Arts & Entertainment

Student Artist’s African Culture Inspires Paintings

Mary Grace Ritter | The PhoenixPainting and drawing major Brandon Bortei-Doku, who is originally from Ghana, poses for a photo with two of his monochromatic works in Loyola’s painting studio on the fifth floor of Mundelein.

Long, soft pink and red brush strokes blend together to create a man playing a seperewa — a stringed African instrument. Deep blues and blacks cast a somber shadow upon his hands and face, creating a contrast to the bright magentas of the clothing he wears. 

The painting is a portrait of Ghanaian musician King Ayisoba and it’s one of the many paintings by Loyola artist Brandon Bortei-Doku showcasing not only his exceptional talent, but also his devotion to representing his country in his work.

Bortei-Doku, a native of Accra, Ghana, went to an international high school in Ghana and studied with students from all around the world. While most of his peers went to universities in Europe, Bortei-Doku came to Chicago in 2015 to attend the Illinois Institute of Technology, planning to follow his father’s advice and study architecture. Though he felt his two years there were well spent, he soon realized it was time to pursue his true passion — painting.

Courtesy of Brandon Bortei-Doku

“After trying out architecture for three years he decided he wasn’t really enjoying it and would rather try for art,” his father, Michael Bortei-Doku, wrote to The Phoenix. “At that point I knew he was ready.”

In 2017, Bortei-Doku transferred to Loyola where he’s now a senior studying drawing and painting. Loyola’s art program has helped Bortei-Doku’s work flourish, but it isn’t where his painting journey began, he said. He has been holding a paint brush since primary school, creating vibrant pieces of art since he was a boy. 

“Growing up Brandon was quiet, deep thinking and very competitive … [and] he became very good at soccer, swimming, piano, drawing and coloring,” his father wrote. “When Brandon was in Grade 10 I saw his works and he had improved a great deal and at that point I knew that art was a strong potential profession for him.” 

Though Bortei-Doku has had time to evolve in his many years as an artist, he still doesn’t confine his work to any bubbles. His art has been a mixture of mediums and concepts, but if one word were to encapsulate his paintings, it would be surreal. From transparent bottles and liquids to colorful, abstract portraits, Bortei-Doku’s art transcends the boundaries of genre. 

One piece that encapsulates his style is a painting of a clay bowl. The pastel blues and oranges create a hazy, realistic tone to the piece, while the patterns and colorful shadows make it feel surreal. Much of his work involves this contradiction between the real and the surreal, which makes it visually appealing. 

Courtesy of Brandon Bortei-Doku

It’s hard to hone such talent and master ideas on one’s own and he certainly had help along the way, especially from his biggest supporter  and mentor Adjei Sowah.

“When I was in Ghana, I used to understudy a painter [Sowah],” Bortei-Doku said. “He’s not well known and he has a very, very rural painting studio. … You literally see people showering with buckets and there are barely any TV’s in that area and that really intrigues me.” 

Sowah, 41, resides in Ghana, selling work that is abstract and vibrant. It’s easy to see the resemblance between his and Bortei-Doku’s themes, styles and techniques. 

“He is a very good, respectful and hardworking boy,” Sowah said. “He likes to create his own style. … I think he is picking up fast.” 

Before Bortei-Doku came to Chicago, the pair worked together for about six months, three times a week, Sowah said. Sowah taught Bortei-Doku African art and how to portray his culture in paintings. 

Bortei-Doku said his mentor taught him much of what he knows and his studio is ultimately where he garnered much of his unique style. One of Bortei-Doku’s paintings is a portrait of Sowah — portraying him propped against a rose-colored background. The portrait seems as if it demands respect and is a beautiful portrayal of how Bortei-Doku sees his mentor. He said many of his portraits are similar to this piece, as his use of color to evoke feeling is the most important part of his paintings. 

Though Bortei-Doku harnesses a lot of his ideas from Sowah, he also draws a lot of his inspiration from Africa and his home country as well, always trying to add a piece of his heritage into his art. Whether he’s utilizing zigzagged patterns, muted or bright colors and abstract shapes and figures, there’s a sense of culture in every painting. 

Courtesy of Brandon Bortei-Doku

Bortei-Doku is currently working on expanding his body of work. Most of his ideas are seemingly expansions of things he has already done, like still lifes and working with transparency, but one idea seems to stick out further than the rest. 

”One concept that I’m going to be working on this year is trying to mix Greek art with African art because most of the time, Africans are perceived as primitive and just there’s not much known about our culture and I’m trying to enforce that into Greek art to show that we’re all the same,” Bortei-Doku said. 

Being from Ghana, people might assume he had a dramatically different upbringing than most of the students at Loyola, but that doesn’t seem to be entirely the case.

Accra, Bortei-Doku’s hometown, has a population of 1.5 million — about the same as Chicago. Bortei-Doku said coming from a big city and also having the experience of attending international high school made moving to Chicago an easy transition. Though there are obvious cultural differences, his life experiences aren’t as different as one might expect. 

“I don’t blame anyone for thinking things would be extremely different there unless they went,” Bortei-Doku said. “I don’t get offended when people think Africa is extremely rural because some parts are, but I mean you shouldn’t be completely ignorant.”

With this in the back of his mind when painting, he said he tries to show the viewer the side of his culture they may not have seen before, like depicting different pottery, patterns and even people that are important to Ghana’s culture. 

Bortei-Doku’s commitment to expanding his collection of pieces is with the goal of getting more recognition. He held his first solo exhibition at Andersonville Galleria (5247 N. Clark St.) Sept. 7. His opportunity to showcase his art there was “entirely by accident,” he explained. 

“I got lost in Andersonville and I walked into a random art store and I talked to the owner and showed them my art and they said I could have an exhibit there,” Bortei-Doku said.

His chance to showcase his art proved promising, with more than 50 people showing up to the gallery opening and 12 pieces sold, he said. 

Courtesy of Brandon Bortei-Doku

Moving to Chicago has given Bortei-Doku the opportunity to learn and grow in his technique, he said. Back in Ghana, he learned the techniques of color theory, different styles of brush strokes and how to properly use acrylic paint. At Loyola, he’s been able to expand on these ideas but also experiment with new things, most notably using oil paints. Most of his newer work, like a painting of a bottle of liquid melding with an instrument, uses oil paints and a more subdued color palette — all techniques he’s learned in school.

“As an artist his work is ambitious,” said Betsy Odom, a Loyola Fine Arts professor. “His approach is intuitive and drawn from personal experiences as well as art history.”

Bortei-Doku’s time at Loyola has taught him a lot about his work, but it’s also showed him how self-sufficient he’ll have to be to build a career in painting. 

“Most of the times it feels like once you graduate then that’s it,” Bortei-Doku said. 

Making it as an artist is no simple feat and he said he’s going to be working hard to get his name out there as much as he can before graduation in May.

He said he remains positive, knowing there are plenty of opportunities for him and his art beyond Loyola.

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