Ibrahim Mahama on the Great Potential of Art to Change How We Look at the World
Over the past decade—and especially in the last year—the Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama has swiftly risen to become one of the most prominent African voices in art. At age 32, he has already exhibited at the Biennale of Sydney, on Cockatoo Island (his work “No Friend But the Mountains” is currently on view there through June 8, though that date may change because of the coronavirus pandemic), as well as at the 2019 Frieze Sculpture presentation at Rockefeller Center in New York and the Ghana Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale. He’s created large-scale public installations around the world, including in Milan (with the Trussardi Foundation, also in 2019) and Athens (during Documenta 14, in 2017). Mahama’s work has also been shown at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester (also in 2019), the Norval Foundation in Cape Town (yet again in 2019), and the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University (2015). He is represented by the highly respected White Cube gallery. The Africa Report, a Paris-based news magazine that focuses on African politics and economics, recently named Mahama one of the 100 most influential Africans today. In addition to his art-making, he is the founder of an artist-run nonprofit cultural institution and exhibition space, the Savannah Center for Contemporary Art (SCCA), which opened a year ago (yes, also in 2019) in Tamale, a city in the north of Ghana.
Central to Mahama’s inspiration is a specific material: jute sacks. Working with a team of collaborators to repurpose the burlap bags, which are traditionally used to transport cocoa beans, he sews together installations that range from wall- or room-size to monumental, often draping the fabric on, around, and over prominent architectural sites. Though his pieces have often been compared to the “wrap” work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, that is not necessarily an apt analogy, or at least it’s just a surface-level one. While similar in scale and scope to Christo’s ambitious environmental artworks, Mahama’s creations, like his overall practice, are socially oriented and focused on concerns such as labor, migration, globalization, and economic exchange.
On this episode of Time Sensitive, Mahama discusses with Spencer his fascination with jute sacks as a material; his views on “Ghanaian time” and Africa’s global influence; his unorthodox upbringing (he grew up among nine siblings and with a polygamous father who had four wives, and was sent to boarding at age 5); and his dreams for the SCCA.
Mahama discusses how he came to think about jute sacks as a material for art-making and why he’s so fascinated with the metaphorical layers literally interwoven into the fabric.
Mahama recalls what it was like to depart from home at age 5 for boarding school, and talks about the complex dynamic of growing up with nine siblings—all the children of his engineer father, a polygamist who had four wives.
Mahama looks back at his formative art-education years at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, particularly his studies under Kąrî’kạchä Seid’ou, and shares his perspective on Ghanaian culture and society.
Mahama outlines his vision for the Savannah Center for Contemporary Art, and talks about how he hopes, through the SCCA, to catalyze a cultural shift in the city of Tamale and in Ghana at large, proposing a new way forward for the next generation.
SPENCER BAILEY: Today on Time Sensitive, we’ve got Ibrahim Mahama, a Ghanaian artist. BBC has called him “one of Africa’s most exciting young artists.” And The Guardian—I like this—they described you as a “junkyard utopian.” [Laughter] I wanted to start really thinking about your work in the context of time, given the subject of the podcast. And what I find interesting is that you use a lot of objects that carry this notion of past, present, future in them. Could you describe how you think about time in the context of your art-making?
IBRAHIM MAHAMA: Thank you very much for having me. In art school, I guess my background mainly is from painting, and the idea of making work that somehow takes from a certain kind of subject matter of, let’s say, depicting something. Which, historically, even within modern art, the idea that the subject will be very much removed from the context in which it was made or maybe you could produce a work that would end up, let’s say, within a space like an exhibition space which would somehow alienate the subject matter. It was something that we were trying to understand—how it operates—particularly looking at it in relation to the context that we were producing from in Ghana, of course in other places.
Some of the materials that I started working within the early part of my practice mainly, which was the jute sacks you use in a transportation of food, was really looking at this thing like the condition within the material. So, for instance, the bags traditionally, in an artistic sense, would have been used as a surface for painting. But you also forget that the bag has its own aesthetics that it comes with because these bags are traditionally produced in Southeast Asia, and they’re transported to Africa for the bagging of commodities which go to the West. So, at the end of the day, there is so much that is condensed into the history of the material.
