Framing love in acceptance: a review of Kwasi Kyei’s ‘Immanuel’

To be Immanuel is to be as present as God. That was my takeaway from Kwasi Kyei’s recently ended exhibition, Immanuel. As striking as the works of art on display were, to me the exhibition spoke more to the structure and framework holding the art together.

The exhibition itself was framed within the aging walls of the Warehouse on Lokko Road here in Accra. It is a textured space that feels purposed for art, so within this space the exhibition felt right at home.

Immanuel represents so much in a single viewing. As I observed the panorama of images, I saw a study of the male form in all its aging glory. I saw solitude framed in acceptance. I saw chaos coexist with harmony; in that, a mixture of skilfully shot, diverse and divergent photos lay side by side on display, yet formed a seamless, beautiful montage.

I saw a bygone age framed in digital spec; as it struck me that some of the symbols and motifs captured in a number of the photos would seem pretty ancient to people alive today. And yet it has not been that long since the “norm” switched up on us.

If you have seen any of his work, you’ll agree that Kyei, a self-proclaimed minimalist, captures images that resound past an initial viewing. With Immanuel, he curates a rugged collage of images that are individually mesmerising but together feel quite disjointed, almost chaotically so.

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However, I found this to be a major draw as my curiosity was piqued to explore what the exhibition sought to reveal beyond the imagery served from individual pieces of art. What I found was the spirit within which these photographs are framed; a sense of finding self-acceptance through the experience of unconditional love. It is something that feels like context, yet still out of reach enough to leave you unsure.

To comprehend this, one needs to understand the literal context of the exhibition. Named after the eponymous Immanuel, a real figure in Kyei’s life that has clearly had a great deal of impact on his life, it was interesting to find only two photos of Immanuel out of ten on display. One with his eyes closed the other with his eyes open.

Speaking to Kyei, he referenced the Biblical meaning of Immanuel; God with us. Kyei spoke about feeling God’s presence; he alluded to a settling peace that kept him from going over the edge. He spoke about a spiritual connection that I know of all too well. This spiritual awakening, and by extension the spirit of the exhibition, is framed in one simple name; Immanuel.

In him we find an example of those of us humans who are truly able to occupy almost divine space. Not because they are perfect, but because they simply are. If we are lucky, we may meet someone like this in our lifetime. Someone who brings us balance without holding that power over our heads or holding our hearts to ransom. Those people who come with waves of joy and leave in peace. Every moment with them feels like the ascension of one’s spirit and in their presence we learn to love and accept ourselves.

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Therefore it makes complete sense to me that Immanuel was only featured twice. In keeping with the metaphor, true believers would expect that God’s presence does not need to be overemphasised. God is omnipresent with a presence that is felt when most needed. The same is true with Immanuel, whose presence filled a room he was barely visibly present in and whose impact framed an entire presentation of art.

For me, Immanuel affirmed my belief that there are people among us who embody the very things we seek in houses of worship every week. It was moving to see this reality captured within such a carefully disjointed and still seamlessly meshed exhibition.

I am here for the representation of Kyei’s personal truth. From what I gathered in my interview with him, it would seem that another human, probably imperfect in many ways, inspired him to find love in the things that surround him and perhaps more critically in himself. As a result of that drive, we were blessed with what I hope is the first of many exhibitions from Kyei.

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