African culture, history at Gyamerah Imports
- Published: July 9, 2023
From a Dayton Street storefront, local resident Gyamfi Gyamerah hopes to do more than sell West African art — he wants to make cultural connections.
Gyamerah Imports, owned and operated by Gyamerah, is located at 136 Dayton St., tucked inside Rose & Sal Mercantile. The shop’s offerings include statues, busts, masks, textile art and clothing sourced from, or based on the diverse cultures of the continent of Africa. With personal ties to aspects of some of those cultures — Gyamerah’s father was Akan, one of the major ethnicities of Ghana — the local business owner told the News in a recent interview that one of his aims in opening Gyamerah Imports is education.
“The whole essence of my gallery is to introduce and reintroduce to all people, but specifically African Americans, the story of all these different cultures that we lost when we got here — because that story is almost gone today,” Gyamerah said.
He later added, via email: “The art I share in my gallery is an effort to bring parity to those images and instincts that we (diaspora Black people) have left behind, that are still useful into the future.”
Retired from military service and a career as a mental health professional in Columbus, Gyamerah moved to the Miami Valley nearly five years ago — though he said that wasn’t originally his plan.
“When I retired, I came here on my way out west, and I met [fellow local resident] Laura Curliss — and I’ve been here ever since,” he said, laughing.
Gyamerah is well-known by many around Yellow Springs as a drummer, having performed at Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Juneteenth celebrations and as part of the Afro-Cuban Afracanacosa group — which also includes local musicians Nathan Hardman, Teresa Misty Monée, David Diamond, Ed Knapp and Curliss — at PorchFest and elsewhere in southeast Ohio; he also leads drumming classes, teaching West African djembe and dundun and Cuban conga in the village. Before moving into the storefront, Gyamerah was also a frequent street vendor in town, selling the same types of items he now offers on Dayton Street — sometimes to high-profile buyers.
“One of my first street sales was to [musician] Questlove,” Gyamerah said. “He bought a necklace that I made myself with a Benin figure and head on it — I gave him a good deal, too!”
He added: “My first celebrity brick-and-mortar sale was to none other than the most beautiful woman in the world, [model] Naomi Campbell. She bought a Senegalese birthing chair.”
Celebrity encounters aside, Gyamerah said what he values most about the pieces in his shop — which he sources from sellers in Ethiopia and Ghana and from longtime Columbus-based business, Black Art Plus — are the opportunities for them to be viewed by the wider public. He has curated installations of his pieces at both the Coretta Scott King Center at Antioch College and the Edward A. Dixon Gallery in Dayton.
Beyond exposure, Gyamerah said he also aims to contextualize the pieces culturally and historically. By way of example, when telling this reporter about a pair of pieces he sold in the past depicting the figures of Ausar and Auset — more familiar to most westerners as Egyptian gods Osiris and Isis — he referred to Egypt by one of its ancient indigenous names, Kemet, placing the region within its African context.
“I had Ausar and Auset with their one left foot in front of the other, which you’ll see in all the Kemetic art,” Gyamerah said, adding that the style, called “kouros,” was originated by the Kemetics and borrowed by ancient Greeks. “They told the story of the Ausarian Drama — a virgin birth and resurrection story that is thousands of years older than the Judeo-Christian story. When I sold the art, I got to tell that story.”
A good number of his customers, he said, already know much of the history around the kinds of pieces he sells — indeed, that’s why they come to his shop. But for those who don’t — particularly those whose ancestries, like his, are tied to the African continent — he said he feels a sense of urgency around helping establish those cultural connections before they’re lost.
“There’s so much to recapture,” Gyamerah said. “Our culture, whether you’re Yoruba, Twi, Hausa — all of that was taken when we got here.”
He added: “And [that culture] was replaced by Abrahamic religions.”
When the transatlantic slave trade stole people from the African continent and took them west to Europe or North America, it also often meant stripping those people of their long-held cultural traditions and practices. In the cases of those enslaved in the U.S., Gyamerah said, that meant being forced into the mores and practices of Christianity.
“Most African Americans are Christian now,” he said. “The tragedy is that we don’t teach the story that it wasn’t a choice. African Americans didn’t choose to be Christian; it was forced from day one. Postbellum, you wouldn’t be respected unless you came out of the church. And that took almost the rest of Africa out of us. … I want to reintroduce some of what we lost.”
Meditating on the same theme, Gyamerah added that his Yellow Springs store is a subsidiary of his wider, online business, Gye Nyame Enterprises, LLC. The name is drawn, he said, from a term in the Twi language of the Akan that is translated as meaning “except creation.” Gyamerah added, however, that the term is often mistranslated.
“It means, ‘there is nothing except creation’ — but Christianity has co-opted the term to mean ‘except God,’” he said.
His perspective on the dominance of religion, particularly Christianity, in American cultural life is something he’s been passionately vocal about in the public arena. Earlier this year, at a Greene County Board of Commissioners meeting, he spoke out against including public prayer as part of government proceedings; commissioners later voted at that same meeting to adopt a policy to begin each meeting with a prayer. His concerns about the ubiquity of religion were also part of a speech he gave at this year’s Juneteenth celebration.
“I said, ‘You’re not going to hear this, most likely, in your synagogue, your church or your mosque, and you’re definitely not going to hear it in your public or private schools.’ Then I talked about the maafa — that’s the Kiswahili term for the destruction of Black bodies,” Gyamerah said. “The big tragedy — the big maafa — is that African Americans mostly don’t know who we are, but the end chapter is that we don’t want to know, either.”
To that end, Gyamerah said he and fellow local resident Michael Slaughter plan to lead an African studies book club at the library this year. Books on the club’s reading list will include Carter G. Woodson’s 1933 work “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” “Yurugu” and “Let the Circle be Unbroken” by anthropologist and African studies scholar Marimba Ani and “Star Messenger” by scientist Neil DeGrasse Tyson; more information on the book club will be announced in a later issue of the News.
The upcoming book club, as well as his work through Gyamerah Imports, he said, represent a dedication to connecting the threads of African and African American histories.
“Our history is a continuum — the narrative is the same, there’s just water between us,” he said. “If you don’t have a past, you don’t have a present. And if you don’t have a present, how can you have a future?”
Gyamerah Imports is located at 136 Dayton St. For more information, visit http://www.shopgyenyame.com.