Time becomes really important, particularly with how the material transforms from one state to the other. When you’re using this material new, the way you respond to it is different from when you actually acquire it when it’s old, tattered, and all that. And the stains, residues, and things that are collected within it become a reflection of the conditions of the society at the time. So, I thought it was important somehow to base the work, based on this element of time, which is captured within the aging of the material. Because it goes back into dealing with the history of architecture in relation to… Because sometimes they’re almost invisible things that are trapped within materials, but we don’t really see them because the…
There were buildings that were built in Ghana in the early sixties which were meant for this economical independence program, which was never completed. So these buildings still dwell around and we see them all the time, but we never really know what these buildings were supposed to be and these materials somehow are part of that history. My role as an artist is somehow to be able to establish that connection between those things.
SB: I understand that it was when you were working on your M.F.A., in 2012, that you came across this material.
SB: I mean, obviously, it’s pretty ubiquitous in Ghana, but how did you determine that it would be an interesting material to explore for making art?
IM: I don’t know, honestly, because at the time I was making sculptures and I was combining—I was doing collages, so I would get materials and then I would cut them into pieces and then use them to wrap around the surface, the skin of the bodies that I was casting. But there was something missing. There was a residency I did in Germany, and there was an American artist, Kaneem Smith, who was using these materials. And she was choosing them in a very free manner, in a way that she was stitching them together with machines and all that. And I thought to myself, in Ghana we use these materials to transport all kinds of commodities and they acquire all kinds of characters over years. It’s not new; neither is it decayed. It’s at a point where it’s in between something which is dead and something which is acquiring a new form of life.
So when I got back to Ghana, I decided that I was going to explore this aspect of the material, but not just exploring the material in this sense, but also exploring the labor conditions that came with the material. So, it’s not just a matter of taking the materials as they are, but also working with the workforce that are associated with these materials, like farmers, people in the market who are tradespeople, people who are street vendors. When these kinds of precarious labors come into artistic production with a material that is as dense as it is, it creates something and that is what I’m interested in.
SB: You’ve obviously used the material in multiple ways and we’ll talk about that, but one of the ways is really kind of creating a patchwork—and obviously you could talk about it as a very straightforward metaphor—patchwork for this country, post-independence. Could you talk about though, more specifically the sort of vision you have for creating these, I guess, “patchworks,” let’s call them, and bringing them around the world, whether it’s Milan or Athens or these other places you’ve exhibited these works and created these works and then bringing them back home? There’s sort of a duality I think you have going on with your work.
IM: Yeah, I think it’s interesting because the materials themselves when you look at them on a singular level, there’s something interesting to note because when they are brought into Ghana, they are mostly labeled with ”Produce of Ghana”—a tag. So, they’re given to the cocoa-buying companies who then buy the cocoa beans from the farmers and then they’re then sold to companies abroad. Sometimes the bags leave the shores of Ghana with the materials and sometimes the bags remain because the commodities are offloaded into containers. So the ones [where] the bag stays—because of the value of cocoa on the world market—[they] can’t be used to bag cocoa ever again because of insect infestations and things like that. And historically also, Ghana, in the 1960s, was trying to build these cocoa-processing plants, which would give more added value to the beans because worldwide, Ghana and Ivory Coast are the largest producers of cocoa. We produce about seventy percent of the world’s cocoa.
SB: Oh wow.
IM: But then—out of the general revenue that is generated every year—out of a hundred and fifty billion, Ghana and Ivory Coast only make about two billion. So at the end of the day, because there are no processing plants, you are selling the commodity. These processing plants are what were built in the sixties in Ghana, and were built by Eastern European architects at the time during the Cold War. And also at the time, because there was the propaganda from America saying that because they were being built by Eastern European architects, they were not built with a tropical climate in mind. So these things, the commodities, would fail. They would not survive, but it wasn’t true. So, that’s what’s killed.
So, now you find that there are a lot of multinationals who make so much money, like Nestlé and all these companies. And at the end of the day, the surplus capital is used in the funding of NGOs that come back to the continent to start programs like Fairtrade [International] and stop child labor and other things which are deeply rooted within the foundations of the histories that we are trying to deal with. So, the bags are somehow a manifestation through the aesthetics that it collects of this history that I’m talking about. When I produce work as an artist, the patchwork isn’t just for sheer aesthetics, but it’s also to look deeply into the political content of these materials and how they are connected to even the idea of globalization and the continuous exploitation of the labor within the world. So, when we stitch it together and we cover buildings, mostly I think it’s a critique upon this system of how things move from one place to the other.
