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Ibrahim Mahama / Interview Lisa C Soto

In SWAG high profiles, inaugural issue

It is very important because every country somehow needs to have some kind of representation within contemporary arts. We now understand that art in the 21st century is not only limited to certain centers within the world, but is global. So we are very happy that Ghana can participate. It is important for countries to understand the significance of investing into their own infrastructures.

– Ibrahim Mahama

Ibrahim Mahama Portrait © White Cube, George Darrell

Based in Tamale, Ghana, Ibrahim Mahama is known for using jute sacks in his installations. Though his work expands beyond one type of material displayed in one specific format or context. Through his practice, he looks to create a language out of Ghana’s histories, communities, geographic locations and neglected industrial spaces, using their contents as materials. This spring he will be receiving his Ph.D. in painting from the Kwame Nkrumah School of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Kumasi where the students are greatly encouraged to think theoretically and literally out of the box.  

Within the last few years, Mahama’s career has catapulted internationally. For Mahama’s third time exhibiting at the Venice Biennial, we discuss his return as one of the six artists to represent Ghana in the inaugural Ghana Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale 2019 with his continuously shifting work Straight line through the carcass of history.

Lisa C Soto: This will be your third time exhibiting at the Venice Biennale. You first showed during Okwui Enwenzor’s Biennale covering the entire Arsenale, you showed with the Future Generation Art Prize, now you will exhibit in the Ghana Pavilion. What did it mean the first time in comparison to now where you are representing your country?

Ibrahim Mahama: I was still in art school (KNUST) where we had done a lot of research and readings on the history of exhibitions, biennales, etc. Venice was one thing that came up again and again, so we knew how significant that was. At the same time, we were fully encouraged not to rely on big exhibitions but to experiment and do our own exhibitions, to create something independent within our practice and to use that as a starting point for the work we were going to do. So I depended more on research, on finding spaces that could be relevant to my work, which could expand the work.

When I was finishing the MFA, the invitation came and I was really quite excited. But when the proposal came, and the space that came with the proposal, I felt it was not going to work because of the projects I was doing at that time. I proposed going to Venice to see the exhibition spaces and met with Okwui. From our conversation the Out of Bounds project came to being. We came to understand the significance of the work being free and being in a space that was not really conforming to the history of exhibition spaces in the biennale. It was such a difficult space but I thought the form of the work lent itself to it. I wanted to let it go and be free, so I took the risk.

In the case of the Ghana Pavilion, I see it as an opportunity to represent the country and to present significant work. Many of the other artists in the exhibition have done very important work over the last decades. I felt it was an honor to be invited and to be able to produce a work that maybe contextualizes the practices of some of the work those artists have done over the years.

Why do you think it is important for Ghana to have a Pavilion? It is very important because every country somehow needs to have some kind of representation within contemporary arts. We now understand that art in the 21st century is not only limited to certain centers within the world, but is global. So we are very happy that Ghana can participate. It is important for countries to understand the significance of investing into their own infrastructures. I am really excited about it but at the same time I am trying to be critical about my approach. We are sometimes over dependent on the Venice Biennale. A lot of people feel it is a space to make or break artists. Every artist wants to be able to present the best of the best, and even countries and how they choose artists, so I think it is important going forward that we understand that art has always been this space for crafting ideas and for taking risks.

Can you tell us what you will be exhibiting in the Ghana Pavilion The work I will be presenting is something I have been working on for the past three to four years. It is an expansion of my inquiry into the life of the jute sacks on a very microscopic level. Looking more into the patterns, the way the object behaves as a life form within itself. I thought it would be a nice opportunity to present a work that better expands the dialogue or the language within the practice I have created. It is a work that I have shown twice already, once in Malta as part of the 2018 European Capital of Culture, which was in this old fish market, the Pescaria in Valetta. I wanted to create this work that was like a divide of the fish market. The fish market was active until the time that Malta joined the E.U. and Schengen. After that they couldn’t use the same infrastructure as before, they had to abandon the market and build a new one under E.U. regulations. The old architecture was planned in a way that was next to the ocean, so when they gutted the fish, the blood and everything would go into this drain, into the sea. It made me think on the history of the Mediterranean, and the relationship between Europe and Africa in the last decades where lots of people were fleeing war and drowning trying to cross the sea to the idea of greener pastures.

