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Issue 222

How Ibrahim Mahama's Installations Exhume Political Ghosts

With a solo show at London’s White Cube, Ibrahim Mahama speaks with Vanessa Peterson about Ghana’s post-independence era, architecture and the importance of his collaborators


BY Ibrahim Mahama AND Vanessa Peterson in Features , Interviews | 06 OCT 21

Vanessa Peterson You’re best-known for your monumental installations using jute sacks, such as Out of Bounds (2015) which was shown at the 56th Venice Biennale, ‘All the World’s Futures’. What led you to use jute as your primary material?

Ibrahim Mahama I started thinking about jute sacks in 2011. On my way to visit a friend in Burkina Faso, I had to wait at the Ghanaian border for a long time. I watched various trucks transporting food and other produce in these jute sacks, and thought to myself: why is it easier for trucks to travel across borders than humans? When I returned from that trip, I started to remake some of my existing sculptures using jute bags.

Produced in Southeast Asia, the sacks are imported into Ghana for bagging and transporting cocoa beans grown by local farmers. Traders cut open the sacks and empty the cocoa into containers that travel on to places like Europe, but issues like insect infestation mean they can only be used once. Afterwards, they end up in the hands of local rice and maize traders, who write their names onto the sacks. This is when the material begins to live, becoming an extension of the traders’ bodies. Eventually, the sacks will be used to transport charcoal: that’s the point of no return because they cannot then be used for anything else. Visually and materially, the jute sack represents the history of Ghana’s post-independence era. I ask traders to swap their old, marked jute sacks for newer, unmarked, untorn ones, so that I can use them in my installations.

Jute sack installations at the Venice Biennale 2015
Ibrahim Mahama, Out of Bounds, 2015, installation view. Courtesy: © the artist and White Cube; photograph: © Ibrahim Mahama

VP Collaborators are integral to your practice – from helping you sew the jute sacks together to installing your works.

IM The collaborators I worked with in the beginning were people I met at local markets – generally those who had travelled down from northern Ghana, where employment prospects are poor. I talked to them about the work I was doing, and many of them declined to participate at first because they found it odd: why is this university graduate going around collecting these old, tattered materials? He must be some kind of ritualist!

The first installation I did with jute sacks was at Mallam Atta market in Accra in 2012. The people I met at the market that day were so enthused about the work, they installed it themselves. Normally, artists work with art handlers, but these were ordinary people whose lives had been shaped by the same conditions the work attempts to describe, so their contribution went a long way. After that first project, I managed to hire collaborators who, over time, began to offer their own suggestions and recommend new collaborators. That’s how my practice has developed and expanded.

VP How many of your collaborators have spoken to you about the theoretical elements of your practice, in relation to trade, labour and economics?

IM Almost all of them. From the beginning, convincing the women of the market was key, as they needed to understand the work before they would allow me to intervene and exhibit in their workplace. I wouldn’t have been able to create any of these installations without their permission, so they had to understand my thinking: that element of trust is so important. Even if my ideas sounded nonsensical, I hoped they would have space in their own thinking for absurdity. For most people in society, that isn’t possible: everything must make sense. These collaborators have been a gift to me because, without that room in their thinking for these absurdities, I couldn’t have even started in this philosophical or ideological dimension.

Collaborators install jute sacks to Ghana's national theatre
Ibrahim Mahama, Malam Dodoo National Theatre, 19922016, 2016, installation view. Courtesy: © the artist and White Cube; photograph: © Ibrahim Mahama

VP How does your interest in architecture – especially the ways in which Ghana’s architectural history is informed by European colonialism – inform your practice?

IM When I was doing my MFA at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, between 2011 and 2013, I was predominantly interested in working with buildings that had been neglected – those built between 1957, the year of Ghana’s independence, and the late 1960s. Many of these structures were abandoned after Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, was overthrown in a military coup in 1966. You can find entire ecological systems within them: plants grow through the floors of abandoned factories; cassava winds its way through the train tracks of the old railway.

