Saman Archive’s new residency programme explores unconventional ways to experience photography, film and performance in Ghana
“What I want to explain to you is that photography is a secret. In the sense that everything you do, belongs to someone. You have an information.”
Collins (photographer), Volta Region, Ghana. Interviewed for Saman Archive in 2016
“…photography is a secret. The secret in it being that you can go to a programme and sometimes a man and a woman will be dancing. You take them picture. Or a man and a woman will be at a table, they ask you to take them photograph. The man might be somebodies husband. Or the woman might be somebodies wife. You may not know, so when this person’s husband or wife sees this picture, they can say, “look, my husband is having another woman outside me.” So it becomes a conflict. Where did you see it? Didn’t I see you wearing this dress at this bar? Then the photograph becomes evidence. In the sense that everything you do belongs to someone. You have an information, so if you take the picture, you don’t take your mouth and talk and tell any body.”
Mr Asare (photographer), Greater Accra, Ghana. Interviewed for Saman Archive in 2017
On Saturday 8 December, a group of Accra creatives gathered in an out of the way movie house. In its kitsch rooms (each named after football grounds), fake flowers and coloured lights framed film, installation and performance as a gesture in reframing how we think and talk about image making and story telling traditions, and what the boundaries of an art experience could be. Ghanaian movie houses have seedy reputations. Spaces where it is common for men to take sex workers and for couples to turn to in search of affordable privacy, these movie houses are ubiquitous - commonly known but unspoken. They are therefore ideal sites for viewing moving image works and opening up the conversations about things we don’t talk about.
In recent months, Accra has seen Serge Attukwei Clottey’s 360 La open studio exhibition in Accra’s Labadi township and the Limbo Accra inaugural exhibition, a takeover of one of the city’s plentiful unfinished buildings. These exhibitions demonstrate a growing interest in taking artistic engagement outside of the gallery and outside of the designated geographic limits of the city’s affluence and therefore where the most visible artistic interactions are concentrated.
This latest gathering was the launch of Wontumi Ntaaki, an Accra-based residency programme into film, photography and performance initiated by Saman Archive: an archive of photographic negatives that I have collected in Ghana since 2015 as part of my doctorial research. Translated as “You can’t tackle (him/her/them/us/me)”, Wontumi Ntaaki is a retro term, used when someone looks particularly well turned out, that speaks to popular readings of photographic practice. Over the coming months Wontumi Ntaaki will be hosting various artists from Ghana, elsewhere in West Africa, and the African diaspora more broadly.
The launch took as a point of departure the relationship between photography and secrecy that has emerged through Saman Archive’s research activities (see above interview quotes). The event was interested in boundaries between the unsaid and unsayable, the unknown and unknowable, the hidden and private, and that which we struggle to articulate. The programme focused on works that explored the tensions between public posturing and private concealment, what one shows the world and doesn’t, the stories we do and don’t tell about ourselves and what we can assert and what we must repress.
On the day, a technical difficulty changed the show format and how the audience could engage with the programming. When one lives outside of the big art centres, it is easy to give off an impression that masks the realities on the ground, but that is to the detriment of the artists and context. Instead openness, agility and learning how to tell more complete stories are the Saman Archive’s primary objective. This technical mishap opened up another thread of conversation about the particularities of artistic practice in Ghana. The problems the launch faced were equal parts an organisational oversight, the manifestation of issues related to geographic proximity, realities of economics and infrastructural challenges. As such, works were experienced differently than planned, by fewer people than was ideal, but in that there was a test. Was there a willingness to own what didn’t work or was saving face more important than integrity?
The audience was invited to the eight-room movie house outside the centre of Accra, and each room was meant to house a different installation or film. However necessary changes were made, the private rooms primarily became reflective spaces and the show went on. Visitors instead were invited to make selections from the programmed films in the communal space, a green room complete with oversized toy cars, green plastic grass and football inspired cushions.
Available were six groupings of films addressing notions of self-presentation, belief, family life, gendered experience and sexuality, the nature of artistic practice and the process of self-realisation. The films were selected from artists across Africa and the diaspora, as well as those who address an element of black subjectivity or tell stories situated on the continent. Rhea Dillon’s Process (read Nataal’s interview with her here) opened the screenings, a short exploration of the styling and upkeep of afro hair. This film introduced the audience into the space by delving into an element of black self-presentation so often kept in the private realm.
Next were Practice by British photographer Harley Weir, Prince by Polish artist Wojtek Doroszuk and Contact by British Nigerian artist Seye Isikalu. These films profile Leroy Mokgatle, a 17-year-old ballet dancer from Pretoria, South Africa, Elohim ‘Prince’ Ntsiete, a young Congolese man known in Brazzaville for dressing up and performing as Michael Jackson, and Lagos-born artist Kadara Enyeasi respectively. These works opened up the conversation about the position that creative practices occupy on the continent.
Adeyemi Michael’s Entitled, Agya by 33 Bound and Fatherhood by Iggy LDN (read Nataal’s interview with Iggy here) addressed the various ways we understand family dynamics and the ways in which immigrants maintain their connections to home. To open up the questions around faith and belief, particularly poignant in Accra where the political power and influence of churches are unavoidable, Akinola Davies Jr’s Marks Of Worship, Finding Saint by Jordan Hemingway and Genesis by 33 Bound were also screened.
Stephen Isaac-Wilsons Day Dream, Birth, a collaboration between writer and director Donald Crunk and dancer Odilia Egyiawan, and Boy, You Are Beautiful by Dafe Oboro both explored the boundaries of gendered expectation, sexuality and intimacy in queer black spaces. Finally, Pathways, a collaboration between performer 3niy3 and director Samuel Douek, and the premiere of How Many Of Us Are We? by Chukwuka Nwobi, addressed the nature of becoming.
Two further rooms in the movie house were occupied by two radical artists. crazinisT artisT (Va-Bene Fiatsi), a Ghanaian Togolese performance artist took over the pink room, named after Old Trafford, and re-presented froZen, a work in dialogue with questions of becoming, gendered experience and sexuality emerging in some of the films. Further along, Nana Baffour Awuah occupied Stamford Bridge, a dark blue room in which he recreated various shrines. More a specialist in the metaphysics of African art and spirituality than an artist in the sense that most viewers would understand, his shrine spilled out into the pink corridor where an absurdist juxtaposition of African deities shared a space with digital canvases of flowers. By doing so, Baffour Awuah created a zone were he could be consulted on questions of spirituality and history.
After setting the tone for open, difficult and multiple conversations, Saman Archive looks forward to moving forward with this in mind and developing collaborative relationships with the artists that will be joining us in Accra in the near future.