The famed Ghanaian artist discusses the context of his expansive works at Cape Town Art Fair

I meet with Ibrahim Mahama in the Apalazzogallery’s booth at the Investec Cape Town Art Fair, where Mahama has a Solo show. When I ask him to tell me about his journey, he laughs and tells me it has been about “trying to find out what art is”. This open-ended quest sets the tone for the tumbling of ideas that follow throughout our conversation. The Tamale-born Ghanaian artist actively grappled with his question ‘What is art?’ throughout his years of study and interrogation at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology where he earned a PHD in the subject and has led him to the enviable position he holds today as a revered maker of monumental objects around the world. He’s exhibited widely around Europe, South America and Africa, with shows at White Cube, Documenta14, Saatchi Gallery and more. Yet for all the success, he never ceases his questioning. It is the thread that binds his work together and it is never separate to his surroundings and his political and social context.

It was during his final year at university in 2015 that Mahama was invited to exhibit at the Venice Biennale. At the age of 26, the humble artist rose to fame with his installation, Out of Bounds. This piece was made from soiled jute sacks - which are typically used to transport coal, cocoa and tree bark across the continent - to create a large sculpture that hung heavenly – both physically and figuratively - across the ancient walls of the city.

These jute bag installations have become his signature and are a metaphor for the global condition of trade, migration and exchange. “Art reflects a collective history. It is a response to histories and specific spaces, such as buildings,” Mahama explains. Once his pieces segue into the buildings they are placed upon, they bare witness to the permanence and purpose of those solid structures.

“It’s not about facing West, it’s about facing forward”

In his home context, Mahama pays special attention to the architecture of the early 1960s after the country’s independence. Thanks to the rise in labour revolt and the charismatic leadership of President Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana experienced a time of great hope and development, armed with values of pan-African unity. Architecturally, this resulted to the industrious construction of huge grain silos and the general commercialisation of Ghana, now open for business, marking the positivity associated with trade and abundance. However, when the Nkrumah government was ousted by a coup in 1966, Ghana was left in a state of despair. Industrial buildings became derelict and still stand empty today, vessels of lost hope.

“That an abandoned project from an earlier century can inspire creativity in the current century, presents a hugely effective potential for the future,” reflects the artist. The hardy, hessian bags printed with black stamps delineating destinations or companies, now smudged with dirt and remnants of their contents, become Mahama’s building blocks. He seeks them out, trades new ones for the old ones, and stitches them into forms referencing the movement of trade and routes beyond borders; to arrivals and departures, and to hard labour and raw economics.

Labour of Many, currently on view at the Norval Foundation in Cape Town, was created, like many of this installation, by involving teams of people to ‘labour’ with him in public spaces in Ghana. “The monumental moment is the act of production: labour, working with memory, failure and learning, and despite all the limits I have back home, it gives me freedom,” he says. He collaborates with Ghanaians he meets in the various locations he works in. They are traders, artists and interested members of the public. By using materials and production methods that involve the hands of many, he creates meaning and value out of decay.

These works also speak to a greater conversation in their relationship to place. Africa is and was a playground for Europe, even the antithesis to the ideology of Modernity. Mahama is interested in the point of decay and the point of failure. Draping his work from silos with their futuristic architecture, to accommodate surplus and ambition, allows for a deeper acknowledgement of dilapidation, inadequacy and confusion in the post-independence era. “It’s not about facing West, it’s about facing forward,” he adds.

The legacy of hope in Ghana is reimagined by Mahama in his focus on the important role of institutions. He is building up the supportive role of the institution in Ghana by collaborating with universities and investing his own earnings to create artist spaces, creating museums and archives. Why? The idea is to build a new vision: “I’m interested in liberating Modernity, maybe we don’t have a name for it, but it needs to be accessible. How can artists create art beyond responding to existing art?”

Labour of Many is showing at the Norval Foundation, Cape Town, until 11 August 2019

Published on 28/02/2019