The sculpture I proposed for London’s 2022 Fourth Plinth commission, On Hunger and Farming in the Skies of the Past 1957–1966, was to be a reconstruction of an abandoned grain silo. Built around the country to store grains and other foods, these silos were supposed to transform post-independence Ghana into an economically independent nation. When Nkrumah was overthrown, both his ideological principles and these buildings were abandoned, seen as places of damnation. My view is that we do not need to look at the world this way. We can imagine what might have been and use it to resurrect old ideas, old potential, old spaces.

I have since bought one of these silos in Tamale, northern Ghana. When I originally acquired it, I discovered there were plants, bacteria, fish, owls and bats living within the building. Any architect who finds bacteria, microorganisms or plants while renovating a space would ordinarily remove them so that humans could occupy the space again, but I was interested in observing how these species were cohabiting within the silo and the kind of habitat they had formed inside.

The name of the silo is Nkrumah Voli-ni. In Dagbani, voli-ni means ‘inside the hole’. The word links to propaganda spread by the CIA after Nkrumah was overthrown that he was building these silos as detention centres for his political opponents, that an army would come to Tamale, and that the structures concealed entrances to tunnels which stretched all the way to Accra. If you deconstruct the language, voli can also mean ‘to excavate’, ‘to exhume’, ‘to transform’. I was more interested in that element of transformation – of resurrection – within what everyone thought of as a place of damnation.

View of Nkrumah Volini, Tamale
Ibrahim Mahama, Nkrumah Voli-ni, 2020. Courtesy: © the artist and White Cube; photograph: © Ibrahim Mahama

VP You use words like ‘exhume’ of inanimate objects – whether jute sacks or grain silos – rendering them almost human, in conversation with other-worldly spirits. In Exchange-Exchanger (2014), a monograph published for Documenta 14, some collaborators reference the ways in which market traders you have worked with believe their souls, or part of themselves, are attached to the jute sacks. Parliament of Ghosts, the installation commissioned for Manchester International Festival in 2019, includes transcribed minutes from previous Ghanaian governments and old seats from trains arranged in rows found in a parliamentary setting. The political ghosts appear to be sat alongside us in the railway seats.

IM Parliament of Ghosts was an interesting project because it gave me the opportunity to collect historical materials from the old, neglected Ghana Railways. Ghanaian railway infrastructure was another example of plans which failed to materialise after being abandoned by several governments and political parties. At the time, I was also thinking about global history in relation to Manchester and the impact of the Industrial Revolution. The work took two forms: in Manchester, it was built as a work of art installed in a museum; afterwards, it was removed and rebuilt in Tamale as a space rather than an artwork. The seats enable visitors to sit amongst one another and to converse and debate. It’s now a site of dialogue.

I’m interested in the point where the relationship between the material and society, or the space it finds itself in, breaks down. I bring jute into the realm of art, which transforms it into a commodity more valuable than the cocoa beans it once contained. Is it possible for me to utilize these contradictions posed within my practice by taking these exhumed and salvaged objects, like the railways and the sacks, and producing artworks that become capital-generating commodities installed in institutions? I can then re-invest the capital raised by the sale of these jute works to buy the silo and excavate it back to what it was in 1966, to what it should have been. I’m interested in these voids in history. We’re like time travellers: we now know how history plays out, how capital becomes more brutal. What decisions could we have made differently? I rely a lot on science fiction, on paradoxes: how can you go back in time to influence the future?

VP The titles of some of your works offer clues to your interest in science fiction. The time spans referenced in NO STOPPING NO PARKING NO LOADING. UNITY HALL 1957–2057 (2015), for instance, or Check Point Sekondi Loco 1901–2030 (201617) project into unknown futures. What do those timelines and years signify?

IM When I was producing these artworks, I was interested in looking not only at how the past has shaped the present but also how you can anticipate the past. Sometimes, when the years in a title stretch far into the future, it’s because I’m indicating that the work or an idea is still in progress. I’m informed by theories, political movements and conversations which took place before I was born. A lot of the works I produce manifest in ideas as opposed to just a physical object. The physical object is important, but you cannot reduce the work down to just that. I try as much as possible to project into the future.

