Tijay Mohammed is a Ghana born Artist who pursues his art career in New York. He speaks of many challenges he has faced in order to pursue his dreams with his family and his identity.
I was born in Kintampo, in Bono East region of Ghana. I grew up there for five years and then I moved to Accra, where my other relatives live. Growing up in Ghana, for now, I thought everything in my life would be in Accra so I grew up in a boarding school. I spent my whole life in a boarding house, It a Roman Catholic school but coming from a Muslim family, my dad was highly criticized for doing that, a Muslim leader taking your child to a boarding school which is a Catholic school. So, I grew up seeing both religions, attending Church service, and also going to the Mosque and doing my fasting and everything. In Nima, where I grew up, it’s nicknamed ‘hooded down Ghana’, in Ghana when you mention ‘hooded down Nima’, everybody knows you are talking about Nima, where I grew up, which is just like the Bronx in the US.
After I finished school and was ready for college, my dad refused for me to go into Civil Engineering and he refused for me to go into the boarding school because to take Civil Engineering I would have to go to a boarding school and he didn’t want me to go back to a boarding school after spending my whole life from 6 or 5 in the boarding school until high school. By the time I was ready to start school in September, there was a disagreement between some of my uncles for a lack of understanding of certain verses from the Quran. They felt that I couldn’t do that, that act was haram or forbidden to take that as a Muslim. So it just became a dream that was shut down. But later, I told my mom, and as you can see in my career today, my mom played a very very significant role in my projects that I’m doing, only for one statement, which she did very casually but it was very powerful when it entered my ear and my heart. She said, “Whoever has the problem with Tijay, should try to speak with you, just let you be free, why won’t you be able to do what you want to do and be happy”. And right there, I had the courage to pursue, so I had other uncles who held it in, and it’s not like these uncles went back and forth with me and said, “you can not do it”, but we believe in family and having disagreements with some of the family members who did not like it would be a problem later, but after the statement that my mom did, I just felt the entire confidence to go into it.
So, after my first solo exhibition in 2003, at the National Museum of Ghana, I wanted to give back to my mom as a way of saying, “Thank you”. I was just donating a piece of artwork to her every year of her birthday. Sometimes I did two artworks, one would be in mine, and the other would be on her birthday.
I met a professor from Penn State University, and by 2013, professor Grace Hampton was able to convince me, and say, “Let’s go for it, there is a show in the US”, and since then I would go back to Ghana, and then come back until when I decided to say and expand my career by taking courses on how to better understand my work, and I have been living here since 2014, and my whole work is about community and the African and African-American experience.
Living in New York City in general is the same thing as living in Ghana because of the diversity of food, clothing, language, and race. In New York City, I lived where it is filled with immigrants, and there was no single time that I miss Ghana, and I say that happily because I was able to make a community here.
The advice I would give to anybody in any career is to do it for the sake of love and be very honest to yourself in both personal, private, and professional life. Once you do it with love, you would enjoy doing it and because you are being honest with what you are doing, your private life and professional life, you get to enjoy it and the reward that comes in love and freedom is what creates everything. I also advise my students not to go into art for the sake of money because money is the reward that comes through whatever you do. My mom wanted me to do what I wanted to do and what I loved because she believed that I would be able to contribute to the community. So I would suggest to keep on doing it for the sake of love, to go into it for the sake of love, just keep love, love is what we need to get everything moving, then we have a material reward.