Nana Oforiatta Ayim on Ghana in Venice / Interview Lisa C Soto

In SWAG high profiles, inaugural issue

I think my concerns have always been the same but they have found different ways of expressing themselves, different outlets. My politics thesis was to do with art and censorship, with Plato and Stalin, how art can push beyond boundaries and how politics works against that because of the power of art.

– Nana Oforiatta Ayim

Nana Oforiatta Ayim at the opening of the Ghana pavilion in Venice

Based in Accra, Nana Oforiatta-Ayim was born in Germany and grew up between three worlds, Germany, England and Ghana. She speaks three languages – Twi, German and English – and works in three disciplines as a writer, filmmaker and art historian but also ventures into the curatorial practice. Though she does not see herself as a curator with “a capital C” she embraces it because “as an African creative you cannot afford to just produce, you have to be a producer of context”.  As founder and director of ANO Institute of Contemporary Arts & Knowledge we talk with Nana about her current position as the curator of the inaugural Ghana Pavilion at the Venice Biennial opening May 2019.

Lisa C Soto: The Ghana Pavilion is an idea long-time coming. How was this idea recently resurrected?

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: I met David at the Venice Biennale in 2001. We met at the Pavilion curated by Salah Hassan and Olu Oguibe (Authentic/Ex-centric: Africa in and out of Africa). It was where I met a lot of people such as David Adjaye, Godfried Donkor, Yinka Shonibare, Okwui Enwenzor. It was one of those seminal moments in the African art world where a lot of energies came together. I was very young. I got my first writing gig writing about this pavilion.

David and I were living in London at the time and we were always dreaming about coming back to Ghana. I especially wanted to go back and make a difference there. I think that year, that pavilion, was the only one with a real resonance of African art. I think the big question was “in the global showing of pavilions, where are we?” So when David was at the architectural biennale in May (2018), he said “why don’t you just get on a plane and come meet the directors, see if it’s a possibility. » That is what I did. Obviously it was already late in the day, but we saw the venue in the Arsenale. It was the last venue and we said “we will take it!”. With no authority whatsoever (laughs). Then it was left to persuade the authorities.

Ibrahim Mahama, Ghana Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2019

Tell me about the title of the exhibition from the 1957 hi life hit song “Ghana Freedom” by E.T. Mensah. Why the reference to Ghana’s independence? The idea of nationalism and national pavilions is problematic in itself; the idea of Ghana being a colonial construct, the idea of the diaspora. There are so many problematic layers to do with the concept of nation, of Ghana as a nation, what it meant, the local vs. diaspora, etc. In the thematics of the exhibition, the artists have this idea of national pavilion, of Ghana being represented, who and what we are, where we came from, where we are going. I wanted the title to have encapsulated all of that. The lyrics are: “Ghana we now have freedom. Freedom!” It is so optimistic and in Nkrumah’s words, this optimism on the dawn of independence. What does that freedom mean? How has it manifested?

Looking at the artists’ work, at the narratives that we are trying to create, it perfectly encapsulated that question of what is this thing that we collectively define ourselves as, whether we live there or outside. By interrogating that, with all the plurality of voices that are represented in here, what can we find out, what can we bring to the table?

How does “Ghana Freedom” fit within the context of this year’s Biennial title “May you live in interesting times”? We have had this illusion of things being ok. The illusion of democracy, the illusion of no boundaries, the illusion of the first world, of the third world, there have been all of these illusions that have kept things in place for so long and now they are all falling apart. So yes we live in interesting times, scary times, chaotic times. For a long time, I have seen Ghana, Africa, as a possible place that might point a way to something. My journey to that is by looking into art histories, ancient philosophies, trying to find a way to translate them into the contemporary, and for the artists as well, looking into their mediums, into what they are doing. I am excited about what light we are going to shine on a possible way forward or a possible way of existing within this chaos.

Can you speak a little to the history of African art and African Pavilions at the Venice Biennial? I feel that the showing of African pavilions in Venice reflects the global dynamics of the world. Where we are not really visible or resonant, and the few times that we have had an impact are the times we have been thrown together into one pavilion.

We had a great showing with Angola when Edson Chagas was around which was a great watermark and step. Okwui’s biennale was incredible because it put us on the same platform with El (Anatsui) winning the Golden Lion at that showing. This year will be the biggest showing with 6 pavilions. It will be interesting to see how things move forward.

Félicia Abban, Ghana Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2019
Felicia Abban, Ghana Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2019

What does the Ghana Pavilion mean for Ghana?  I think it is going to be hopeful for a lot of artists. There has been criticism that I have picked established artists who have already shown at the biennale. But I think that it gives young artists working in Ghana the feeling that they can be on a world stage with any artist and be valued equally.

