the child. We have the mother crying and reaching out for her man, who turns away in shame. He is not able to grant the protection and security that he would have loved to give to the woman.

TR: You started working with the models in November 2017. The memorial opened just a few weeks ago. What was the biggest challenge in meeting this deadline?

KAB: I had to create the work in a way that they would stand on their own without any help so that the people in the U.S. can install it without messing up the poses. I wasn’t 100 percent sure what the weight would be and if it would be airlifted or if it would have to go by ship. The shipping was intense.

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I was also working in harmattan season. It was hot. The clay work will dry and crack up. I’m still resting over it.

TR: Now that the memorial is open, what do you want visitors to feel when they see your sculptures?

KAB: I want black people, especially people of this generation, to know that this work was not done by an American. It was done by an African person who feels their pain and who is also connected. African Americans in particular should understand that we also know their pain. We empathize.

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I want white people to see [the sculptures] as human beings and not black people. That is the realism that I tried to put in the work. I want them to feel the pain that these people felt and the emotions from the hands through their feet.

TR: What are your thoughts on Kanye West saying slavery was a choice as the memorial opens with slave sculptures?

KAB: I don’t know the context of the reason he said that. If he said that in that context, I think it was an ignorant statement. Nobody chooses to be a slave. I would want him to see the sculptures, and I would want him to come to Ghana and see my sculptures at Cape Coast Slave Castle as well. If possible, we can talk. After all, he is a brother. He is also a black man.