We revisit Art Licks Issue 6 (2012) to interview Larry Achiampong on his contribution 'Meh Mogya': reflecting on his love for music, and the influence of family and collaboration on his work over several decades.
Holly Willats, Art Licks: Your contribution to Art Licks Issue 6 (Winter 2012) was titled Meh Mogya and took the form of an autobiographical tale, broken down into three decades: Eighties, Nineties, and the Noughties. It is a wonderfully open and joyful text about your path from childhood to adulthood through music and work. If you were to consider continuing the tale though another decade to bring it up to the present, what do you think would be the focus of the 'Noughteens' (if that is the correct decade title?)?
Larry Achiampong: The next chapter has to be about the evolution of my use of sound, to the expansion in composing and scoring audio and music from the ground up; an understanding of how I have continued to negotiate my practice and how sound sits centrally within it. I’m talking about the scores in my films, both solo wise and collaboratively, and the work that goes into building these projects: from inception – thinking about themes, the references involved – to delivery.
In particular, this new chapter would focus on being a parent and how sound is shared, negotiated, managed, disseminated and channeled with my children. Oh gosh … that would be such a massive chapter. It would need to have subsections on shared moments with my children, and the ways in which these have not only greatly impacted how I create, but also how I think (or have changed my thinking with time).
The chapter would also talk about the intricacies of how vocal sounds reverberate in our shared lives. So from music, to films and then even our lives in the dojo! I am a parent to two, who are quite different from one another in personality, and that represents itself dynamically when music is concerned.
All three of us practice Gōjū-ryū karate together and one of the things practiced is "Kiai" (気合) (pronounced “key-eye”), which is a short shout or cry given when performing moves. The Kiai is a Japanese term used in most forms of traditional Japanese Budo, or martial arts. It sounds insignificant, but is actually a big deal. We have had many conversations about the battle cries of characters in animations or live-action films, and what it does to the body to centre oneself through sound and the reverberations thereof.
Oh, and there would have to be an area devoted to my love of video game soundtracks!
I'd probably add an audio companion to it as well, you'd need to hear what I am saying, not just read it, you know? … Oh my days, so much I would wanna talk about. This is sounding like a proposal for a PhD or something, I better stop!
Not only the text you wrote for Art Licks, but also your work, feels personal and generous, and yet it also manages what can be a very difficult balance, in that it is open enough for audiences to be able to bring their own experiences and thoughts to it. How do you think such a balance can be found in work?
For me, when it comes to creating or telling stories, I rely on my familial heritage, traditions of call and response, and the exchange of energy and ideas: how we relate (or don't) to each other as humans. To me, to keep that entirely centralised without a way for the person experiencing the work to have a place, or a stake in that conversation feels selfish. Additionally, I need space to be as honest and fragile as I feel I can be at a given time. During the developmental process I may take counsel from a handful of people close to me, but I also research the themes related to the story I want to tell. That is how I work with all of my projects, it doesn't matter what media I am using, and that is how a project like Meh Mogya was possible. To create a link between Ghana and J Dilla (as well as many other points in between) and back again took a lot of time, thinking, travel and meditation on what I wanted to say. My recent project, Sanko-Time commissioned by The Line further emphasises this.
Additionally, there is work that I do with various communities, and what I feel is important here is looking at how myself as the artist and the organisation that is working with the community can best serve them (and not the other way around as is the case usually), so that they are not gaslit.
With 'The Mic Drop' project I was able to help realise a collaborative podcast made by members of Many Hands One Heart (an LGBTQ+ Asylum support group) and Heart of Glass, with the sole purpose of creating a space ‘for migrants by migrants’ exercising agency and exchange through a shared space of collective thinking, storytelling and debate.
In the text, you talk us through the origins of your love for music, even recalling an amazing memory of hearing beats from your mother's womb – to sharing music with your older brother. I find it really interesting that the text concentrates on this relationship with music as a child and young adult. At what point did this focus converge with the visual arts—how did you end up studying Fine Art at the University of Westminster, and then an MA in Sculpture at the Slade, perhaps rather than Music?
