IF THE T-SHIRT FITS.. — ZOHRA OPOKU AD[DRESSES] ACCRA!


CONTEMPORARY GHANAIAN ART AND SOCIAL ISSUES

Not too many contemporary artists, especially in Ghana venture outside the box to implement their ideologies in tandem with social issues or use their artworks as a form of [in]direct social commentary the way artist Zohra Opoku does. She has installed 5 billboards at vantage points in Accra on which ‘unwanted’ clothes from Accra’s Kantamanto market are pinned in style metaphorically depicting the statement “putting your dirty linen in public”.

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Who is wearing my T-shirt? The BillboardProject (2014). Photo Courtesy: Artist

Other Ghanaian artists worth noting are Attukwei, who uses yellow gallons which are usually used to collect drinking water found in polluted areas in his vicinity as part of interactive public performances, sculptures and installations not forgetting Bernard Akoi Jackson; a multi-disciplinary who uses his painting, installation and performance art in interrogating pre and post-colonial African identities and more.

ZOHRA OPOKU’S ARTISTIC JOURNEY

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(WoMen ON BIKES, Chale Wote Festival 2012, photo credit: Accra [dot] alt)
The first Zohra Opoku project that I came across was the WoMen ON BIKES Interdisciplinary Workshop in 2011; a fashion/art workshop that was put in place to explore the limits and possibilities of usability of bikes in urban West African spaces and in particular the significance they could have for women as a tool of empowerment. The following year, she was in action doing an installation performance involving pieces of Kente prints installed in a linear structure along the paved Jamestown streets aside mixed media of an Afro-futuristic representation of a woman on a bike. She personally rode a BMX in style throughout the day at the Chale Wote street art festival 2012.  
As a German/Ghanaian fashion designer, who has now made art her home, Zohra Opoku has been known to make bold aesthetic statements through textile and fashion culture related to African history, hybridizing trends and migrations between Africa and its diaspora. Her work spans the creative application of media and styles such textiles and fashion objects through installations, photography, video and street style intervention. She lives and works in Accra, Ghana. The cardinal question behind her artistic alacrity is the subject of identity.

THE POLITICS OF SECONDHAND CLOTHING

Whether it is a hot afternoon in Accra, when busy people invade the thighs of the traffic jammed streets of dressed in their best bib and tucker or calm dusk inhaling the soothing crisp mood the atmosphere invents, secondhand clothing (locally termed obroni waawu) has been a prime aspect of the fashion Ghanaian citizens have known.

The global trade of secondhand clothing has had a long and important history even since mid 19th century, affecting industrialization, mass production and economies. As we see in the table below, sub-Saharan Africa has been the most heavily hit:

Region Secondhand Clothing as % of all imports (2003, by value)
Eastern Europe & ex-USSR 4.7%
East Asia & Pacific 0.7%
Latin America & Caribbean 3.8%
Middle East & North Africa 2.2%
South Asia 15.0%
Sub-Saharan Africa 26.8%

Even during Europe’s colonial days, secondhand clothes were shipped to the colonies. Since the 2nd World War the secondhand clothing trade has grown considerably globally. It’s a big question of whether it’s a recycling option or a method of promoting the ideologies of sustainability and environmentalism or as a cost-conscious approach on the side of the consumers. In “The impact of the secondhand clothing trade on developing countries” by Sally Baden and Catherine Barber (September 2005), it was argued that “Increasingly cheap [secondhand clothing] imports are competing with local production, while supply-side constraints undermine the efficiency of the domestic industry.” The trade is also “mainly informal, poorly regulated, and in some instances has facilitated considerable customs fraud as new clothing imports are passed off as used clothing”.

Research has shown that textile recycling warehouses, where secondhand clothes are graded have become very important in the secondhand industry. There’s the division of the secondhand clothes into sorted ones which are compressed into standard bales of 50 kg while unsorted ones can be packed into bales of 500 to 1000 kg. The lower graded clothing is shipped to Africa and Asia while the better graded used clothing is exported to Central American Countries.

Some countries, including India and the Philippines have put a ban on the import of used or pre-owned clothes, in an attempt to safeguard the local garment industry. Other counties which have no or limited control include South Africa, Pakistan or Uganda because of their burgeoning Textile Industry. South Asia, Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands and Hungary are the countries where the sites for commercial sorting of secondhand clothes are situated.

BBC 2, MailOnline, and The Telegraph on Monday,14th July, 2014 in the UK, claimed that Ghanaian traders were able to make up to £25,000 a day from secondhand clothing from UK charity shops. It is estimated that, Ghana imports 30,000 tons of secondhand clothes each year. An importer of used clothes, Mr Obed Yeboah, stated that ladies’ panties and brassieres are priced between GH¢150 and GH¢450 per bale.

BILLBOARD ART, PUBLIC SPACE, FASHION AND IDENTITY

Billboard marketing can be seen almost everywhere you go these days and at any hour. Billboards and outdoor advertising are known to be mass media tools needed to make a big impact and to raise a company’s profile and deliver results. It has been a staple in the marketing industry for some time now.

As a nationwide celebration of America’s artistic heritage, digital billboards across New York’s Times Square have been used to display images of 58 classic and contemporary works of American art. This happened between August 4th and 31st, 2014, officially marking the start of ‘Art Everywhere US’. As many as 50,000 digital and static displays in all 50 states including billboards on city streets and rural highways became platforms for art. The difference here is Zohra Opoku’s application of textiles (mixed media) as sculpture compositions on billboards to address a pertinent social issue.

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Who is wearing my T-shirt? The BillboardProject (2014). Photo Courtesy: Artist

Zohra Opoku’s ideas and philosophies concerning her art in public places carry clout. In Bart Verschaffel’s paper “Public Truth and Public Space”, he mentions that; “The public space is meant for free exploration, free association and free assembly..In a democratic society, where the decisions concerning society are, in principle, taken in public, this implies that the freely accessible public space is also the political space.”The public space which also serves as the political space is the prominent platform for Zohra’s social artistry and as much as identity is one of the most imperative concepts in human livelihoods while fashion is undoubtedly involved in [re]constructions of identity, there’s much to digest from the exhibition. Zohra Opoku thought-provokingly asks; “If clothes make up our identity and culture, what happens to our identity, when the clothes are changed?”

By Kwame ‘Write’ Aidoo

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Author: Kwame 'Write' Aidoo

Kwame Aidoo, also known as Write is a fond reader, writer and lover of music and the arts, with a degree in Biochemistry from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science & Tech., Kumasi and a certificate in Cultural Organizations in Transition from University of Lüneburg. He founded the creative activism movement: Inkfluent which curates Slam Ghana, The Write Experience, Vocal Portraits poetry albums, Slam Lab and the biggest literary festival in Ghana; Nkabom Literary Festival. Aside Ghana, where he is based, he has shown work in Brazil, Togo, Austria, France, Benin, Germany and Burkina Faso and most recently Norway with Aurora Ekvatorialis; a light sculpture and texts collaboration with Norwegian artist Toril Johannessen, exhibiting at the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo, 16.9.2016 – 15.1.2017.

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