SCCA in Tamale
Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art, Tamale, Ghana, undated. Courtesy: © the artist and White Cube; photograph: © Ibrahim Mahama

VP You have established three centres of contemporary art: Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art (SCCA), Red Clay and, most recently, Nkrumah Voli-ni. Why was it important for you to build those spaces?

IM There is a huge deficit in Ghana with regards to arts infrastructure: in terms of both expertise and spaces. At the same time, we’ve been gifted with all these amazing sites and resources over the last century, many of which have been abandoned. I was interested in how artists can contribute to a shift in narrative, not just in relation to art, but in thinking more generally about previous generations. For a long time, I felt that contemporary art had failed – both in Ghana and further afield – because it relied too much on financial capital and form, without considering the freedoms and ideals embedded within the work. I thought that those ideals could be disseminated by creating institutions.

SCCA was originally intended to be a studio for practising artists. I then realized there was potential to convert it into an institution to exhibit 20th century art by Ghanaian artists. We’ve had two retrospectives so far: Kofi Dawson in 2019, curated by Bernard Osei-Jackson, and Agyeman Ossei in 2020, co-curated by Adwoa Amoah, Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh and Tracy Naa Koshie Thompson. Our most recent show, ‘A Diagnosis of Time: Unlearn What You Have Learned’, is a collaboration with Aarhus Art Museum and the Ghana Museums and Monuments Board from which we’ve loaned historical materials, exploring non-linear time and histories on the African continent, alongside contemporary works by artists such as Sammy Baloji, Zanele Muholi and Billie Zangewa. Following on from SCCA, I launched Red Clay in 2020 and Nkrumah Voli-ni in 2021. Currently, I’m working on building a school as part of Red Clay, which is due to launch at the end of the year. I use the profits from my shows with White Cube to build these institutions. Ever since these spaces opened, you can see the social and cultural transformation in the local area.

VP You’ve also been able to provide electricity, running water and other amenities to neighbourhoods in the vicinity of your institutions.

IM Yes. However, these are things the government should be doing. Today, I got a phone call from a company saying that they were watching an interview with me on Ghanaian television and they wanted to install solar panels on all three institutions for free because they were so excited by the project’s potential. They had never seen anything like this before. Things felt hopeless until quite recently, but it seems like they’re changing. You can see political awareness and activism spreading online. You’re beginning to see young Ghanaians saying: ‘This is what we need in this country. If this artist can do it with scrap materials, how much can we achieve?’

Ibrahim Mahama collage
Ibrahim Mahama, PARAD(W/M)E III, 2021, litho print and archive paper collage, 97.4 × 112.8 cm. Courtesy: © the artist and White Cube

VP For your current solo exhibition at White Cube, you produced a new series of collages and drawings, shown alongside two large installations. These smaller scale works prompt me to reflect on the aesthetic qualities of your work. How important is beauty to you?

IM I originally trained as a painter, so I do look at things from a formal perspective.  I produced new collages which are on show at White Cube. Composition, texture and colour are important to me in terms of using old archival materials to create collages. Beauty comes in many forms: sometimes, it’s as much about effort as aesthetics. People see my jute sack works and say: ‘Can you imagine all those people sewing these jute sacks together for so many months? That’s a lot of work: that’s really beautiful!’ People working together to produce something new from all this waste can also be incredibly beautiful.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 222 with the headline ‘Interview: Ibrahim Mahama’

Main image: Ibrahim Mahama, Malam Dodoo National Theatre, 1992–2016, 2016, installation view. Courtesy: © the artist and White Cube; photograph: © Ibrahim Mahama

Ibrahim Mahama is an artist. Mahama uses the transformation of materials to explore themes of commodity, migration, globalisation and economic exchange. His solo exhibition at White Cube, Bermondsey is on view until 7 November. He lives in Tamale, Ghana.

Vanessa Peterson is associate editor of frieze. She lives in London, UK.