SB: I wanted to bring up “A Friend,” which you created in Milan with the Trussardi Foundation last year. It’s an installation encasing the toll gates at Porta Venezia. These tollgates, of course, they’re neo-classical and were completely transformed into these monolithic structures. Could you talk about the process of covering those specifically and what your aim was as an artist with that? It was a very potent message, I think.
IM: A Friend,” actually, the title was taken from a book by Senegalese author Mariama Bâ. And the idea of “A Friend,” a project which was curated by Massimiliano Gioni, together with the Trussardi Foundation, was to examine not just the history of the buildings, which Porta Venezia—because historically there were these two gates into the city of Milan. So in order to go into Milan, you’d have to pay your tax and blah, blah, blah. But over time, due to the expansion and growth of the city and population and all of that they were just monuments, which are one of many monuments right in the center of the city. And also at a time of migration crisis and all that, we thought it would be interesting to create a work that somehow took a monument within a specific context, a city like Milan, and also a place of one of the financial centers of Europe and relations where material that comes from Africa.
Because when people go to the coffee shop to buy their chocolates or the coffee, they never really think of the labor that comes with it. That the fact that a lot of people have to be paid very little money in order to produce things when you go to the markets and you’re enjoying that because when the rights of the right-wing in Europe, people would say things like, “Oh, but why should we let these migrants in? They’re going to come and take our jobs and blah, blah, blah,” things like that. But I think it’s also important for us to really recognize that idea of extended labor, that the fact that sometimes we enjoy our freedoms and liberties at the expense of others. The idea of “the other.”
So the work in Milan, “A Friend,” when I was invited actually to look at it, we used the materials from older projects. So, materials that were used in Documenta, in the Venice Biennale, projects that I did here in the States with the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum in East Lansing. You had other projects from around the world, in Copenhagen and all that. And then we put all these things together because I believed that, the same way these bags carry these commodities, when they take on buildings, they take something with them. They take part of the histories, the residues within those sites. So it’s almost like a Captain Planet moment where you’ve somehow, the materials have traveled around the world and you’ve collected all these histories and suddenly it comes into Milan to cover these really very… And they’re very beautiful buildings also.
So, suddenly when they were covered and suddenly they looked very block, a lot of people were very tense about it. They said, “But why have you covered this building?” And people say, “It’s art.” But they say, “There’s nothing art about this because the material is so sublime.” So, there is also a tendency to just snub it. But I think for me that’s where the interest was, that it was a work that you could easily overlook, but at the same time when you paid attention to, it allowed you to have these renewed conversations.
SB: I don’t know if this was intentional, but it was sort of my gut reaction when I first saw [“A Friend”] was that you took this very traditional form that’s associated with classical European culture and transformed it into something other than, something perhaps even African and something that even, in architectural form, almost referenced the corona, crown, or a Yoruban form [similar to Sir David Adjaye’s Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.]. I don’t know if that was intentional, but that definitely was a reaction I had to it, thinking, it was fascinating to see a form go from something that was very European to something very African through a single material.
IM: Yes, exactly. And I think it’s one of the many possibilities that there are, particularly when you look at things through an artistic lens, the fact that it could change our perspective of things. Spaces that we’re familiar with. Suddenly you’re like, “But it rather seems, I don’t know it well enough.” And for me as an artist, that’s the most exciting thing, the fact that our perspective could change in a split second.
SB: Another installation you did using these jute sacks was at Rockefeller Center last summer [for Frieze Sculpture, curated by the Noguchi Museum’s director, Brett Litmann]—
IM: With the flags.
SB: Yeah, with flags. Hanging the flags around the center. Could you talk about that? Because it’s such a simple gesture to take a sack and hang it as a flag, but I think a lot of it was about replacing not just what was there but using the site as a form itself.
IM: Yes, exactly. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a work that I experienced personally, in the space. I wish I could have made it to see it in the time it was shown. But it was interesting, first and foremost, just to think about them in relation to the context of the space itself and what is represented there. Because you have all the United Nations flags there, which were lowered actually for these flags to be shown. And these flags were made out of both the jute sacks [and] materials like canvas, which are used in covering large cargo goods, scrap metal. So they had various residues, oil stains. Some of them were textile fabrics, which are woven in Ghana, which are worn by people over years and years and passed on from one generation to the other.
