As an advocate for sustainability, this up-cycling bead-worker challenges us to open our eyes, not just to the plight of our planet, but to the responsibility we have toward one another.
Akwele Suma holds up a bright green poster that reads: “Feel it, hear it, see it, stand against it: Domestic Violence.” Soon, she will cut the poster into thin bands, carefully wind the paper into the shape of a spindle or a disc, gloss it with a protective coat of clear nail polish, and string the new bead onto a necklace or pair of earrings.
Akwele describes herself as a collector of items that others throw away: scraps of fabric, pieces of plastic, reams and reams of old paper. Into this detritus, she breathes new life.
With her head wrapped in a colorful duku and a wide smile across her face, Akwele points to the domestic violence poster and explains that her tremendous environmental efforts are about preserving the planet, but also, something more.
“Anyone who wears this wears the message.”
The story behind the object “goes further and further, and gets louder and louder” once she puts it out into the world in new form. To wear the necklace or earrings made from that poster is also to carry on one’s body this rallying cry against domestic violence.
While Akwele’s sustainability efforts help to protect the environment, her beadwork also preserves an important family’s heritage. She is a seventh generation bead worker and learned the craft through an apprenticeship with her grandmother.
But her journey to becoming a talented multi-media artist did not follow a straight and narrow path. She dipped into the world of journalism, which she studied at the Ghana Institute of Journalism, and honed her skills in the studios of global artists, like Chris Charway in Ghana, Kossi Assou in Togo, and Werner Register in Germany.
And yet, Akwele emerged with a style all her own.
Her art is the work of a “harvester,” as she calls herself. She cultivates the things that others no longer value. In this way, she also harvests the past, preserving the stories, lost moments, and faded memories of people, places, and things.
In Akwele’s case, the fight for our planet is also the fight for our souls. Her art teaches us that we owe one another dignity, respect, and a brighter tomorrow.