ibrahim mahama on gentrification, uneven distribution of resources and the state as a ‘terrorizing figure’

ibrahim mahama was born in 1987 and is currently pursuing a phd in the faculty of painting and sculpture at k.n.u.s.t., kumasi, ghana. he is one of the youngest but as well one of the most exposed artists in the contemporary art exhibition and market worlds from sub saharan africa, having represented at last year’s 56th international art exhibition; venice biennale which ran from 9th may to 22nd november 2015 with the largest or most ambitious piece of work out of bounds.

this month of may has seen him visiting khib academy in bergen, norway and dusseldorf to give presentations on his work.

ibrahim mahama, untitled, 2014, coal sacks, 183*213cm. photo credit: saatchi galléry

his works are stitched patchworks of sprawls  made from jute sacks which are imported by the ghana cocoa board from india or bangladesh for the use of bagging cocoa but later re-purposed for bagging charcoal, rice, millet, vegetables or other commodities as market goods distributors find fitting. though international policies state that the sacks are supposed to be used to transport cocoa just once, the actual movement of the sacks on the market is only either dictated by who gets their hands on them and finds them useful for their purpose or the extent of their durability.

as such the traits of typical west african local labour system peculiarities like markings to determine ownership and control; example titling(names, abbreviations or locations) with indelible ink or paint on the matted brown surfaces of jute especially when these goods are going into storage or are being conveyed from one point to another so they are not lost is almost inevitable. do we find the irony in this practice as compared to tattoos on the bodies, usually inner forearms of these traders?

ibrahim’s style of presenting these sacks is significantly unique as if it is a lengthy overture of conjoined stories or a rendition of maps with no particularity on focus with regards to specific transit points or continuous entitlements. the occasional insertion of mass-produced wax prints from china is an additional layer of questioning and connection in theme since the whole package identifies one way or the other as an indirect vessel of portrayal of the global movement of goods.

as german-ghanaian contemporary artist zohra opoku would put it; “fashion negotiates a political and psychological role related to socio-cultural dynamics in relation to african history and individualistic or societal identities.” we find the connection in the politics of consumerism, aesthetic value and affairs of control that link individuals to their nationalistic entities. how do we identify that the goods we consume or push into the market do not have strings attached to one or more of concepts like neo-liberalism or appropriation, or is the consumerist market totally linked to equal weights of pendulums on each side regarding globalization?

ibrahim’s works have nuzzled external and internal part or full portions of museum exhibition walls, libraries, completed and uncompleted government-owned buildings, social places still in use like bridges, car lots, etc. in-depth, the work takes on the less discussed connection between the mechanisms of trade even at the less affluent local sector; taking into account the people involved who might either be skilled or unskilled, and the bloated world economy.

“construction has been very much a part of my work and i’m very much interested in public space;” the artist explains. the materials he’s worked with have evolved from plaster of paris also known as gypsum plaster to jute sacks, but there’s always been the presence of ‘bodies’, either functioning as a source for sculptural molds or as part of the production or installation process.

he’s been working with market porters locally called kaya who have a specific migration trail from the north of ghana to the south though “the entitlement of nationhood is bleak on them.” a sense of awareness about gentrification in his work’s detail is in sharp contrast with the element of collaboration during production that he identifies with. such critical discourse through art is not only timely but essential for any developing country.

though christo and jeanne-claude might be the pioneers of this field of ‘wrapping’, but ibrahim has grown his own niche of making patchworks come to life. we see the artist pointing in another direction when asked about motivation for his work;  “i’m inspired by le corbusier’s drawings.”

ibrahim sometimes takes his work to “abandoned buildings inhabited by social deviants”  and explains that “crisis is mostly a starting point for me. i’m not afraid to be robbed, etc. there’s always an attack one way or the other because i transport the people i work with to other spaces within this same country(referring to ghana) and people say they don’t belong here but no one belongs within a certain space.”

in terms of availability of space for artists for exhibition purposes and his personal experiences, ibrahim narrates that; “in the past, hotels provided their lobbies to artists to show their works. artists would criticize hotels for not giving them their spaces. you do not need a museum to do art. it takes very long negotiations to get space to undertake my work because they don’t really understand. the language of the work does not make sense to everybody. some think there’s a construction going on. there’s this building which had been there for about 50 years but people didn’t take notice of it till i covered it with jute sacks.”

even his style of documentation is unique and connected to his style of practice; “videos i produce from my work are collages. i don’t have a recorder on the device i use so it’s sounds from other spaces/occupations/experiences i fuse. drones have been catastrophic(in reference to their use in wars), but with aerial views they project a different perspective than cameras on the ground.”

photo via artist 

on what the government is doing to address the persistent gentrification aspect of things and uneven distribution of resources, mahama reiterates; “the state which is supposed to protect its citizens becomes a terrorizing figure. failure is eminent and embedded within the system and we constantly tell ourselves that things are working but nothing is really working.”



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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