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Yvonne Osei, MFA '16

Yvonne Osei, MFA ’16, was one of three recipients of the 2022 Stone & DeGuire Contemporary Art Awards. In this Q&A, she shares her experience researching in Seychelles, discovering untold history, and making work that moves fluidly from one medium to the next.

Q&A from October 2023

Tell us about your practice. Where are you and how do you make work?
I currently live between Chicago and St. Louis. My practice is multidisciplinary and very much rooted in multimedia. It’s not fixated on one particular medium because it can transform and translate in so many different ways. Something might start off as a photograph; then, all of a sudden, the photograph is incorporated into textile work. Down the line that textile could be sewn into a garment, and that garment could be featured in a performance. The performance may later be translated into a video. There’s fluidity with how I understand mediums and visual language. Each medium provides a unique entry point into exploring my artistic journey, enabling me to reflect on my decisions, experimentations, and the conceptual shifts that occur along the way. 

When you’re creating, how do you notice that the work wants to move into a new medium?
It’s a sense of asking, ‘what does the work want to do?’ I allow the work to be what it wants to be. When I employ a photograph, I’ll think about how photographs have a very strong, almost violent way of cutting the frame, where you get to see only what I show you. With a video, you have sound and a moving image, you glean more from the environment, and passersby can become part of the materiality of the piece. Textiles are also different, and I sometimes use textile as an ode to my own culture as an Ashanti woman. If I want to embody something, then I want to be in a textile.

The way I want people to gather or see the work, or experience it, informs my decisions. I strongly believe that the work is going to be what it wants to be. I allow for that porosity. What I aspire to is allowing viewers to have a place in my work.

What sort of themes do you tend to work with?
My work addresses standards of beauty, issues of race, how history is written and understood. I’ve been very interested in who history is serving, how it’s being told, and for what purpose. History always has a purpose to serve a particular group of people at a particular time. And I’ve been really interested in exploring multiple perspectives and how to glean information through different sources. As a visual storyteller, the reward is being able to present my perspective and allowing others to have the platform to do so too.

How did you come to this understanding of history, that it’s more complex than we’ve been told?
I think for the most part, it’s been a gradual realization. But there are moments that stand out for me. Growing up in Ghana — I moved to the U.S. in 2009 — we used to have social studies classes that taught my country’s history. One of the things I was quick to realize is that a lot of the content seemed fixated on colonial history. I felt there must have been a life before colonialism. So why weren’t there resources to support our understanding of that? Pre-colonial history would serve us a lot better as a Ghanaian people.

It’s a similar story here in the U.S. I look at St. Louis, for example. A lot of its history comes from its contributions to the World’s Fair. The issues of race, the lynchings that took place… so many of these racial issues in St. Louis have been erased. I think what is not there is as important and potent as what is there. As an artist, I’m always asking myself what has been omitted, what is not blatant to the eye.

A lot of this has to do with the psyche of Ghanaians — like myself — and also representing the African diaspora. It’s looking at how our stories have been told by other people over and over and over again, and inserting myself into a narrative. How can I insert myself into a history that I’ve been excluded from? How can I invite others that look like me to do the same?

Yvonne Osei (Photo courtesy of the artist)

How does omitted history factor in to your interest in Seychelles?
Being a native of the Ashanti Kingdom of Ghana in West Africa, Seychelles is of specific interest to me because several of my ancestral leaders — who rebelled against colonial subjugation — were exiled to Seychelles. I spent a lot of time researching King Prempeh I and Yaa Asantewaa, who were both exiled there for decades.

In the late 1800s, the British used Seychelles as a site for exile, because it was so isolated from the rest of the continent. As colonial rule expanded and the British tried to manage native leaders who were deemed “stubborn,” they could ship them off to Seychelles. This was happening in Ghana, Egypt, Somalia, Greece, Palestine, and more.

They [colonial rulers] knew that letters and travel would be difficult. Communication from Ghana to Seychelles would have been almost impossible. The truth is that King Prempeh appealed to go back to his country each year. He was denied each year, from 1901 to 1924, when he was finally able to return.

King Prempeh had taken on a British identity: he changed his name to Edward, wore a three-piece suit, converted to Anglicanism, and so on. He didn’t have any ties to his Ashanti culture in Seychelles — his identity and ideology were really affected by this. The psychological and economic impacts of colonialism go on and on. How do we make amends? How do we atone?

At the same time, King Prempeh fathered children in Seychelles who married and had their own children. So Ghana became a part of Seychelles. There’s a camaraderie between the two countries, we’re almost like brothers and sisters from this impact of colonialism.

What was it like traveling to Seychelles?
From the U.S., you have to take a pilgrimage to get to Seychelles. I had a one-year-old at the time, so I flew from Chicago to Austin, Texas, to drop her off with my sister and mom, who helped care for her. From Austin, I flew to New York City, connected to Doha in Qatar, and then to Mahé, which is the largest island in Seychelles and where I spent most of my time. It was my first time in East Africa so I was ecstatic — that was huge and so eye-opening for me. The award provided me the opportunity to get there, establish relationships, comb through historical documents and visit specific sites of colonial significance.

Today, Seychelles is this incredible amalgamation of culture, which I had the pleasure of witnessing. They are really respectful of transcultural, transnational people. They welcome people who may be different, look different, worship different, talk different — and that was really refreshing to experience. When you think of Seychelles, you have all of these “exotic” images, of tourism and lush, beautiful scenes pop up. That’s all there for sure, but I saw very little of its glamour because that was not the purpose of my visit. I do hope to return someday to properly soak in all of its beauty. The people are pleasant, but underneath all of that is this unpacking of the history of separation and isolation. We often forget that Seychellois are victims too and that this colonial history is also at the expense of their own country.

Yvonne Osei (Photo courtesy of the artist)

What sort of works did you begin while in Seychelles?
I traveled with analog clocks to feature in the work, because I have felt very burdened by time. I’ve thought a lot about the cost of time. The British were building their empire at the expense of many people’s time — so what does that mean? And, what does it mean to be a prisoner in paradise?

Another element of the work that the award helped with was to fabricate a garment. I designed it based on Queen Victoria’s wedding dress, adopting the colors of the public school uniform in Ghana. This is part of a broader body of work I started in 2018 called “Who Discovers the Discoverer?” That work involved me visiting cities in countries that contributed to colonialism in West Africa and really questioning and contending with its history.

“In the Name of Victoria (Who was No Victor)” is about the weight of victory. What does it look like? Is causing your country to excel at the expense of others victory for you? Queen Victoria didn’t visit Seychelles during her lifetime, but there’s a clocktower dedicated to her, which I created a performance around. That clocktower was built to commemorate the British royal family’s official declaration that they have full control over Seychelles as a colony. It’s located at a busy intersection with constant foot and car traffic. I wanted to plant myself there and reckon with that space, primarily because of how time cripples. The fact is that if time is with you, that’s an element in gaining power.

What comes next for you?
I believe it’s essential to visit the U.K. to draw parallels between British rule and their influence in Seychelles. Additionally, it is crucial for me to return to Kumasi in Ghana, having witnessed the places where King Prempeh and Yaa Asantewaa lived during their years of exile in Seychelles. I intend to revisit St. George’s Castle in Elmina, which, despite its name, should be more accurately described as a dungeon that confined numerous enslaved Africans. My primary goal is to explore the Prempeh Room, where the King initiated his period of exile.

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Yvonne Osei (Photo courtesy of the artist)
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Yvonne Osei (Photo courtesy of the artist)
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Yvonne Osei (Photo courtesy of the artist)