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Ghana’s First Female Professional Photographer Goes Home Today

Felicia Abban’s lens captured the beauty and essence of Ghanaian existence

In the course of her decades-long photography career, Felicia Ewuraesi Gyasiwa Abban (née Ansah) had the opportunity to cover and be part of exciting historic moments.

Ghana’s first female professional photographer, who died on January 4 at the age of 87, will be buried today, March 23 at Winneba in the Central Region.

She told stories which demanded to be told, and the best way for her was through pictures. Photography was her way of understanding, preserving and presenting to others the positive aspects of the life around her.

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She covered a wide variety of items including a visit to Ghana by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip of Britain; Ghanaian royalty; market women; prominent lawyers and other professionals of her era; numerous corporate and private events and also did some work for the nation’s First President, Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah.

Joe E. Ansah’s apprentice

Mrs Abban was born on  April 19, 1936, to Joe E. Ansah and Theresa Yankey at Swedru in the Central Region of Ghana.

By the age of 14, she had become interested in her father’s line of work. Joe E. Ansah was then an established professional photographer in Sekondi and also the official photographer of President Tubman of Liberia. When he suggested to her to consider taking photography seriously, she agreed and became his apprentice.

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“I welcomed his proposal. I used to help him in the studio during school vacations and he had quietly observed my interest in the vocation,” Mrs Abban told the Public Agenda newspaper in a 1998 interview.

Under her father’s guidance, she mastered the intricacies of photography such as composition, exposure, developing, printing and retouching of negatives and the workings of cameras. At 18,
she married Richard Bonso Abban, an entrepreneur and a textile designer.

Her marriage meant she had to leave Sekondi and settle in Accra where she opened her studio called Quality Art Studio at Swalaba in 1955. That was when she earned the accolade of ‘Ghana’s first female professional photographer’.

Self-portraits

In the African Gaze book on photography and cinema in Africa which has a section on Mrs Abban, author Amy Sall wrote: “One of Mrs Abban’s signatures in her practice was the self-portrait.

She would ritually take photographs of herself before attending a party or a high-level event with her husband. Her self-portraits reflect a self-assured woman, elegantly dressed, hair beautifully coiffed, poised in a calm, cool and collected manner.

“These self-portraits were as much part of her creative and photographic practice as they were of her business strategy. They served as a subtle beckoning to prospective clients and an invitation to be photographed as they wanted to be seen.”

Mrs Abban played an important role in taking on both men and women as apprentices and introduced more women to photography as a profession. She was also a resource person at several photography workshops organised by the Ghana Union of Professional Photographers (GUPP), of which she was a founder member and President from 2000 to 2005.

In a tribute to their former President, GUPP stated: “Mrs Felicia Abban’s administration was able to achieve a lot of progress for GUPP. She was an educator who was always ready to correct our mistakes and advise us on how to do things right.”

Part of her children’s tribute said: “Throughout her life, our mother’s lens captured not just moments, but narratives of resilience, beauty and the very essence of Ghanaian existence.

“Through her groundbreaking work, she broke barriers and illuminated paths for countless women in the realm of photography. Her courage and dedication served as an inspiration not only to us, her daughters, but to generations of aspiring artists and photographers.”

Family of prominent creatives

Mrs Abban came from a family of prominent creative folks including her brothers, filmmaker Kwaw Ansah; musician and actor Tumi Ansah and the late fashion designer and couturier,  Kofi Ansah.

Her siblings touched on her welcoming, amiable nature when they referred in their tribute to the era of the Tokyo Joes in Accra’s political history:

“There was political upheaval at Bukom in Accra at a certain period.  A group called the Tokyo Joes ransacked and damaged properties. They used to come into Mrs Abban’s studio at Swalaba at the height of the upheaval and often said in Ga: “Mrs Abban lee wo gbomo ni ee. Moko akata ehe,” meaning “As for Mrs Abban, she’s ours. Nobody should touch her.”

“Some of the Tokyo Joes would sometimes come into the studio and say: “Mrs Abban, sha wo photo,” meaning “Mrs Abban, take photos of us” and they would light their cigarettes, blow out the smoke and pose for her.

Madam Ama Safo-Kantanka, a lover of history and the creative arts was spot on when she said in her tribute that: “May our Black Star nation give Mrs Felicia Abban a befitting homegoing and an honour worthy of her everlasting and impactful contribution to Ghana as a nation and in breaking the glass ceiling as a champion and trailblazer for women.”

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