By Patricia Andrews-Keenan

As we continue to live our days in partial lockdown it’s easy to imagine a getaway by the sea. To see boats gently bobbing in the ocean, and to smell the saltwater as it laps against the shore is at once both mesmerizing and tranquil. Emmanuel Owusu Dartey’s watercolor paintings can transport you to such a place. The renowned Ghanaian artist was the head of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Kumasi, Ashanti, Ghana. He died in August 2018

Similar to his American counterpart, Lois Mailou Jones , who painted watercolor sketches of her beloved Martha’s Vineyard, Dartey’s paintings presented unobstructed views of the seaside community of his birth and market scenes embodying the ebb and flow of rural life. His work is said to be both ‘stubbornly elusive and transparent' at the same time.

“When I saw his (Dartey’s) work I was astonished it had been created more t han 30 years ago,” said the Nigerian born , Chicago - based painter Dayo Laoye , who also works in watercolor and was trained in Africa. “ His work was reminiscent of the technique my (art) professors taught me,” he said.

Born in 1927 in Mamfe, Akwapim, Dartey was a member of the Akwapim Six one of the earliest art societies in Ghana. The collective was led by Dr. Oku Ampofo, a medical practitioner with a deep interest in art. The school was known at that time as the Kumasi College of Technology (KCT) and grew out of Kin g Asantehene Agyeman Prempeh's I plans to establish a university in Kumasi as part of his drive towards modernization of his Ashanti kingdom.


As was the custom in Africa at the time, the group’s instruction had colonial roots and focused on a Scottish regime style known as the Glasgow Style extraction. The group’s instruction was a case study in how the changing lessons of the Gold Coast and Ghana “School of Art and Crafts” curriculum in Kumasi intersected with the changing fortunes of metropolitan British art institutions such as the Glasgow School of Art (GSA), the Slade, and Royal College of Art (RCA). Among Dartey’s teachers were A. Mawere Opoku, James McKendrick, James Hillock. The painter A. O. Bartmeus was among his classmates. E. K. J. Tetteh, Grace Kwami (nee Anku) and Addo Osafo were his seniors by one year. Prof. Ablade Glover was his junior by five years. When KNUST succeeded KCT, Dartey was taught by E. V. Asihene and the South African artist Selby Mvusi on the Diploma Programme. He won a postgraduate scholarship to study at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1962. Upon his return he became a lecturer at KNUST in the early 1970s and continued there until his retirement in the 80s. Years later, Dayo and his contemporaries would be taught and influenced by painters like Dartey, and he counts himself a beneficiary of Dartey’s proficiency in the field of watercolor.


Watercolor, also known in French as aquarelle, is generally described as painting with water-soluble pigments on paper. The classic painting technique was perfected in England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The pigment was applied in a series of transparent washes that allowed light to be reflected from the surface of the paper through layers of color. This technique gives watercolor its unique glow. Washes are layered to increase density and transform color already laid down. With this method, the colors are mixed by the painter's eye and create a unique visual characteristic. An unpredictable medium, the character of watercolor is uniquely challenging. Just as with any accomplished watercolorist, Dartey was an improvisationalist whose work, created in the 90s, is still evocative and striking. Literally his work captures the life and times of those living in the coastal city, and represent, literally, the artist's fleeting thoughts on paper.


Artists are often times closely tied to those who collect their work. The same can be said for Dartey. His highly sought after works were collected by businessman Seth Dei, owner of Leasafric, the agricultural processing company he started in 1993. Dei, often referenced as the largest collector of contemporary art in the country, founded the Dei Collection of Modern and Contemporary Ghanaian Art in Accra. In September 2018, he displayed original works of Dartey and his contemporaries at the Residence of the British High Commissioner in Accra. Select works from his collection were offered for auction at Bonhams’ Africa Now Sale at New Bond Street, London a month later. American businessman Gerald Guice moved from the U.S. to Ghana and collected a large body of work directly from the artists. According to his son, Terrence Guice, who lives in Chicago, his father loved the work and bought all the paintings available to him. Additionally, after his passing several retrospectives of the work of the Akwapim Six were presented across the country.


In 2019, Guice’s son sold a large number of Dartey’s paintings to Faye Edwards, owner of Faié African Art Gallery in Bronzeville. The collection of paintings produced between 1991-1993, are as vibrant and striking as they were 30 years ago. They range in size from 12”x 8” up to 24”x18” and will be priced from $4.200 - $20,000. Faié is expected to mount an exhibition of Dartey’s works later in 2021. Dartey’s work represents another facet of the Black art ecosystem. Dayo points out there is a constant pull and tug about ‘what is Black art’, with figurative work cited as the pinnacle of the genre. Non-representational works by artists like Dartey stand alongside works by 19th Century landscape artist Robert S. Duncanson (Hudson River School), whose work was selected to hang in the White House by President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden and, that of contemporary plein air artist Michelle Renee Cobb, who paints landscapes around the world and who was a student of the renowned Delaware plein air artist Edward L. Loper Sr. No matter the subject matter, the brilliance, vibrancy and masterful artistry of these Black artists command not just our artistic admiration but our respect.