Kwabena Sekyi Appiah-Nti’s new photo book documents Ghanaian culture and “its immense heritage”

Swathes of gold, powerful portraiture and proverbs; the Netherlands-based photographer explores his first experiences of being in his fatherland, Ghana.

13 September 2021

Kwabena Sekyi Appiah-Nti is a Ghanaian and Belgian photographer, born and raised in the Netherlands. Through his warm and visceral picture taking, Kwabena shines a light on personal topics that are drawn from his own experiences as well as of the subjects that he chooses to lens. Previously, he released a personal project titled Golden Boy, a series documenting Black boyhood through an analogous and soft gaze. “As an image-maker,” he tells us, “I became fascinated by those in society who are often negatively perceived, misunderstood and stereotypically portrayed – a group I describe as the ‘underdogs’.” With this in mind, Kwabena utilises his camera to represent the “underdogs” with utmost honesty; “researching and capturing their behaviour, I aim to present the authentic expressions and essence of my subjects.”

And now, while continuing this ethos, Kwabena is sharing his new book, Sika Kokoo/Sika Kɔkɔɔ. The tome presents his first experiences of being in his fatherland, Ghana. “It showcases the contemporary Ghanaian culture, but also its immense heritage,” he adds. Comprising a mix of photography and textural, golden pages interweaved throughout the imagery, the book is as strikingly tactile as it is a visual record of a person’s identity and history. Sika Kokoo means “red money” in the Ghanaian Twi languages, and equally it translates to “gold” in English. So when observing the book, you’ll notice the arrival of gold paper contrasting with striking typography and various ephemera. “Gold objects have a lot of symbolism in our culture and they portray different proverbs. In Akan culture (my father’s people), gold is considered an earthly counterpart to the sun and the physical manifestation of life’s vital force, Kra (the soul).”

Throughout, Kwabena has paired his tonal imagery alongside golden motifs and items from the Ghanaian Akan people. “By doing this,” he adds, “I’m building a bridge between the past and the present.” He’s interlacing two timeframes, and therefore giving a new relevancy to the old proverbs that he’s referencing. “Nobody knows the beginning of a great man” is one example, with text underneath stating “Obi nnim obrempon ahyease”. Taken from Ananse Ntontan’s Spider’s Web, the text is perceived as a symbol of “wisdom, craftiness, creativity and the complexities of life”. Placed atop a signature gold backdrop, the quote is adjacent to one of Kwabena’s powerful portraits of a male figure [below]. He poses with his arm to the hip, gazing delicately into the camera with a draping sheet hung behind him – he’s caught in a freeze-frame that suggests both subject and photographer are relaxed and at ease with one another.


Kwabena Sekyi Appiah-Nti: Sika Kokoo/Sika Kɔkɔɔ (Copyright © Kwabena Sekyi Appiah-Nti, 2021)

While out working on Sika Kokoo/Sika Kɔkɔɔ, Kwabena would wander the streets and come across his subjects in a candid and spontaneous manner; either he’d meet them from Instagram, or from simply walking by. Sometimes, he’d briefly chat with someone and ask to take their photo, and others he’d spend days or even weeks with them. Whatever the chance meeting, he’d always make sure to portray them in a “proud and powerful” way. “The people I spent a longer time with told me about their daily lives and what it is like for them to live in Ghana,” Kwabena recalls. One of his favourite images, for example, is the one on the cover and on the fabric artwork of a guy he’d met on the beach. He was practicing backflips into the waves with his friend, and Kwabena asked to join them: “After doing some flips, I took their picture”.

Another image is a snapshot of Muftahu, “the bike star”, who’s doing a wheelie on a main road in Accra at nighttime. Kwabena has always had a fascination with “bike life” and wanted to explore this subculture, so he’d decided to meet up with the group of bikers to take their picture. “While sitting on the back of a speeding motorbike, with one hand holding on and the other shooting pictures, I managed to capture this shot [shown below].” It’s a glaring and almost magical picture that pulls the viewer right into that very moment, where fun and freedom collides.

Kwabena has the ability to connect his audience with his own personal narratives, as well as the wider context of a place or person. This book is no exception to that. “This is a really personal and meaningful project to me, as it helps me explore a part of my father’s culture and thus a big part of my own identity,” he concludes. “This project has really allowed me and pushed me to learn more about Ghana and her rich culture.”

GalleryKwabena Sekyi Appiah-Nti: Sika Kokoo/Sika Kɔkɔɔ (Copyright © Kwabena Sekyi Appiah-Nti, 2021)

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Kwabena Sekyi Appiah-Nti: Sika Kokoo/Sika Kɔkɔɔ (Copyright © Kwabena Sekyi Appiah-Nti, 2021)

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she was interim online editor in 2022/2023 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima. 

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