Emmanuel Apraku is proving that Ghanaian artists don’t have to leave their country of birth to have their talents recognised at home and abroad. The 28-year-old, who is better known by his Usher Raymond-inspired nickname Ray Styles, was born in Ghana’s capital. He studied at the prestigious Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) where he specialised in animation and video production.
He went on to graduate with a first-class honours bachelor degree in communication design. But Apraku has set his sights higher and aims to build a global graphics brand from his home city of Accra.
Apraku represents a new wave of contemporary African artists that are combining traditional drawing skills with modern technology, and are reaching wider global audiences quicker than artists of a previous generation. Seasoned Ghanaian artists such as El Anatsui and Kofi Agorsor trained in Ghana but ironically had to leave their home country to gain not only international recognition but national fame.
“They say home doesn’t accept you until outside accepts you and that is how I see things,” said Apraku. “When people in Ghana see that people overseas are starting to appreciate the work, then Ghanaians will start to appreciate what art is.”
His words echo those of fellow artists who believe that art and artists in Ghana still do not command the same level of respect as other professions. “People would rather focus on something that would bring in more money. Because art does not bring in a lot of money, people do not want to focus on it,” said Apraku.
On top of that, some Ghanaians don’t want to pay the set price for his art. “When they find out I am a Ghanaian – they want a discount.” Apraku’s work retails from between $80 for a single piece to $20,000 to own the copyright for an image. Portraits can cost between $100-$200, while concept pieces such as his role reversal ‘turntable’ image depicting a pregnant man take longer and cost more.
This attitude towards art has meant many talented individuals struggle to make a living as professional artists in Ghana. Instead they opt for a more stable career. His family is a prime example of this trend. “My Dad is a major in pencil work,” said Apraku. “His work was beyond realistic.
He could draw you, put the paper on the seat and when someone walks in the room, they would think it was the real person. But my dad doesn’t draw professionally. Neither do my siblings. They didn’t see the value in it and all got proper jobs. But I took it upon myself to take it on.”
Following your art
Apraku is one of the lucky ones. He has sold some of his work to clients in the UK, Nigeria, Ghana, and US – including one unnamed American celebrity. It is because of this that he is able to live off him craft in Accra and does not feel it is always necessary to leave. His repertoire includes hand-drawn life portraits, under the Ray Styles brand, digital caricatures he draws under the sub-brand ‘Pencilled Celebrities’ emoji apps available from the Apple store and graffiti-style pieces. He believes that having a foundation in pencil art has allowed him to make the most of his digital skills.
“The benefit of drawing traditionally makes it easier to draw digitally,” he said. “The skills are transferable. I can easily draw on a board on a paper or a canvas board and likewise I can do the same on a computer. But compared to using a computer, erasing work drawn using pencil and paper is harder because it smudges. When I use a Wacom programme, it is easier because I can erase errors and start again.”
Wacom software comes with its own pencil or pen, which displays on a computer and can be transferred to Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator.
His pieces allow him to react to social and political sentiment; celebrate past and current iconic figures, and take on a satirical edge to current affairs. The ongoing deaths of African-Americans at the hands of US police inspired an image of six black men against a US flag background with bullets flying towards their heads.
He has a pre-presidential Donald Trump emoji where Trump says: ‘Let’s make America great again’ and then vomits. He also likes to explore the complex relationship between man and woman and touches on emotive issues such as breast cancer awareness.
In March 2016, he developed ‘scribbles’ – digital headshot drawings of iconic figures with a symbol linked to their professions (usually placed on their heads).
These have been well received, bringing him 500 Instagram followers initially. Typically, these pieces take two to five hours to create, said Apraku.
When Beyonce’s Lemonade album dropped to huge acclaim in April 2016, Apraku recorded it with a scribble of Mrs Carter with lemons for earrings. His work is not only based on American icons, but depicts Ghanaian public figures including Ghana’s first president Dr Kwame Nkrumah. To mark Queen Elizabeth’s birthday in June 2016, he clothed her in Ghanaian Kente. It took between eight and 12 hours to create and choosing Kente was deliberate, said Apraku. “In order for people to accept our art, we have to incorporate outside influences,” he said. “So, for example, I am not sure if the Queen has ever worn Kente in her life but I believe this image will encourage people who do not know anything about Africa to start asking questions. That’s how you will be able to educate them about the continent. “
He is planning a similar educative project where he depicts Ghana’s presidents in modern-day clothing. “I want to make it cool with Dr Kwame Nkrumah wearing a Kanye West outfit – for example. The generation today in Ghana does not know who he is. By linking this important figure to modern-day popular culture, I hope it will start more of a conversation about what he did for Ghana.”
If not for social media, Apraku does not believe he would have this current platform or the public appeal he has cultivated.
Access to digital art technology and the pervasive use of the internet has made that challenge a little easier. If I were born 10 years earlier, before social media was around, I would probably be too worried about paying bills to have become a professional artist.
But it comes with its disadvantages too – namely the relative ease internet users can access his work without giving him credit. “Social media is great for sharing your work. Afterall, I also get my ideas from the internet,” he said. “So, I don’t mind people sharing my work as long as they acknowledge that I created it.”
Apraku’s ultimate goal is to establish a graphic design company that taps into the wealth of talented artists and graphic designers in Ghana.
“I get a lot of aspiring artists from Ghana and Nigeria asking me to be their mentor,” he said. “There are talented Ghanaians that can draw beyond my understanding. But no one has heard of them yet because they do not have that exposure or anyone who can help them brand it,” Apraku said.
“What I am doing is opening that door and inspiring these artists to think that they don’t have to just do African art. They should be able to do all kinds of art.”
But Apraku is realistic. This goal depends on investment from customers willing to buy his work or companies willing to support the Ray Styles brand.
For now, Apraku is happy to follow his passion. He has the blueprint for around 500 pieces that he has yet to be publish and he has his sights on launching a cartoon network in Ghana.
To learn more about his work, visit Ray Styles’ Facebook page here.
Kirsty Osei-Bempong is a UK-based journalist and author of Ghanaian culture blogsite www.misbeee.blogspot.co.uk