Ibrahim Mahama is a Ghanaian artist working in Accra, Kumasi, and Tamale. He has exhibited in galleries across the world, from Cape Town to Kyiv. But what makes his art unique is the radical challenge he presents to institutionalised forms of thinking about artistic production. In his most famous work, he sets out to deconstruct the ideological barriers that prevent us from envisaging creativity in mundane and quotidian places.
Ibrahim began by training at the Kwame Nkrumah University in Kumasi. There, he studied painting and sculpture based on the British curriculum of hand and eye. This division of labour was not, however, what he came to focus on. Yet he credits the university, and in particular, the generation of academics that came before him, with nurturing the methodological experimentalism that he now displays. Professor Sedu, an ardent reformist who clearly has a major impact on Ibrahim, encouraged students to build new inspirations into the discipline, rather than preoccupying themselves with the human body as was traditional to the curriculum.
Mahama became renowned for his work with jute sacks, parts of which were displayed in a 2017 exhibition at The White Cube, Bermondsey. These sacks accumulate in Ghana due to the one-sided trade the charcoal and cocoa industries established with India. The beautiful aesthetics of their hundred different shades – from oatmeal to taupe to camel to dark brown – were the primary factor in the decision to employ this material. But the redolence of diversity, which these large, stitched-up sheets of imperfect and immanently real objects gives off, also speaks to second conditioning that gives meaning to the work. The sacks are, in their everyday utilitarianism, not just objects for economic barter and trade. They also inform opportunities for people to eat, care for themselves, and to make money. Their importance in shaping the local’s lives, through the opening and closing of new and old possibilities, gives them an important standing in the existential schema. Chad A. Haag elaborates a philosophy of oil, which treats the natural resource as a keystone for the structuring of a technologized and highly enabled modern existence. The same can be said for these woven vessels. The global trade which affords Ghanaians the opportunity to access a plenitude of resources in new forms and guises is based upon the condition of being able to use these sacks for commodity exchange. Thus, in appropriating the material for his creative purpose, Mahama builds a commentary on this discarded quotidian object as fundamental to our very being.
Ibrahim departs from painting and sculpture in most of his work, to take up what most would call installation, and in doing so he opens up new opportunities for collaborative fabrication. Having grown up in a polygamous household – as is common in Ghana – being at home was like ‘being at a boarding school’. Working on something alone was the exception rather than the norm, and every activity was interpersonal. This reality was only exacerbated by his exposure to local schools, where everything was shared, and what was somebody else’s problem was your problem. In utilising non-gallery spaces, like the abandoned high-rise flat blocks from which the giant jute sheets were hung, he necessitates practical collaboration at every stage. It is simply not possible for one man to deal with the scales and environments he employs. Yet the power-with others afforded by this kind of socially generative art enters even into the level at which he conceptualises his work. Speaking on community attitudes, he conjects that if it were not for the supportive freedom which had been bestowed upon him by certain members, he never would have had the opportunity to develop his work in the extensive way that he has. When he was first collecting objets trouvés for use in his projects as a university student, he was met by scorn with some, who felt suspicious of his attachments and desire for objects that were sometimes personal to them. But it was those that let his curiosity run free and recognised his experimentalism first rather than relying on a recognition of the end product, which allowed him to do what he was doing. ‘Even though they’re making an artwork that possibly they do not understand, they want to see their outcome’. It was this affirmation of ambiguity, and support for his explorative and curious attitude toward life, that propelled him toward success.
Mahama’s work challenges constructed conceptions of the role of the artist through a third dimension – by employing discarded social spaces in the practice of creating, experiencing, and critiquing art. He works with Western institutions whilst bringing back knowledge, expertise, and resources to Accra. He also projects creative experience from the city into more rural areas. By allowing local exposure to art and to creative conceptual thinking through the Savannah Centre for Contemporary Arts in Tamale, he draws liminal constituencies into global systems and modes of thought.
Mahama reminds one of Dada – the 1920s push towards art as not merely the work of a singular, paintbrush-wielding hero. But his profound focus on materials – and a narrative that always comes back to those materials – lends him a different consistency. Inasmuch as he represents the progressive international success of Ghana in establishing itself as an art hub, we should be relieved that Africa is catching up to Asia as a locus of institutionally legitimated culture. He represented the nation spectacularly at Venice’s 2018 Biennale, in that regard. And the industry has the backing of the government, which not only increased spending in this area, but developed initiatives to celebrate Ghanaian culture in a mode of independence from Eurocentric thought embodied intellectually by the writers of the past in Négritude.
What remains to be seen is whether Mahama can push his deconstruction beyond sacks and shoeshine boxes and break into a new realm of artistic social thought. His exploration of the cultural framing of the practice of art stokes intrigue, and the embeddedness of the production process within the community raises modernist questions around provenance. But if Ibrahim wants to make his ideological voice heard, he needs to speak more loudly. He must bring the inventive quirkiness which stokes the conceptual tensions we find analytically into dialogue with the narrative that his aesthetics communicates. His embrace of found material is laudable. We eagerly await more.
In-Between the World and Dreams
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