Serwah Attafuah on being honest about what exists on this planet ◑
“There’s always hope, and there’s always strength in being vulnerable.”—Serwah Attafuah
Serwah Attafuah uses storytelling to create powerful narratives through visual art and music. Rooted in her Ghanaian heritage, Serwah's practice focuses on themes of identity, vulnerability, and anti-colonial resistance. In a conversation with Gemma co-founder Lindsay Howard, Serwah shares her creative process and inspiration, including the parallels between her father's cultural storytelling, her recurring dreams, and the importance of sending messages across generations—past, present, and future.
Lindsay Howard: How would you describe the character in your piece, Asantee?
Serwah Attafuah: Most of the figures I create are an abstract representation of myself or sometimes an ancestor, or even someone in the future who shares my cultural background. They might not have been born yet, but they belong to my tribe. Many of the people in my artworks reflect different aspects of myself, or little anime versions of me. This particular piece is based on Yaa Asantewaa, who was part of my dad’s tribe. She played a significant role in a conflict against the British and the Ashanti during the 1800s. One of the cool things about Ghanaian culture is that it’s a matrilineal society, where women hold a lot of power in terms of spirituality.
Is there a message that you’re trying to convey across different generations?
I think the message is that it’s okay to be vulnerable, and to experience breakdowns and difficult feelings. It's about being realistic about the things that we’re facing, and moving through them. Usually, the human figures I create are quite sad or intense, but this one is looking upward. I can't make a totally scorched-earth piece. There's always hope, and there’s always strength in being vulnerable.
Can you talk about what she’s wearing, including the jewelry and her clothing? Are these items worn for aesthetic reasons, spiritual significance, or a combination of both?
Definitely both. There are certain piercings that you can get for shamanistic purposes. I used to have my eyebrow pierced because it's said to open up a spiritual eye in our culture but, unfortunately, it fell out.
Ghana was termed the “Gold Coast” by the British and the other fucking crazy people that ended up there, so for us, gold isn’t just about wealth. It’s a spiritual thing for us. We’d actually give and receive gold stools, which carried the souls of all the ancestors of the tribe. So, there’s quite a lot of spirituality in wearing gold. Accessories are important in my work, which is why there’s coral on her chest, the conchas, and the dolphin’s teeth. As for clothing, some pieces are just fashionable. They’re kind of cute.
She's holding something like the Salvator Mundi, you know, that globe that no one really understands. Personally, I think it’s a representation of the human mind. I think that much of Leonardo's art, including his Renaissance works, is very real, but it also carries some symbolism related to the mind, body, and a range of human emotions and experiences. There's also a touch of Afrofuturism with scarification, which I've brought into my own realm.
She seems to be simultaneously underwater, and in a field. Where is she?
The fish represent aspects of mental health. It's like a feeling of drowning in air, or within the places that we inhabit. The setting she's in represents a liminal space between Ghana and Western Sydney, where I currently live. Western Sydney used to be an in-between area when I was growing up, with pockets of really tall buildings alongside a bare landscape. It’s all developed now, which has happened in Ghana as well. So, it’s a mix of these two spaces, in addition to something new that’s never actually existed.
I suffer from panic disorder, and it's so hardcore. My panic attacks are quite lucid and vivid. They can make me feel like I’m underwater, while also having a heightened connection to everything around me. Sometimes I even start to experience visions.
The fish look like they’re wrapping around her, protecting her, and keeping her safe.
Yeah, it’s sort of a protective thing. Both of my parents are from coastal towns, so fish and aquatic surroundings resonate with me. Water is a beautiful thing, but it also has a certain volatility. I was thinking about that recently when that submersible exploded in the Atlantic Ocean. I’m not fucking around with water like that, because I already have regular nightmares about the deep ocean.
Do you dream a lot?
I used to not dream very often, but now I'm having a lot of dreams again. It might sound weird, but a lot of my dreams seem to predict things or have a psychic quality. I'll dream of someone or something, and then it will happen a day or two later. I’ve even had experiences where I'd tell my mom that someone far away is coming over, and they'd show up.
Most of my dreams are everyday experiences, but with a “larger than life” feeling to them. I walk around my neighborhood, but it's a different version. Trains are a common theme too, which is honestly annoying since I hate trains, and I wonder: “Why am I here again?” I also find myself underwater a lot in my dreams. Sometimes I'm using my phone or computer, which feels pretty weird. I've had dreams where I'm actually inside of the software, literally making things. Sometimes I dream of writing music, and when I wake up, I've started a new song, but I can't remember it, and I’ll just be so angry. I try to use voice memos right after waking up to blurt out anything from my dreams. It helps if I can record it because then it creates a ripple effect, and I can remember more details.
Are you still making punk music, or have you shifted entirely into visual art?
My visual work and music are becoming more integrated now. I took a long break from music, but it’s still a big part of my creative practice. I've been experimenting with it a lot, trying to bring more music into my visuals. The sound might be different from how people perceive my visual work, because it’s often quite dark, but the core messages are the same. In every single one of my projects, I write about anti-colonial themes.
How do you get in the right headspace to write lyrics or create new artworks?
It's tough. I mean, you either need to focus intensely, finding a quiet space to concentrate, or you have to completely let go and allow your subconscious to take over. Personally, I find my best work comes when I switch off my mind, almost like entering a creative blackout. Later, I step back and interpret my own work, asking myself what I was trying to say at that moment. It's a bit like being a psychologist, or keeping a dream journal.
There’s a recurrent theme of storytelling in all of your work, whether it’s music or visuals.
I learned storytelling from my father. When we were younger, he participated in cultural storytelling at different festivals and African gatherings. He would bring the family together and tell stories about mythical creatures and figures from Ghanaian culture, and he made it really engaging by adding drumming, costumes, and visual elements. He taught me that a story has many layers—it's not just about words or writing. It's about bringing together visuals, sounds, emotions, and even sensorial things like smell and taste. He incorporated everything into his storytelling. It was pretty phenomenal, and that’s what I’m trying to capture by bringing all of these different elements together and showing how they’re all related.
Do you have a large extended family? Are you close with them?
In Western Sydney, I don’t have a lot of extended family; just an aunt, an uncle, and one cousin. We don't really talk much. I do have an extremely large family in different countries. Unfortunately, being on this side of the world, nobody wants to come here, so I have to go out to meet them.
Most of my dad’s siblings live in Accra, the main city of Ghana. Some also live in Elmina, the site of Ghana's first "slave castle." These castles, located along the coast, were used during the trans-Atlantic slave trade and have since become museums. During my visit in 2018, I saw an art installation where they had concrete heads of different slaves in the dungeon area. It's pretty full-on, and I actually vomited when I went there. One of the dungeons had a sign that read “Door Of No Return,” which meant that once you walked through it, you were placed on a ship and sent to America, England, or Jamaica, or wherever you ended up, and never saw your family or friends again.
It was intense to see these buildings, and to know that my family lives so close to them. I’m going to keep making work about the slave castles, and their significance. It’s important to tell these stories, to be real and honest about what exists on this planet, why it exists, and perhaps what we can do with those lessons. This is a lot of what my music is about, and the intent behind all of my artwork.
“I respect conceptual artists, but not everybody has to do it that way. Creating is more enjoyable for me when I make things quickly and simply and intuitively.“
Read our recent interview with Petra Cortright
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