Godfried Donkor, St. Peter, 2019, oil, acrylic, and gold leaf on linen, 49 1⁄4 × 30 3⁄4".

Godfried Donkor, St. Peter, 2019, oil, acrylic, and gold leaf on linen, 49 1⁄4 × 30 3⁄4".

Godfried Donkor

In the first show of a two-part exhibition, “Battle Royale: Last Man Standing,” British-Ghanaian artist Godfried Donkor exhumed the ties that bind the dark history of boxing across three continents. The title refers to a tradition in Jim Crow America, in which black men—often blindfolded—were encouraged to engage in battles royal, bludgeoning one another senseless for onlookers’ entertainment, with a prize purse going to the last man standing. While legend has it that boxing came to Ghana via its bloodthirsty colonizers (whose aristocrats used to dabble in sparring with those deemed inferior to their station), the sport has a long history in West Africa. According to Emmanuel Akyeampong, in a 2002 essay for the International Journal of African Historical Studies, pugilism, known as asafo atwele, was accepted as a means of social advancement among the Ga people of Accra, long before a white man set foot on Ghanaian soil. Prowess in the sport meant you could challenge your way to prominence and a higher social standing. By collapsing these various lineages of boxing in and outside Ghana, Donkor invited the inquisitive viewer to reflect on this rarely discussed history.

The artist teased this narrative here, working from the outside in. The second chapter of this exhibition will concentrate on the social and political history of the sport inside of Ghana. In this first part, the artist focused on black historical figures from both sides of the Atlantic, who are bound to the legacy of pugilism in Ghana through the slave trade. After all, who’s to say that famous bare-knuckle African American boxer Tom Molineaux couldn’t have been of Ghanaian descent? Or Bill Richmond, another former slave turned boxer, who would become Molineaux’s trainer? In his paintings and collages, Donkor re-creates well-known iconic images and imaginings of these famous black boxers, alongside modern-day athletes such as Muhammad Ali, who is depicted in fighting stance. The artist then takes an extra step by introducing elements of Accra’s Jamestown district into the images. In St. Peter, 2019, a painting dominated by a burnt-orange palette, a boxer stands with his arms resolutely folded at his chest. His piercing stare is amplified by a gold-leaf halo. Donkor has superimposed the outlines of a ship in waves, etched in blue, the color of the ocean. Jamestown’s coastline is still dotted with some of the old structures, forts, and castles where slaves were kept before they were loaded onto ships and sent across the ocean, never to return. Behind the boxer, a rope looped around the single pole suggests that the figure might be standing in one of the open-air boxing rings and clubs scattered across Bukom, Accra’s hotbed for the sport. The energy in such spaces is intense, as up to twenty boxers pack in—shrieking and sweating—and punch sandbags, each other, or imaginary opponents. Donkor manages to convey this dynamism within the solitary boxer, who himself remains still.

“Battle Royale” opened in the middle of the Ghanaian government’s Year of Return campaign, which asks Africans in the diaspora—disproportionately, African Americans—to return “home,” presuming Ghana is that place. Donkor’s exhibition provided a wealth of insight into a specific chapter of their ancestors’ forced journey to a foreign land. Equally important, though, was to encourage the people of Jamestown, and of Accra and Ghana at large, to reconnect with their own history or, in some cases, to discover it for the first time. To learn that what they have been led to believe about themselves isn’t always accurate. This legacy of athletic excellence wasn’t inherited from a benevolent master. It always existed.