So, the idea was somehow to produce these flags. That’s where just out of materials stuff that were residue of our commonness as people. So when you see a flag with it’s nationalistic colors with the symbols and everything, it’s very different when you see a same flag of the United States, which is made up of, let’s say, these thorn materials. I think suddenly your idea of what it is to have maybe a certain national identity and all that suddenly begins to shift. And that is what I was more interested in, to be able to create flags that somehow showed how common we were in the world in terms of the circulation of goods and other things. So, it’s easy to miss the humanity aspect, particularly when we are basing in every transaction based on figures and profits and all that. But a flag exposes the Caucasus within those relations.
SB: And so much of your work is focused on your own national identity, being Ghanaian and the history of the country, which became independent from colonial rule in 1957, long before you were born. But the residue of which I think you felt very viscerally. Could you talk about how you think about Ghana society, Ghana culture, Ghana politics in this context, in the context of your life and your work, how it’s fed into the work that you’re making?
IM: To be honest with you, I’m interested in Ghana, but mostly as just a starting point into looking at let’s say global issues. Also, looking at establishing new forms of aesthetics and all that. In Ghana, unfortunately, over the decades we’ve not had a serious emphasis or interest in establishing cultural institutions and things like that. I’ve always thought that, politically, we need to be able to at least train young people who would grow up thinking differently. The ideological values have always been a problem—that people would grow up and then think and having the same conversations as they were in the generation before. And that is the kind of a system that we grew up in.
But through pedagogy, learning, going to philosophy, theory, and all that, suddenly you realize that, Oh, the world could be looked at in a very different way, and the kind of society that we could create for not just for ourselves, but our children and children’s children who are yet to be born, it could be very different. They could grow up asking very different questions rather than the same questions that we did ask. And that is where my interest is in.
With regards to the traditional politics in Ghana, I think, as an artist, it’s important to produce work that allows the current politics to somehow begin to rethink about their positions and find new ways in which maybe the generation that is yet to come they can offer things to them rather than constantly taking away.
SB: We’ll get back to your work. I want to circle back to the beginning. Young Ibrahim, born 1987. Tell me about your family and your parents.
IM: Well, I come from a polygamous family, meaning that my father had four wives when I was growing up. Unfortunately, the first wife passed away some years ago. I have ten immediate siblings, but many other brothers and sisters, cousins. So, I come from a very big family. My father is a civil engineer. My brothers, one is a civil engineer, one works with the town planning department. One is a doctor who is in Cuba, actually, he’s a neurosurgeon. And I am an artist—not that exciting. [Laughs] And my sisters, some of them are lawyers, fashion, different fields. So it’s just an ordinary family.
SB: What do you think effect having this polygamous family dynamic. What effect did that have on you growing up?
IM: Oh, I think for one, it allows you to think in a much broader context. Because in most families, where there’s just one child or just a few children, like two children. The family always thinks about their needs, immediate needs, and their needs first in terms of their immediate family. But in our family, that sense of equality is across [the] board. So for instance, when I was growing up, the pocket money I would have to go to school that my father would give me, is the same money that my father would give to my cousin he was raising that he had adopted or something.
So, there was that sense of—I grew up understanding that there was supposed to be a certain equality across [the] board. Of course, I think it manifests more in my decisions as an artist at a much later age. But when I was a child I never really thought about it. I always thought, “Oh, it’s cool to grow up with so many siblings,” so, so many, I could not even count. But it’s exciting because it meant that you had friends, you had people you could bond, had relationships with. Your understanding of the world is a lot more different and a lot more broader than just…
SB: Where did you fall on the spectrum age-wise and amongst these ten?
IM: Last, I’m number nine. [Laughs]
SB: Did that mean on some level that you were always trying to get siblings’ attention or parents’ attention or was it…
IM: Not at all.
