Ghanaian-born Ibrahim Mahama is an artist at the forefront of pushing narratives in contemporary art. He has exhibited at the Venice Biennale, Documenta 14, Moderna Museet in Stockholm and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Sharon Obuobi, Junior Cataloguer in the Modern & Contemporary African Art department, sat down with him to talk about his creative process and his 2014 work, Chale Wote, which will be offered in the upcoming Modern & Contemporary African Art auction on 28 March.
Sharon Obuobi: You are most known for your large-scale installations of jute sacks stitched together to form large textiles, often hung over multi-storey buildings. Created with your team of local collaborators from a variety of backgrounds. Tell me more about the significance of your choice of the jute sacks and what they mean to you.
Ibrahim Mahama: The jute sacks are a commentary on Ghana’s historic economic relationship with other countries from early post-colonial days to the present. The sacks were imported from south-eastern Asia, and re-used for the exportation of cocoa, charcoal and other crops. They are collected in exchange at specific locations throughout Ghana, before being assembled. It’s important to note that I intentionally refer to the jute sacks as paintings, because I want to draw attention to the specific hanging form of the sacks on a wall. I come from a painting background as an artist, so it’s a way of referencing my practice. I also want to challenge the idea of painting in another form, through the jute sacks as the canvas and their matter as the paint.
SO: You've also talked about the idea of transference of material from the surfaces on which you work onto the actual large-scale jute sack sheets. Can you further explain why this is important?
IM: We collect them from across the country, so there is the transference from one person to another in trade and exchange. There is also the transference of material from the dirt matter on the surfaces which the sacks are laid on, while they are gathered and stitched together. As a result, the particles of matter that are caught in the fibres of the sacks also become an important part of the history of the work.
SO: Do you find that the context of your work changes between local installations in Ghana on buildings, to international platforms like Documenta, and even within white cube walls or institutional spaces?
IM: I believe that art is universal, though the contexts are different and people might understand it differently, I want all viewers to engage with the works. When I create works, they are usually kept within the spaces in which they are produced. Human encounter is already an important part of making the works, so I don’t feel that it is necessary to place the work within a perfect space while awaiting a specific audience.
SO: Last time we talked, you were starting to explore the use of drone photography to expand the scope of your work. Have you further experimented with this technology? How has it informed the direction of your work?
IM: The technology has allowed me to document the installed works with a large-scale aerial view. It has expanded the context of installations not just from the eye-level view of the buildings, but also within the surrounding neighbourhood.
SO: Non-Orientable Nkansa is a large installation of shoemaker boxes found in Accra. The boxes are used by people locally known as shoeshine boys, to drum a rhythm and attract customers as they walk in city. The work is an extension of your inquiry into the life of materials and their dynamic potential. Tell me about the collaborative dynamic of the work.
IM: I work with people from various backgrounds – some are carpenters, shoemakers, watchmen, cobblers, metal-plate makers. I even work with tattoo artists who place markings onto parts of the boxes. I’m drawn to working with these different people, and combining their contributions into a single object.
SO: You’re a member of the blaxTARLINES KUMASI which serves as a contemporary art incubator and project space of the Department of Painting & Sculpture at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST). Why was this space created?
IM: blaxTARLINES KUMASI is a contemporary art project space for contemporary art at KNUST. Our aim is to develop spaces for critical artistic exploration, while strengthening bases of knowledge. In addition, blaxTARLINES is a movement of artists who are challenging the idea of what art can be in Ghana and internationally.
SO: Do you think artists have a certain duty to or role in society, particularly within today’s globalised yet increasingly polarised socio-political climate?
IM: I believe that art is a powerful way to connect with people. With the nature of today’s globalised socio-political climate, artists are in a unique position to challenge the way viewers think and encourage them to be open-minded in understanding the world.
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Sotheby's Sharon Obuobi also interviewed Ibrahim Mahama for her podcast. You can listen to the full episode here.