Kwasi Kyei Honam: An Akan Word for Body
Weaving narratives at once familiar and enigmatic, emerging Ghanaian-born, Toronto-based photographer Kwasi Kyei engages thoughtfully with a history of Black male representation through formally and stylistically varied images.
From snapshots of boys and young men caught mid-play by the ocean, to nocturnal images of men photographed from the back of a vehicle, to close up, studio-lit images of male bodies flexing or coolly adorned in gold chains, Kyei’s images posit powerful visual narratives. Beach Boys II (2017), for instance, strikingly contrasts the looming white walls of the historical Cape Coast Castle with a fleeting scene of three Black boys caught in unselfconscious play, clearly at ease in each other’s company. As one does a handstand, another looks on, and the third boy, seated with knees bent and head down, explores the wet sand beneath him. The image conveys the simple joys and uncomplicated pleasures of youth.
In the language of the Akan people from whom Kyei descends, Honam, loosely translated, can also mean skin. The skin in Kyei’s black-and-white photographs can be stark with strong contrasts or light-filled with deep and subtle gradients, emphasizing the varied shades of black. In Repose V (2018), the subject’s dark skin is taut across his sculpted features. He is supine, his body in high relief against a field of stones, some of which cling to the base of his neck and leave chalky marks just under his collarbone. His eyes, barely open, look up and away from the viewer’s gaze. His expression is peaceful, if not entirely comfortable. What has brought this beautiful Black body to this place, to this pose?
Throughout his photographs, Kyei captures a recognizable and familiar Blackness, and a diasporic and complex African maleness. It’s in and on the body of his subjects: their physical attitude while at play, casually congregating, or posed-up and preening; the glint of a gold chain adorning a neck or accessorizing a wrist; their posture, pose, and flex. While Kyei’s evolving photographic work is specific to a time and place—a knowledgeable eye will recognize the buildings of Ghana’s coast in these images—these men could easily be in Kingston, Jamaica, in Salvador, Brazil, or in Toronto’s Malvern neighbourhood. Suffused with his subjects’ interiority, Kyei’s work demonstrates care, sensitivity, and openness absent of an “othering” or objectifying gaze. A knowing intimacy allows Kyei to reflect the confidence and bravado of his subjects, as well as the fragile vulnerability of their Black maleness—a perspective that can only come from one who knows and shares this body.
Curated by Courtnay McFarlane
Presented by BAND in partnership with Legacies in Motion: Black Queer Archival Project, TO Live, and CONTACT
Kwasi Kyei, a Ghanaian-born, Toronto-based photographer, grew up in Cape Coast, Ghana, and trained at the National Film and Television Institute (NAFTI). Influenced by artists including James Barnor, Kyei’s practice revolves around themes of identity and place. He works in black-and-white photography in an attempt to minimize distraction, to focus on form, feeling, and depth. His first solo exhibition, Immanuel, presented in Accra in 2017, offered an exploration of the physical form beyond skin, speaking to the spirit without judgment.