IM: I think they had done it all. So there was nothing—there was no one to impress. Everything has been done. But I think the exciting thing also about growing up in a family like that was because sometimes my friends would ask, “Do you think that you became an artist because maybe you had siblings who were doing other things? So then by then, your father’s like, ’Okay, he can be an artist.’” So maybe if I was their first son… A friend of mine asked my father recently when he visited, he was like, “Do you think you’d have allowed your son to be an artist if he was the firstborn?” And my father was just quiet for a while and I said, “Oh, that’s a really good question.” [Laughs] So, it’s a good one. There’s no pressure because everyone has done everything already. So, I more or less see myself as the salt. The whole food is done so now let’s just sprinkle some salt on it. That’s the artist. Whether it works or not, we don’t care. Everything is done already. So, that’s it.
SB: [Laughs] Where did art enter the picture for you? When did you realize that being an artist was something that you could somehow do?
IM: I think I had always had a strong interest in art from an early age. I used to draw a lot because I went to boarding school at the age of 5. So when I was—
SB: In Ghana?
IM: In Ghana. So all my years in being in boarding school, I was always drawing because—I don’t know, I felt at peace doing that. And then when I was going to high school, I chose the visual arts and my father was very supportive. He said, “Oh, let’s see what becomes of it.” And most families would not be supportive or entertaining of their children who want to become an artist because it’s seen as a profession which is unsustainable. But my father said, “Oh, all right, let’s see what comes of it.”
So once I went to high school and I did art and I did really well, in terms of my grades, my father thought, “Oh, maybe something good could come out of [me].” So, I went on to apply to the university to do the fine arts program, and I never left until my Ph.D. I just continuously studied there because I wanted to understand arts more and more and more and more.
SB: And you were mostly focused on painting and sculpture or…
IM: That was the main focus. Because the department which I studied in was the department of painting and sculpture. But in undergrad, I specialized in painting. And then in my M.F.A. and Ph.D. I looked at both painting and sculpture.
SB: When you were at boarding school, were you away from your family?
SB: You were at age 5?
SB: Wow. How does a 5-year-old respond to being away from the parents at that age?
IM: I don’t know. You’ll do well, you’ll survive. [Laughs] I remember each time I asked my parents, “Why do you send us off to a boarding school at the age of 5?” The response they always give is that, “Oh, because we want you to be serious.” And I’m like, “Really?” Because now, sometimes when my mother complains that, “Oh, you’re always traveling. We never see you,” and I’m like, “Really? Do you remember when I was 5 years old? You set the tone for this.”
SB: So, it’s from age 5 until…
IM: Age 5 until age 12 and then I went to a Catholic day school. It’s was a Catholic school, actually, it was a school called St John’s, and I went to another Catholic school for two and a half years, and then I went back to a boarding school, Pope John, for high school for three years, and then after that, I went to the university. So, I was always away from the family, honestly.
SB: It’s fascinating. You have this large family and yet you’re independent from them.
IM: Exactly. Yeah. No, I think it was a good training because it makes you… I always say they are two things. It’s either it breaks you or then it makes you really strong, and sensitive to the world in a way because you can just… Being in a boarding school, I know a lot of people who went and they became really hardcore and things, but for me, it made me really soft trying to really… Because I was always sad when I was in a boarding school. Because I was so young and I thought, Oh, I should be home playing, but I was always just sad because I was away from the family.
But later on, when I grew up I realized that, Oh, maybe there might have been some things that—the events that happen within the time of being in the boarding school—that I didn’t quite appreciate. And then suddenly maybe my view of the world is changed or becoming a lot more mature because of that experience that I had. But of course, it doesn’t mean I would ever send my children to boarding school. I only do that if they don’t behave. [Laughs] So that’s it.
SB: You don’t have kids yet?
IM: No, not yet.
SB: What was your first moment in terms of presenting your work publicly, or outside of the confines of the university?
IM: I must say that I’m really thankful to the university because the painting and sculpture department, the professors who were teaching there at a time when we were students, they still teach there, like Kąrî’kạchä Seid’ou and Castro. And a lot of the professors, they were very supportive of the students who wanted to experiment and do things. There were projects that I did in the city, which they literally helped with writing letters and helping with negotiations and all that. My first big exhibition outside of the university and everything was in London, at the Saatchi Gallery, which was really good. And then I guess I think there’s also the training at a university.
I was quite articulate about ideas and why we’re doing the kind of work we’re doing. So, I was invited to give a lot of talks and lectures abroad. And the more I spoke about the ideas I was working with, the more that garnered interest. I did the Venice Biennale in 2015, which was the thing which somehow changed everything in my practice.