There were different things that I dreamed about becoming when I was a kid. I wanted to make video games and comics … I wanted to skate internationally and become an X games champion; I even loved telling short stories! I was massively inspired by my older brother who drew, and I copied everything he did, but drawing was viable because in comparison to all of those other things mentioned, at its most basic level there was not a problem with expense. To get some paper and some charcoal didn't cost much, but if I wanted a decent setup of Bauer skates or rollerblades, or if I wanted to learn C++ then that was going to cost me a whole lot of money I didn't have. So things like that became a distant dream when I was living in poverty. It's crazy to think that as a child I was learning so harshly about the realities of money. To make a story, excelling with drawing and painting: that is how I made my way into the visual arts.
Both my BA and MA gave me things that are helpful to me now, but especially whilst growing at the Slade, I began to understand that Art can be many things, and that my work didn't need to be defined or placed within a margin or a type of object. Even the fact that my MA was in Sculpture, that didn't really matter, as long as I was serious about developing the craft(s) I was interested in. So I got serious about bedroom music production.
From time to time I do ask myself that question of why I didn't study music formally, and the one thing I keep returning to is that I received an education that you couldn't teach, stamp or formalise. I was surrounded by people – family who were doing lots of things either listening to amazing music or making it, MCing, DJing; sprinkle on top the presence of the Ghanaian church sound, and you have an education.
I genuinely feel that if I had gone to study music, then those special moments, those intricacies that I have lived might be mentally or emotionally eroded. There is a violence that takes place in the institution, and it robs people of the working classes, or those from poverty, Queer, and especially black people, of the opportunity to breathe their truth.
I agree, your work is a fantastic bringing together—of art, music, gaming, film …! As you just mentioned, the text also describes how influential the relationships you had with your family growing up were on your work: from your uncle DJing to your parents' record collection. Do you think you have continued to build these types of associations within the process of your work? I'm thinking now about your ongoing collaboration with David Blandy, or the collaborations with your children?
Oh, most certainly. Legacy and collaboration mean a lot to me. Without it, I don't know what the point of all this is. I'm not saying that everything I do or make will be important to anyone that comes along or even my children, but (telling) stories is how we keep ideas alive. Negotiating ideas is an important part of that: who gets to tell those stories, and on what terms?
My relationships (both past and current) with the likes of Nephertiti Oboshie Schandorf (who produces my films and some of my projects), Wumi Olaosebikan (who worked on the Pan African Flags), Shiraz Bayjoo, Hayleigh-Joy Rose, James Johnson, Aida Amoako, Andrew Hart, Lauren Gee, Beverley Bennett, Christian Bravo, Naima Hassan, Alida Rodrigues, Meezan, Kanika Skye, Louise Searle, and more, have been imperative to realising the ambition(s) I have and continue to set.
That idea of the enigmatic individual as-artist is trash to me. I feel like I have made more in my life as a person by working with others than when I have worked entirely alone. It is what I teach my children, it is what I talk about with my students or prospective mentees, and that is how a relationship with the likes of David Blandy, amongst others makes sense to me and my work.
In the Noughties section of the text, you describe how you set yourself certain questions after an inspirational trip abroad: Am I happy with the things I am making as an artist? / When was the last time I challenged myself? / If I could do something new, what would it be? These questions feel really powerful, and ones that we could all ask ourselves regularly, to keep ourselves in check. So much has happened over the last few months across the world, and I wondered if you have any further questions you would like to ask us all?
Why are there those of us so quickly trying to return to 'a normal' that has for centuries been killing many of us?
Larry Achiampong (b. 1984, UK) is a Jarman Award nominated artist (2018). He completed a BA in Mixed Media Fine Art at University of Westminster in 2005 and an MA in Sculpture at The Slade School of Fine Art in 2008. He lives and works in Essex, and has been a tutor on the Photography MA programme at Royal College of Art since 2016. Achiampong currently serves on the Board of Trustees at Iniva (Institute of International Visual Arts) and is represented by C Ø P P E R F I E L D. Achiampong’s solo and collaborative projects employ imagery, aural and visual archives, live performance and sound to explore ideas surrounding class, cross-cultural and post-digital identity.