Among the Akan people of Ghana, the concept of Sankofa means delving into the past, retrieving the lost parts of oneself for greater happiness, and wisdom in the present. It is best encapsulated in an Akan proverb that roughly translates to “it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot”.
For jewellery designer Jo Boateng, Sankofa has meant rediscovering the colour and vibrancy of her native culture, left behind when she relocated to a comparatively subdued London from Kumasi in Ghana at the age of seven. After a long career in marketing, Jo emerged from the Covid-19 lockdown as a budding jewellery designer, with hand-woven beaded pieces that celebrate the bold colours and patterns so prominent in African fashion and art. She is one of ten early-career makers chosen for Shine 2023, our annual showcase of new and promising talent, and recently spoke to us about her deeply personal creative journey.
What first attracted you to a career as a maker and how did you get started in the industry?
I've always loved jewellery, and I always loved making things as a child. I studied art and design, but I didn't have the opportunity to continue that as a career. I spent 20+ years working in marketing and was fortunate enough to work with lots of creative agencies, so creativity, art and design has always been part of my life in and outside of work.
The Covid-19 pandemic was a challenging time for everyone, and proved to be a real turning point for me because I had the chance to really think about what I enjoy doing, what really satisfies me and makes me happy. The most obvious answer was jewellery because I absolutely love jewellery, and as an African, it's such a big part of our culture both for males and females. It just felt like the most natural thing to pursue.
Can you please tell us a bit about the collection that you will be presenting at Shine 2023?
I feel just so thrilled to be a part of Shine, and the collection I’ll be showing is Nwene, the Twi word for weave, which is one of the languages in Ghana. The whole collection is about weaving connections and the joining of things together, and is also inspired by Akuaba, a wooden fertility doll.
I’ve taken something that’s a traditional art form in Ghana - the weaving of cloth - and applied it to quite an eclectic mix of styles, cultures, colours and shapes. I’ve used glass beads from Japan and I have tried to incorporate different weaving techniques.
Could you tell us about some of the things that you've looked at, researched and explored to inform that collection?
It's quite a personal collection, drawing from all sorts of childhood imagery, things that really impacted me and were of importance to me when I was growing up.
I was born in Ghana and lived there until I was about seven, so the Akua maa collection is based on the Ghanaian fertility doll the Akuaba. It was something I always loved as a child - the tactile, wooden carving. I really wanted to incorporate some of those features in my work without outrightly copying them, to pay homage to the doll without mimicking it.
Kente cloth is also very culturally significant in Ghana and very recognisable as African art. I wanted to pay tribute to some of its features - the weaving, the colours and the pattern - in my work. Interestingly, in Ghana, you have local weavers who have developed their own styles and their own signature patterns, in addition to the ones that are commonly used. I was inspired by the way they adapt their designs to standard sizes and widths of cloth, and I’m trying to work in the same way using beads rather than fabric.
Could you tell me a bit about what you've learned through the process of making this collection?
The main thing that I learned is to be more structured in my approach. I love making so when I'm making a piece, I'm so involved in the process, I'm really trying to perfect it, to constantly adapt my techniques and strive for what feels like perfection. The lesson I’ve taken away from that is to have a plan and stick to it.
How would you describe your design style?
I'm drawn to quite strong graphical images. I love vivid colours, and I really love strong personalities, like Grace Jones or Prince, my favourite musician, the work of Yinka Shonibare and Oz Boateng. I love the style of these kinds of characters and how they carry themselves.
I’m also very much inspired by the 80’s Memphis art movement; I love the freedom and the boldness of colour and shape. My style is focused on pattern and colour, and whilst my colour choices are quite limited, I use them in a way that I feel makes a striking and bold statement.
When someone puts on a piece of your jewellery, how do you hope that it might make them feel?
I hope they get a sense of joy and fun from my pieces because when I'm making them, I'm in such a happy place. Sometimes I forget that it's a piece to be worn, I'm so focused on creating. I hope the end result is both interesting to look at and that the love that went into making it shines through.
What is the highlight of that making process for you?
When I’m making, I’m just in my zone. I want to make a lovely piece, that’s my starting point. I'm not thinking of the end result of somebody wearing it. Weaving in particular takes up so much time, and sometimes it gets to the point where I really should stop because my arms are aching, but I can see the patterns forming and I'm enjoying it so much. I just keep going until basically, I can't anymore. The fundamental thing is that when I’m finished, I’ve created something that I want to wear myself.
Can you tell us about the use of beads in your work?
Perhaps beads aren’t the most modern material to work with, but I felt it would be an easy way of introducing colour and pattern to my work. When you pick up a piece of beaded jewellery, I think the first thing that you appreciate is the weight of it - it’s quite heavy - and then how cold it feels against the skin. It’s quite tactile, and I like that quality.
I’m relatively new to beading, so it’s been quite a challenge. I've learned and adapted as I go along. I don’t usually pre-plan the pattern, but I have a colour palette and have selected the beads I plan to work with, and then feel my way around very organically, seeing what fits based on factors like colour and the chunkiness of the bead.
There’s a certain amount of flexibility to using beads, but I’m also limited by the weaving technique, the shape, size and form of the beads and the attachment that I’m using. The beads featured in my collection at Shine 2023 are four millimetre beads, and I’ve used much smaller beads in previous work. I had to learn to adapt the weaving technique for these beads because the holes are bigger, and I had to understand how the material works and how it fits on the body. I had to be quite inventive.
Do you have a favourite piece from the collection?
Every time I make a new piece it’s my new favourite piece! So much time goes into it.
I don't always have a precise plan when I start - I know I’m making a pair of earrings and how big they will be, and the design will evolve throughout the making process. I do like the black and the red earrings because I think they are really striking. The necklace featuring different shades of white is really flattering once it’s on your skin.
When you see it displayed, I don’t think you’re able to appreciate the piece fully, it’s only once you handle it and wear it, feel the weight, tactile qualities and see the subtleties in the colour, that you really get a sense of the piece.
What are your goals, creatively and professionally, for the next two years?
This whole journey is relatively new to me, and I'm just loving having the opportunity to try out different jewellery techniques. I've really enjoyed enamelling, which is something that I want to explore further, as it’s another way to use colour in my work and look at different shapes and forms. Every time I learn something new, I try to work with it and incorporate it.
For the Akua maa collection, I used the wax carving and lost casting process, and didn’t fully appreciate how much work would go into that. Each piece of wax was hand carved over hours. As in the Nwene collection, I didn’t draw out the design first but felt my way around the wax before sending it to be cast in silver. When it came back, I’d spend hours filing it down again to bring it to life. It was a lot of work, but each time I went through that process I improved.
It’s an ongoing process of learning, so my main goal is to continue pushing myself, to experiment, to find new ways of communicating my design style and my love of colour and pattern. I’m hoping people will love the finished pieces as much as I loved making them.