Kumasi Characters: Bernard Bull

In the early 1970s, the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi, relied to a substantial extent on foreign professors and lecturers. As a result of past colonial links and Ghana’s continuing membership of the Commonwealth, the majority of the fifty or so expatriate academics came from the United Kingdom. Some of these were on short-term contracts, sent out to avert an emergency caused in 1970 by a mass resignation in the Faculty of Engineering, but others were on long-term contracts and wedded to their posts for as long as the university wished to retain their services. One of these was Bernard Bull, a painter and sculptor of some repute, presenting the bearded and casual image of the archetypal artist.

Bernard was employed in the fine arts department of the College of Art, a formerly independent college incorporated into the university at its formation in the nineteen fifties. Much of the College of Art was composed of applied arts departments, such as ceramics, textiles and metalworking, which fitted easily into a university of science and technology, but a fine arts section was a less comfortable bedfellow. Bernard and his colleagues seemed to find this dislocation an ideal scenario for expressing their naturally anti-establishment and non-conformist nature.

It is natural for artists to regard scientists and engineers as lacking in cultural refinement, and Bernard’s people did their best to establish a broader and more rounded intellectual environment in the university. Immersed in a sea of rationality, the artists strove to remind the majority that the human imagination can be used to create beauty as well as material progress. By participating in the universally compulsory African Studies programme, they promoted due respect for Ghana’s traditional artistic crafts and did much to ensure that all graduates were grounded in the cultural milieu of their ancestors.

Bernard Bull was popular with his students and also with the large community of labourers, security men, traders and hawkers which supported life on the campus. His popularity among humble folk was enhanced by his mastery of the local Twi language. Arriving on his moped in the car park at the Senior Staff Club, Bernard would often greet a fellow Briton in Twi and on the rare occasion when a longer conversation ensued, the itinerant orange and groundnut sellers would gather round with wide open eyes and gaping mouths, expressing wonder at this strange phenomenon. ‘I never heard white men speak Twi long before,’ said one of their number.

On one occasion Bernard arrived at the Staff Club already having imbibed too enthusiastically. His old moped raced recklessly across the car park, narrowly missing the parked cars and halting only when it encountered the low stone wall at the end of the compound. Bernard retained his seat but was visibly shaken. The orange and groundnut sellers gathered round with anxious expressions on every face. One attractive young lady with her round tray of oranges still balanced on her head, stared at the casualty with wide eyes expressing deep concern. Slowly regaining awareness of the situation, Bernard gazed back and muttered, ‘Bra menkyen,’ come to my side.

Like all British academics in Ghana in the 1970s, Bernard’s salary was supplemented by the British Government’s BESS programme. When this ended in 1983 Bernard was one of the few who opted to stay at KNUST on local terms. Few professors could survive on a local salary in those days and most Ghanaian academics had a supplementary income from trading or consultancy. Bernard had the advantage of being a single man, free of the burden of an extended family, and as opportunity arose, he could sell the products of his artistry.

Bernard Bull developed a keen interest in traditional Ashanti wood carving, pointing out that due to the impermanence of wood, standard designs of stools and other artefacts needed to be re-carved at intervals of about one hundred years. By keeping the designs constant the past was preserved, but innovation was not encouraged. Students tended to follow this trend in both painting and sculpture by reproducing traditional patterns with little variation.

It was Bernard’s aim to encourage respect for the traditional culture but combined with a drive for individual self-expression through wide experimentation. Thus he pioneered a unique artistic tradition that grew up and thrived in Kumasi, and the best of his students went on to develop individual styles of painting and sculpture that attracted a wide following and international renown.