Painting or pixels? This is the question Prince Gyasi wants you to ask when you see his work.
“You should be confused if it’s a painting or a photograph,” he said. “If you are not confused, it means I failed.”
Manipulating his photos digitally to enhance or change colors, the 26-year-old Ghanaian visual artist straddles a line between artistic styles that make him difficult to label. Vivid, contrasting colors create fantastic worlds of everyday scenes in Gyasi’s work, bringing to life an alternate take on Accra, his hometown.
Still early in his career, Gyasi previously worked on campaigns with Apple, shot magazine covers for model Naomi Campbell and Nigerian musician Burna Boy, and was listed as one of the most requested artists of 2020 by the Artsy online art market.
Gyasi’s rapid rise to fame is all the more impressive considering the camera that launched his career: an iPhone.
“When I started, I couldn’t afford to buy a camera, so I used what I had,” Gyasi said.
He started taking photos with a disposable camera as a kid, before getting his first smartphone, a Blackberry, in high school – and finally, saving enough to buy an iPhone in 2012. Now he uses a range of photographic equipment to suit the shoot, including film cameras, but he always has his iPhone for the right occasion.
Visual artist Prince Gyasi (pictured) has worked with brands such as Apple and photographed big names such as Naomi Campbell and Burna Boy. Credit: Prince Gyasi
“It’s not about the tool, it’s your mind. It’s about the story you want to tell,” Gyasi said.
As a result, Gyasi has her own internal color code which creates layered narratives in her work. “If I’m doing a project on ‘hope’, I already know that I see ‘hope’ as pink, so I’m thinking about how to incorporate that color into the work so that it makes sense.” , did he declare.
“It’s not about the tool, it’s your mind. It’s about the story you want to tell.”
Prince Gyasi, visual artist
Paying attention to the interplay between colors and the associations we have with them, Gyasi tries to ensure that his work has a positive effect on his viewer, calling it “chromotherapy”.
“Even if you don’t see the subject (photo) smiling, you will already feel joy and happiness: you will feel this good energy,” he said.
A turning point in Gyasi’s career was an iPhone shoot with close friend, British actress Michaela Coel, in 2018. Gyasi described the shoot as a “stepping stone” that helped him find a larger audience. “Michaela has been very supportive of me and my work, and I have met so many people because of it who are working with me now,” he added.
Shot on iPhone, “La Purity” contrasts bright colors to empower her subjects. Credit: Prince Gyasi
Empowerment and education
A bigger platform wasn’t only good for Gyasi’s artistic career – it allowed him to invest more in his nonprofit, Boxed Kids.
“I feel like I’m one of the lucky ones because I could have been on the streets like most of the kids in Jamestown,” Gyasi said. “I am very fortunate that my mom actually knew how to work with her talent (for singing) and made sure I got to school.”
Now, Gyasi is determined to help others break the cycle. He donates part of his income to the charity which he says has so far sent 12 children to school. As a result, education is one of the key themes of Gyasi’s work. His recent series, “Treasure Trove”, shows young people taking control of their education.
Rewriting the narrative of youth in Ghana is at the heart of Gyasi’s work. “I want African artists to stop painting sad stories about our children,” he said. “We should be doing better, inspiring and impacting people.”
Gyasi has synesthesia, a condition that overlaps the senses in an unusual way – for example, he associates the color pink with “hope.” Credit: Prince Gyasi
“Explosive” interest in African artists
The growing popularity of the young artist comes at a time when interest in contemporary African artists is “exploding,” said Everette Taylor, Artsy’s marketing director. Ethiopian-born artist Julie Mehretu broke the platform’s online auction record with the recent $ 6.5 million sale of her painting “Dissident Score”, while paintings by Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo have received more inquiries from collectors than from any other artist. South African photographer Zanele Muholi has joined Gyasi among the five most requested photographers on Artsy.
“I want African artists to stop painting sad stories about our children. We should be doing better, inspiring and impacting people.”
Prince Gyasi, visual artist
For artists like Gyasi, the shift from physical galleries to online auctions has helped expose his work to the global art market, Taylor said, adding that online platforms like Artsy are “democratizing” the market and creating more opportunities for collectors to find emerging artists from around the world.
Gyasi’s renewed interest in his work did not confuse him, however. “I always act like I’m starting each day because it helps me push harder. I don’t want to get any content,” he said.
And Gyasi shows no signs of slowing down. After a recent collaboration with fashion label “Off White” by Virgil Abloh, he is eager to explore design-driven visual art and creative intersections with film and music. In November, Gyasi will be one of the artists at Paris Photo, the largest international photography art fair, and he has been selected as the flagship artist at next year’s Kyoto Photo Festival.
From iPhone snapshots to a visual artist on the global stage, Gyasi’s unique style is not tied to any form, medium or fashion. “I create my own world, rather than letting the world create me,” he said.