We should be at every single table. It’s great we are not in the margins on the outskirts somewhere but right bang in the middle of it all. It’s amazing that we have such a caliber of a team together with David, Okwui and the artists.

Why did you choose these artists? How do they align?  I was really into choosing someone unknown and conceptual but, after discussing this with David and Okwui, we thought that we should really start with a bang since this is Ghana’s first. We also realized that there was a number of artists at the top of their game internationally, who have managed to master their art and have resonance, so what would it be like to have their work talk to each other in discourse. I knew I wanted to have a balance between gender, between being rooted at home and being rooted in the diaspora. I wanted to have a balance of generations from up and coming to very established. I curated this in a binary way. We have El and Ibrahim talking to each to each other in this large-scale installation format, we have Felicia Abban and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s works talking to each other through portraiture, we have John Akomfrah and (the only unknown artist) Selasi Awusi’s work talking to each other across film. It’s a broad spectrum of outlook, medium, expression, and reflection.

What is your curatorial vision for this Pavilion?  David’s space is such an important inherent part of this. Each artwork has it chambers and, like I said earlier, there is this kind of binary where the works speak to each other. I don’t want to say too much. I want it to be an experiential experience.
The idea is that there is a flow, that it is integrated. When you walk through Jamestown (Accra), you are walking through these interconnected chambers. It’s that kind of experience.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye , Ghana Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2019
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye , Ghana Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2019

Do you think the Ghana Pavilion is sustainable? That is what we are hoping. Right now we are trying to get it off the ground. After May I am will do a series of platforms here in Ghana and one of the big discussions we will have is how is this going to be sustainable, how do we create structures and maybe even policy to make things like this possible.

Okwui was one of a kind. We have lost a titan in the art world. He was working on a number of projects up until his untimely death including as the strategic advisor to the Ghana Pavilion. How did he guide you and David in the time that he had? He was central. He put his heart and soul into this. He brought the publishers, he brought the producers, his connections, he helped with some of the fund raising, the ideas, the catalogue. He was the bloodline that runs through this.

Selasie Awusi Sosu , Ghana Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2019

You are Ghanaian, you were born and grew up in Germany, you majored in Politics and Russian history. Now you live in Accra, are a writer and historian and the founder of ANO. Tell us about these transitions. I think my concerns have always been the same but they have found different ways of expressing themselves, different outlets. My politics thesis was to do with art and censorship, with Plato and Stalin, how art can push beyond boundaries and how politics works against that because of the power of art. My Russian thesis was to do with Russian revolutionary movements that started in the arts and literature. The Russian revolution started in artistic salons. There is a clear line between that and what I am doing now, which is looking at the power of art to affect change nationwide, or politically. Looking at the power of art to create revolution. It is not even a transition it is an evolution for me.

How do you bridge the space between your three disciplines? It’s funny because I don’t think of myself as a curator. I think of myself as an art historian because the part I really love, the part I think I am good at, is creating narrative, weaving things together. Okwui was a real curator’s curator. I think of myself more as an art historian for who the curatorial is one kind of form of expression of the art historical process as well as film and writing. Writing comes first, then film, then the exhibitions. The exhibitions for me are a space where we come together to think narrative through collectively. I am not really a curator with a capital C.

So why do you choose to curate? Because I want to be out in the world, but I do it with a lot of difficulty. I have my first novel coming out in January next year. In an ideal world, that would be all that I would be doing (laughs). As an African creative you cannot afford to just produce, you have to be a producer of context. That is why I have set up ANO, why I am trying to do the Cultural Encyclopedia.

Because I feel like I have managed to build a career where I could go back and open doors for others the same way doors were open for me. The curatorial, whether that is through something like Venice or through something like ANO or through the Cultural Encyclopedia, is a way of doing that.

I am doing this thing called the Cultural Leadership Fellowship and I’ve got funding from the impact fund for African Creatives. I have three young fellows, a curatorial, communications and research fellow, some of whom will be coming to Venice. For me that is the end goal, that one of them will say “I could do this next time round.” Because I am a woman, because I am African, because I am Ghanaian, because I live in Ghana, someone will feel the possibility of being able to do that too and they will take it farther than
I can take it this time.

John Akomfrah
John Akomfrah

What do you hope viewers will experience from the Ghana Pavilion?     I am really excited about it being shown both in Venice and at home in Ghana. In Venice I hope that people will see something that maybe they did not know about before, a complexity, a layered-ness, a depth. That they will open their eyes to ways of being, ways of seeing, that they didn’t even know. When it comes home to Ghana, to the National Museum, I hope that people will feel really proud. That they will be like “look what we have done, look who we are.”

                                                                in SWAG high profiles, inaugural issue
                                                                Venice Biennale 2019
Lisa C Soto
April 2019