Yvonne Osei, MFA ’16, is all about exploring the world and its history, finding your voice, and staying true to it. A multidisciplinary artist, she draws on her Ghanaian roots to create works of performance art, photographs, videos, clothing, and more. In demand as a speaker, she’s been a visiting scholar at universities in Accra, Kansas, and Indiana; given a TEDx talk in St. Louis; led a “Fashion and the Brain” collaborative workshop through the Missouri Institute of Mental Health; and leads training sessions for business professionals at COCAbiz. She was the 2016-17 Romare Bearden Graduate Minority Fellow at the Saint Louis Art Museum, the inaugural Curator-in-Residence for the Millstone Gallery at COCA, and has shown solo exhibitions at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis and the Bruno David Gallery, where she is represented.
Osei came to St. Louis from Ghana. She grew up in the capital city of Accra and would periodically visit Kumasi, a bustling metropolitan city in the Ashanti region, where she draws her inspiration and ancestral heritage. “It’s this really sophisticated culture that uses art as a way to transmit complex cultural values from one generation to the next,” she said. “It’s done with chairs, with clothing, with umbrellas. It’s a whole system of artistry that transports complex communication from one person to the next.”
Her educational experience in Ghana was rooted in the British educational system. She was taught colonial history from a Western perspective, and her foundational art education in Ghana was also subjugated to colonial influences. “I figured early on that if I’m going to be taught Western art, I might as well come to the West and learn firsthand,” said Osei. She notes that she wanted an education that allowed her to explore multiple areas and disciplines. As an undergraduate at Webster University, she studied art and international studies with a focus in human rights. She went on to pursue her MFA in Visual Art at WashU’s Sam Fox School, graduating in 2016.
For Osei, one of the best things about WashU was its professors. “They really are invested in what you’re doing and what’s next in your career,” said Osei. Professor Denise Ward Brown “nurtured in me the principle that your voice is valid and authentically you,” she notes, “and doing an independent study in anthropology with Kedron Thomas [then an associate professor at WashU] was really transformational for my body of work.” Osei holds that one of the most important things she learned as a student was to stand by what she creates and speak her truth, regardless of what others may think. “When I was at WashU,” she said, “I was always interacting with the community-students, staff and professors in social work, biology, mathematics … it deepened my understanding of the possibility for art to affect different disciplines and vice versa.”
St. Louis played an integral role in Osei’s education and still influences her work today. “St. Louis has a lot of incredible things going for it.,” she said. “It has its challenges, but it also has hopes, dreams, and beauty. It’s rich in culture. People are friendly. You can build a strong community here. And there’s also space for making mistakes and being experimental.”
When Osei works, she lets the idea dictate her mediums and process. “I might think the work is going to end up as a photograph,” she said, “but a few years down the line, I’m using photographs to create textiles, and then I’m using the textiles as garments for a performance. The mediums start to merge and dance and transform.”
“What inspired me to create the body of work I’m making now — and what I’ve devoted my career to — is wanting to live in a better society, better community, and better world,” Osei said. She finds that art is an exciting platform because it allows different perspectives, encourages critical thinking, and challenges long-held ideas. “One of the things I care about is how to foster unity. How do you start to shift and change hearts, accept others and welcome different ways of seeing the world than you’ve come to know?”
Osei calls herself an “outdoor artist” because she believes there is a unique energy in a public space. “I get a lot of fulfillment with how people interact with my work,” she said. “There are conversations and inspirational nuggets I attain when making work in public spaces — whether it’s interacting with a four-year-old, or a couple in a garden … those authentic interactions are so raw and rare. You can’t get those kinds of interactions anywhere else.”
She has a number of upcoming projects, including traveling to Seychelles in East Africa to explore its strategic location and colonial history. Osei also opened two exhibitions this spring: an exhibition at Lambert International Airport called Here to Stay, which celebrates Black women and their elegance and contributions to society; and a public installation titled “While You’re Still Here” on the Jefferson Avenue bridge located between Chouteau Avenue and Scott Avenue as part of Counterpublic, a triennial civic exhibition. “There are a lot of projects that I’m very proud of because of how they fostered interracial and intergenerational conversations,” Osei said. “I’m yearning to grow and be all that I can and give all that I can. I think my proudest moment is yet to come.”
The Bruised, The Burdened, The Laborer and The Naked
Pillar Two: Truth Through Her Eyes*, 2021
“The Regional,” Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, Ohio
Photo - Wes Battoclette
Africa Clothe Me Bare, Bloomington, 2019
Photo – courtesy of the artist and Bruno David Gallery
Photo - courtesy of the artist and Bruno David Gallery
Great Rivers Biennial 2022, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis
Photo - Dusty Kessler
Yvonne Osei is a Ghanaian multidisciplinary artist whose practice spans performance art, video, photography, textile design, garment construction, and site-specific installations. Her work addresses limitations and omissions in history, structural racism, the politics of clothing, and the residual implications of colonialism in postcolonial West Africa and Western cultures. Osei uses her voice to redefine and disrupt dominant narratives. Through her public interventions, she pushes against cultural amnesia and reimagines public space to include the perspectives of those who have been silenced.
Osei earned her master of fine arts from Washington University, where she was a Chancellor’s Graduate Fellow, Mr. and Mrs. Spencer T. Olin Fellow, and Danforth Scholar. She holds a master of science in fashion design and business from Lindenwood University and a bachelor of fine arts from Webster University. She is the recipient of the 2018 St. Louis Visionary for Emerging Artist, the 2018 Creative Stimulus Award, the 2019 Futures Fund Grant, the 2022 Stone & DeGuire Contemporary Art Award, and the 2022 Great Rivers Biennial Arts Award.
Osei has performed and exhibited nationally and internationally, including Everson Museum of Art (Syracuse), Contemporary Arts Center (Cincinnati), Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art (Kansas City), Laumeier Sculpture Park (St. Louis), Lambert International Airport (St. Louis), The Africa Center (Harlem), the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis, Ariana Park (Geneva, Switzerland), Asafo Market (Kumasi, Ghana), Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Lisbon, Portugal) and Bruno David Gallery (St. Louis) where she is represented. She serves as the Vice President for Surface Design Association, an international organization that champions textile and fiber arts.