Edmund Boateng honors his mother in 'Yaafoa, Home is Calling'
The Columbus-via-Ghana artist's new photography exhibition named after his mom is on display at Sharon Weiss Gallery in the Short North
For a while, as the pandemic raged across the globe, Edmund Boateng tried to put the whole thing out of his mind. He didn’t think too hard about what it could mean for him or for his parents back in Ghana, where Boateng was born and raised. But one day, while sitting in his office, he began thinking about his mom, who has never met Boateng's 2-year-old daughter. What if the travel restrictions remained in place? What if people close to him became seriously ill? What if his mother never got to meet his daughter?
"At that very moment, my hands started shaking. I was getting very scared,” said Boateng, who began thinking more and more about his mother, whose name is Yaafoa, and the role she played in his life. While processing those emotions, Boateng started making a series of black and white photographs included in the artist's new solo exhibition at Sharon Weiss Gallery, “Yaafoa, Home is Calling.”
Two large images anchor the show, one of which depicts a Ghanaian woman carrying a basket of fruit on her head. Titled “Paa Die,” which translates to “Street Hawker,” the image is a tribute to the hard work Boateng’s mother endured for her family.
“Growing up, she sold so many things. Most women in Ghana do it. They will have a tray or a basket, and they fill it up with stuff and carry it on their head. If they have kids and they don't have anybody to watch them, they have to carry them on their back. They walk miles, just selling whatever they can sell to take care of the family,” said Boateng, who used another image from the “Street Hawker” photo shoot for a recent Short North mural. “My dad had to travel for work for months and years in a different city. … She had to do whatever she can for the kids, to take care of us.”
In another large, black and white portrait titled “Nante Yie” (translated “Safe Journey”), Boateng photographed his subject, Malik, as a shirtless warrior covered with symbols painted in white, including two handprints on his chest. The photo takes its inspiration from a scene in the airport in early 2017, when Boateng said goodbye to his mother on his way back to the United States. They hugged, and his mom wished him a safe journey and said a prayer in his ear. When they hugged, he felt Yaafoa’s hands on him.
“When I was creating this image, that memory came into my mind, and I told Malik, ‘I'm going to dip my hands in the paint, and I'm going to put it on you,’” Boateng said. “That is my own hands, but it represents the hands of my mom and the last touch that I got from her.”
For Boateng, thoughts of his mom and of his home of Ghana are inexorably linked, and over the pandemic, he grappled with homesickness for his family and his culture. "I was thinking about not having anybody around me to speak the language, the food, the culture. I felt like I was losing it. … I left Ghana single, no kid. Now I'm married four years with a 2-year-old, so I'm going to go back home as a totally different person,” he said. “If I never get to see [my mom and dad] again and that part is gone, I cannot understand how that will feel for me. So the pandemic brought these emotions out of me that I had never experienced before, and it was very tough. It was very hard.”
Other photographs in the series represent different aspects of Boateng’s mother — her leadership, her role as guardian, her identity as a child of Africa — embodied in the faces and symbols of Black men and women.
Boateng plans to visit Ghana with his wife and daughter in October. These days, Yaafoa is no longer a street hawker. She has a shop in front of her home, alongside Boateng’s father, a shoemaker and artisan. He’s excited to see the shop in person, to learn more about his father’s lifelong trade and to again embrace his mother. He’s thinking of making a documentary about the experience.
Next to one of the photos at Sharon Weiss Gallery is an iPad with a short film Boateng made to accompany the exhibition. Like the rest of the show, the words in the video pay tribute to Yaafoa, though the statements serve to inspire the next generation, as well: “I believe that I am a leader. I am stronger. I am brave. I am worthy of education, and to be an educator. I am an African woman.”