During our two months in Accra, Ghana in 2009, I started looking forward to our Saturday excursions to the beach, and to Bob’s sculptures, around Wednesday or Thursday.
He always set up shop in the same place, and he was always there by the time we arrived. Short, stocky, with an easy smile on his round face and intense concentration while he worked with an eclectic bunch of tools, he usually had sand scattered all over his shorts and tee shirt.
A sample of his work: A seated African elder in a flowing robe holding a cylindrical drum under his arm. A couple stretched out lazily on the beach, she with her hand cradling his head, he with one hand coyly flirting with her bikini bottom. An elephant with elaborately wrinkled skin crouching on his forelegs.
All – the fabric folds, the elephant wrinkles, the bikini – made from sand.
You could call them “sand sculptures” if you want, but that evokes images of kids’ sand castles, made with pail and shovel and maybe some shells stuck in the top. Wrong image.
Just call them sculptures. Representational, sensuous and beautiful. Sand and water, rudimentary tools, talent and creativity in abundance. I’d never seen anything like them, and still haven’t.
We started going to the beach on weekends as a way to escape the heat, which was oppressive and crushing. I almost took it personally, the way it pressed me down and kept me from going forward easily and breathing freely, like a hand on my chest. It was exhausting. We’d been to West Africa many times, even two other countries in the steamy part under the Western hump, so we expected heat and humidity. But this was worse. Or maybe it was just because we’d gotten older. Either way, it was brutal, almost more than we could take.
At first, we felt a bit sheepish: we didn’t think of ourselves as the kind of travelers who went to the beach every weekend. No, we were more adventurous than that. We traveled, we visited villages, we learned about the culture. (Snobbery comes in many forms!) But not this time: We worked as volunteers, Monday to Friday, 9-to-5. We were H-O-T. We weren’t as young as we used to be. We went to La Beach, “La” being the name of the neighborhood, not the definite article, as in French.
On the way, the first treat was passing the shops of whimsically carved and decorated coffins – a Ghanaian tradition since the 1950s. Think Pepsi bottles, race cars, fish, cell phones, all carved and brightly painted, all coffins. Every week we’d spot different ones. They were as amazing as Bob’s sculptures, but we only saw them from the taxi.
Once there, we settled in under the awning outside the restaurant. The restaurant guys knew us and greeted us as we arrived, starting us off with my husband’s ice-cold beer and my ice-cold Coke, hold the ice cubes. We ate, we lazed, we people-watched.
There were Africans and Westerners, young and old. There were even Arabic women in black headscarves and veils, seemingly oblivious to the heat. Passing by the restaurant was an unending parade: Vendors sold jewelry, trinkets, fabric. Musicians with unusual homemade instruments put on a show. Child acrobats with exaggerated smiles jumped, ran, tumbled, and made human pyramids. Horse-back riders sold rides, meandering pedicurists sold the possibility of pretty feet.
We enjoyed whatever breeze we could catch. We swam in the narrow channel where swimming was permitted: it had a very long and gradual run-out to water that was thigh-high. It wasn’t cold, but cool water filled the bill. Aaaahhh.
We might not have been visiting villages, but seeing Bob was like going to a museum, a living sculpture museum. Art is where you find it, and we found it at La Beach in Accra, Ghana.
Have you found art in unexpected places?
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Carole Howard is the author of Deadly Adagio, recently published by Second Wind Publishing.