From Ghana to New Kingston - Sami Bentil makes Jamaican connection
Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer
'Sankofantasy', Sami Bentil's debut exhibition in Jamaica, ended at Redbones Blues Café in late February. It has been a long way for Bentil from Ghana to New Kingston, via the United States where he has lived for 25 years.
"It has taken me 23 years to come here," Bentil, who visited Jamaica for the first time ever last year, staying for three days, said.
Still, he says that in the over two decades it took him to visit Jamaica on the invitation of a fellow Ghanian who relocated here, "I was developing my message". Bentil got confirmation about his life's purpose while still living in Ghana, where one high priest told him "this is your destiny. The only trouble you will get is if you do not follow it".
Bentil has been developing his technique and message for a long time. In Ghana, he spent six years as an illustrator and photographer. He sums up that experience as, "I spent six years honing my eye for detail, my skills. I have the working knowledge of dimensions, space".
Plus, he says, "I learnt some incredible information about African architecture". Key to that is the shape that features heavily in Bentil's art.
"Over 80 per cent of the traditional houses are circles, the most ideal for stormy conditions. In storms there are no walls to push. There are no corners for rodents, pests to hide in," Bentil observed.
He considered those examples of traditional wisdom a good start.
Bentil graduated from college in 1976. Jerry Rawlings came to power through a coup in 1981, shortly after Ghana celebrated its Silver Jubilee and, Bentil says, some Ghanians asked what their country had achieved. In response, Bentil and fellow artists organised a successful exhibition called 'Images'.
In 2007, some members of the same group also mounted a major exhibition in England for Ghana's Jubilee.
Still, he points out that "a lot of Ghanian art is being bought by foreigners. Many of the greatest expressions of our lives ended up in foreign hands," Bentil said, pointing to the disparate prices for African and European art.
Bentil has very strong views about the value of African art. "The beauty of African art is that it is timeless," Bentil said. "In the last 10 to 15 years African art has got some positives. They are recognising the artists. You can't disregard us anymore. The more our people collect our art it will slowly begin to help ourselves step out of the Western shadow that put a straightjacket on us".
"They call us primitive, but I feel our lives are more in harmony with nature ... I feel our culture, given a chance, has the solution for what is happening today," Bentil said.
His painting Everlasting is on the cover of Volume 15, Issue 1 of The Art Book. Some of his pieces are available for viewing online at www.samibentilart.com, among them Infinite Transition, Déjà Vu, The Human Race, Good Neighbours, The Call and Everlasting.
He describes coming to Jamaica as, "a cultural fantasy. A lot of great things have come from this island". Among them are, of course, the musical performers, Bentil naming Bob Marley, Millie Small and Jackie Edwards. He also notes the language similarities, including 'pattoo'.
Bentil will be making it Jamaica a third time around in short order, as he plans to return in August. "This exhibition (Sankofantasy) is what I would call a door-knocking exhibition. The response has been very inspirational. Everything went smoothly. The kind of response I got is the reason why I say it is inspirational. Now that I know I have captured the attention we can come with the real deal and tell a story," Bentil said.
He worked on paintings while in Jamaica, just as he has done while travelling since 2001 to countries such as England and Canada. "When I look at the paintings I remember the people, the culture," he said.