IBRAHIM MAHAMAChale Wote
- Ibrahim Mahama
- Chale Wote
- jute sacks and mixed media
Mahama’s jute sack artworks represent a socio-economic history of Ghana’s international trade, both during and post-colonization. Manufactured in Southeast Asian countries, the sacks are imported into Ghana, where they are used to package goods for export. To make these artworks, Mahama collects used sacks at trading points throughout the country by exchanging old ones with new ones. The sacks carry residue from their previous use in containing charcoal, cocoa beans, and other goods and crops, along with marked instructions, how much they carry, their destination, and source. Once gathered, the sacks are stitched together by a loose collective of collaborators, including students, artists and local craftspeople. Throughout his oeuvre, Mahama demonstrates a deep interest in such objets trouvés, using materials ranging from jute sacks, to shoemaker boxes, birth certificates, and sculpture.
Adding further meaning to Chale Wote is the historic location of Ussher Fort, where this work was first installed in 2014. The Dutch, who had begun colonising Ghana in 1598, first built a trading post on the site in 1642, enlarging and renaming it Fort Crèvecœur in 1652. It was used variously as factory space and a trading post by the Dutch West India Company, particularly in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and in defence against the British. The fort, ruined by earthquake in 1862, was rebuilt in and transferred to the British as one of a number of forts traded between the Dutch and British Gold Coast, under The Anglo-Dutch Gold Coast Treaty of 1867. Renamed Ussher Fort, the British used it and neighbouring James Fort as a prison until 1993. Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president and a fore figure in the struggle for independence in Ghana and across the African continent, was imprisoned in James Fort prison in 1950.
The areas surrounding the two forts became the neighbourhoods of Usshertown and Jamestown, which are densely populated commercial and residential areas today. Local fishermen now inhabit the area for its proximity to the sea, and the area is now known for its fishing trade. In Chale Wote, Mahama references this evolution of Jamestown’s Ga fishing community by layering two large patches of re-used fishing net stitched on to the jute sack sheet. Recently, Jamestown has also become known for the annual Chale Wote Street Art Festival, founded in 2011, where alternative forms of art, music, dance and performance are celebrated (“chale” meaning “friend and “wote” meaning “let’s go” in Ga). It was during the 2014 edition of this festival that Ibrahim Mahama unveiled Chale Wote at Ussher Fort.
The layering of Dutch wax prints on the jute sack fabric in Chale Wote is another important commentary on the evolution of cultural identity as a result of colonial history and trade in West Africa. The ‘Dutch wax’ method was invented in the Netherlands in the 19th century as a way to mass-manufacture traditional Indonesian batik fabric quickly and cheaply for export to their colonies in the Dutch East Indies. These lower quality fabrics were not well received by the East Indian market, prompting traders voyaging on the Cape Route to sell their wares in West Africa during their refuelling stops, including in Accra. Over time, the Dutch created new designs catering to local West African tastes and established a market for their wax prints. This practice gave birth to the deep and long-lasting association of these cloths with Africa and ‘Africanness’, an association that continues today in post-colonial Africa, often as an expression of nationalism. Men and women use the fabrics for both festive and everyday attire, while wealthy business and political influencers used more expensive fabrics for formal wear. Mahama’s use of the wax prints contributes to the ongoing artistic and scholarly discourse about the effect on colonization on modern African cultural identities. In Chale Wote, Mahama offers a multi-layered perspective on Ghana’s history of colonization with its impact on both economic factors of trade and modern cultural identity.
Ibrahim Mahama’s work has appeared in international exhibitions including Pangea I and Pangea II, Saatchi Gallery, London (2014, 2015); Artist’s rooms, K21, Dusseldorf (2015); Material Effects, the Broad Art Museum, Michigan (2015); The Gown must go to town and Cornfields in Accra, Museum of Science and Technology, Accra (2015, 2016); An Age of Our Own Making, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen and Holbaek city (2016); and Fracture, Tel Aviv Art Museum, Israel (2016), and Future Generation Art Prize, at the Pinchuk Art Centre, Kiev and Venice (2017). Mahama earned his BFA and MFA from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and technology (KNUST) in Kumasi.
Ibrahim Mahama, Fragments, White Cube, 2017, p. 43