This work is also informed by my research in Athens at these old factories, including these old marble sites when I was working on Documenta (14). Looking at all of the infrastructure, the decay and the state that somehow led to the economic crisis. The title of this work is A straight line through the carcass of history which came out as a result of that research. I was at this old marble mining site where there was a yellow crane and I was looking at the crane through the lens of my camera to the sky and all you could see was this straight line of yellow that cut across the sky. The title actually inspired the production of that work in Malta. I decided to produce this straight line of wood and mesh which was transparent in the middle of the Pescaria so it divided the space into two. When you are in the middle you see the divide. When you walk around it you start to see the details of the work. Also the fish market was such in decay that we had to restore parts of it. I had to work with an architect otherwise people would not have been allowed in according to regulations. When people came during the opening, because of the aesthetics and the form of the work going from the ground up to the roof, they thought it was part of the building as some kind of support structure, supporting the weight of the building from falling. I was really excited because no one really read it initially as an artwork. I decided to extend the work to the project I was doing in Berlin at my residency through the other exhibition I did at the DAAD Galerie where I also gave it the same title.

You also had some dates to this title 1918 – 1945… Yes, those dates are coming from the history of the place itself because I always want to find a way to include the place into the work. Since I was in Berlin, I put the dates between the two world wars. The current one for the Ghana Pavilion has a date of the Ussher Fort Prison in Jamestown (Accra), dating back to 1649.

You are an international artist that is in fact very local at heart. You don’t believe you need to leave your country or continent to show in the West for your work to be considered valid. But you are represented by two European galleries and have exhibited extensively in Europe and North America. How do you marry these two worlds? Here at home we still have not been able to get into the art market. For me, the most important thing is recognizing the fact that there is a lot of work that needs to be done and understanding that it is a very difficult situation in our own context. We have to find the best possible ways to get things done, as much as we want to do other things and be in other spaces. We need to somehow develop the infrastructure alongside the language of the artists and their sense of experience.
It is important to also show outside the country as a way to extend the dialogue we are trying to create with our work. My work in Ghana is heavily inspired by my surroundings and community. It is something that speaks to the world. The materials that I use are a result of different choices that have been made in the world in the last 100 – 200 years and before. By understanding the context of where my work is coming from, I am always pushing to draw connections.

Can you speak of the geographies and structures you have worked with in Ghana before you began working on other continents? In Ghana, it was more about exploring spaces outside of the traditional art spaces because before, when artists made work, it was for certain spaces that would predetermine the form the work was going to take or the medium. For example, if hotel spaces were giving up their lobby for exhibition it meant that a lot of the work had to be a certain size, a certain kind, a certain material, and so on. I was trying to use that logic of going outside these spaces, and look for spaces that ordinarily wouldn’t engage or be looked at critically, and look at them in the context of art. I thought that working with abandoned spaces, railways, rickshaws, bridges, drainage systems was interesting. I was thinking about spaces that would require a new kind of production, a new kind of collaboration. I was thinking of ways I could invent. Eventually when I started to expose them internationally I realized that there were a lot of other histories and architectures that were very much connected to the topics that I was dealing with, that I just had to find a proper language for them. So I started thinking about the work outside of that context.

You are known for covering buildings or interiors with jute sacks and recently for your monumental shoe shine box installations but you are also interested in many more materials. Can you end by talking about the wide spectrum of materials you work with and how these will manifest in the future? Since I started using the jute sacks I have been more and more interested in materials from all perspectives and points of views such as specific objects that have been used in industrial complexes, soil, plaster, concrete, even architecture itself. I have been traveling around photographing specific architectures around the world, mostly industrial spaces, which have decayed or were used for a specific history no longer functional, and borrowing elements of that decay and failure. My studio in Tamale is a result of all this research into these industrial spaces of the British in the 19th & 20th centuries, of the railway industry and the exploitation of groups, commodities, and raw materials. My choice of materials is beginning to be based on the premises of the history of work and labor within a given context and space. I am interested in railway lines, cabinets that are used in schools, airplanes that were used for commercial passengers, trains, medic stretchers used in the 2nd World War, mesh for smoking fish, textiles, video. I also have been into large format photography. For a long time, I just wanted to show the jute sacks because I wanted to understand the forms of what I was doing. I saw this as an extension of my history in painting. My undergrad, MFA, and Ph.D. are based on the discipline of painting. So trying to understand the material more from the simple traditions of painting to a more complex world, bringing it into the form of installation, with all the subtleties and the expansiveness of what it represents when it goes into that dimension. More and more, I am interested in doing exhibitions on these other parts of my practice, which I have been quietly working on for the last 4 or 5 years.

                                                               in SWAG high profiles, inaugural issue
                                                               Venice Biennale

Lisa C Soto
April 2019