Ibrahim Mahama and the art of resurrection
Egoing into the White Cube Gallery in London, visitors can hear the hum of busy machinery. It is not difficult to find the source of the sound: 100 old sewing machines have been lovingly restored and mounted on wooden school desks. A mix of Singer and Butterfly models, they come to life in groups, with those who have needles sewing invisible cloth.
“Capital Corpses” (2019-21, pictured) is the work of Ibrahim Mahama, a Ghanaian artist known for his large-scale works of jute bags. Made in Southeast Asia, jute bags are used in Ghana to transport cocoa beans. When the cocoa is emptied into ships for export, the bags are used by maize and rice traders and, finally, to transport charcoal. An earlier generation of Ghanaian artists used fresh, clean jute bags as their canvas. Mr. Mahama prefers old ones that refer to the past. “My interest was in the character, the history and the politics,” he says. Through these works he invites the viewer to his country’s place in the world economy, both historically and today.
Mr. Mahama, 34, has moved on from jute bags, but as “Lazarus”, the title of his new show, says, he is less interested in reviving ghosts and raising the dead. In addition to the sewing machines (which refer to the way in which many women, after failing the education system of Ghana, earn a living), the focus is on Nkrumah Voli-ni, an abandoned grain silo that the artist found in the city of Tamale, later giving it a new life as a cultural center.
The silo is one of several that were built in the hopeful hopes of the independence era and were left to rot after Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, was ousted in a coup in 1966. Rumors suggested that Nkrumah had planned them as prisons or that he was building tunnels to connect them to Accra, the capital. “My father’s generation grew up with the myth that these buildings were a place of crime,” Mr Mahama says.
A short film links the painstaking work of resurrecting Voli-ni with the patient craftsmanship of restoring the sewing machines. Along with bucket after bucket of sludge, snakes, frogs and the remains of fossils went out, but the resident bats remain: lifted and moved from the suspended position to stand upright, they are the equivalent of saints in a baroque frieze. The bats are pictured in a beautiful collage made of colonial-era maps and bank records, and commercial invoices from the post-independence years.
Mr. Mahama’s arrival at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology’s art college in 2006 coincided with a group of radical young professors, notably Kari’kacha Seid’ou, who was keen for his students to address the inequalities of the art world and the world at large. He taught them to draw and paint, but texts by Walter Benjamin, Karl Marx and Jacques Rancière were the beginning of any discussion. “In most art schools, students are trained to produce for the market,” Mr. Mahama says. “For us it was more about making work that would in some way change the relationship between art and the market – and create new forms of the market in the future.”
Collaboration was encouraged and demonstrations could take place anywhere, from cemeteries to warehouses, factories to markets, even buses. Mr Mahama stayed on to do his doctorate and today he is part of blaxTARLINES KUMASI, a staff and student organisation. Wearing that hat, he will have a collage included in “Ubuntu, a lucid dream”, a joint exhibition that opens at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris in November. Nelson Mandela popularized “Ubuntu”, a Bantu term that suggests equality and interdependence, but before that it was an idea that formed the basis of pan-Africanism at the time of independence. “Ibrahim plays a big role in decolonizing the imagination,” said Marie-Ann Yemsi, curator of the exhibition. “It was natural for me to invite him to be in a show that talks about the idea of building the world together. ”
The Design Museum in London has also commissioned Mr. Mahama. For “Waste Age: What can design do?”, which opens on October 23, he has produced a wall of 40 televisions, recovered, like the sewing machines, from Agbogbloshie, a scrap yard in Accra where much of Europe’s electronic waste is dumped, and then brought back to life. The televisions run films of their own repairs, while copper frames made of their wiring highlight the precious minerals in e-waste. What caught the eye of curator, Gemma Curtin, was “Mr Mahama’s interest in making things, the work that goes into it and the impact that process has on people and place”.
From October 24 the artist’s work will also be on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. “Afro-Atlantic Histories”, an exhibition that will tour Washington, Los Angeles and other American cities, will use a combination of fact and fiction in the spirit of Portugal. historians to recover stories that are often buried about the “black Atlantic” and the countries involved in slavery. It will combine jute work by Mr Mahama with Gobelins tapestries from the 18th century presenting beautiful images of plantation life. “Ibrahim’s work is a very important corrective to this idealized colonial view,” said Alison de Lima Greene, one of the curators.
Mr. Mahama plows the profits from the sale of his art back into cultural infrastructure projects in Ghana (Voli-ni is his third). Young Ghanaians are proud to say: “If the artist can do this with waste materials, what can we achieve?” Soon the galleries that want a piece of it may have to create a queue. ■
Ibrahim Mahama’s work is on view at White Cube, London, until November 7; the Design Museum, London, from 23 October to 20 February; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, from October 24 to January 17; and Palais de Tokyo, Paris, from November 26 to February 20