SB: Part of your work is really about wanting to create a generation of new thinkers. You could even describe it as a revolution, an African revolution. When did this sort of community-based engagement become a part of your thinking?
IM: It was always there, honestly, in the faculty that I studied in, the faculty of arts, the fine arts program. So coming back to it again, the painting and sculpture department, which has the likes of Kąrî’kạchä Seid’ou, who is an artist who studied in the university in the eighties and early nineties who came back to teach, who wanted to teach there. He wanted to use his practice. He was a painter, but he taught himself philosophy, theory, and everything, because it was missing, a key thing that was missing in the curriculum, because we were using the old British model as a training in the university. So he said, “Why can’t we change this? All the artists don’t have to draw as artists.”
If you are coming to the paintings department and in the oldest system, you’d be required to do drawings the entire period. And you could never experiment or use poetry as your medium or use sculpture—even if you’re a painter—as a medium or even use literature, borrow ideas, forms. And he thought, “No, why can’t we change this?” So when he became a professor, he proposed the shift within the curriculum. Of course, he was one of the people that was teaching us experimental drawings. So, he was very much interested in drawing, but to an extent which had more freedom towards—you had to think about the way you thought about drawing in relation to rest of the world, like arrangement of objects in the city, architecture, language, cinema, sound. So, he started this new generation of encouraging students to write their theses on a photographer’s work in the city. Artists who had practiced for many generations who their works were not recognized to write their thesis, interview them, artists interviewing each other in the older generation.
All the artists were by themselves. It was more like a competition: “Someone has stolen my style,” that kind of nonsense. But then suddenly he was proposing let’s re-look at the world or even our practice. If we can make art from paints, which are made by a chemist in a lab, which produces all these things, why can’t we learn from botanists? Why can’t we learn from scientists? Things like that. So quantum theory. He actually opened up the scale of thinking. So when I was a student, I was very lucky. If I hadn’t met someone like him as a student, it would have been impossible for me to create the practice that I have today. Because if I was being thought by the same older generation of artists, you would have thought that just by sheer fact that you are an artist and talented and you can make a painting, it was good enough.
But Kąrî’kạchä always says no, it’s important for us to think about our practice in relation to generational shifts. We don’t have to think about using the established norms of art-making to produce art. Why can’t we create something which is yet to become art? It’s different when… He always says that we have to turn art into gifts and secondly also we have to create, he thinks with art, which is revolutionary at a time when it’s being made is not art. So you really have to think about how that work, the principles regarding the production system and everything.
We changed the whole perception around art, the subject matter, the audience around it, the inequalities that are built within, even, because we don’t think about when people are… When you go… because there’s MoMA, the Met, and all these things, and in some societies, they’re so common. So, we don’t really get to a point where we think about these things. You don’t ask yourself, “Why is it when I go to MoMA or the Met, I don’t see a lot of African American people or a lot of minority groups there?” You never—because sometimes the institution—not to say that it’s deliberate, but a foundation of institutions sometimes make it almost impossible for certain individuals to have access to its programming and all that. So, how can we think about making work that somehow begins to deconstruct all of this? It’s just a critical thing. We have to think about it at least.
SB: I’m interested in the production of the work as well, and I think it’s fascinating that you come from this family of ten siblings because your work is very labor-intensive, too, and involves a large amount of collaboration. Do you think that growing up in this big family has helped you in terms of knowing how to collaborate and work with a wide variety of people?
IM: Certainly, my God. If you grew up in the kind of family that I grew up in, like many families where you have to deal with antagonisms all the time, I think it makes you a lot more sensitive and matured when dealing with situations, like working with people. You have to know how to manage people, how to deal with certain tensions. Because a lot of the people that I work with, it’s very easy for things to escalate, particularly in an artistic context because you are producing something which literally doesn’t make sense—it’s nonsensical. Why would you sew together bags that seem to be out of place and dead and go cover monumental buildings with it?
So that thing alone, you have to factor in all the antagonisms and everything around into the production because if not, you will literally not be able to succeed because there are always tensions that arise where people do not understand why they have to do a certain task and what are the implications of it and blah blah. I think, artistically, when you find yourself within that space, you begin to renegotiate even yourself, how you think about human relations versus the forms that you want to make and all that. But it’s beautiful when you’re able to do that. It’s really nice.
SB: I mean, I can’t imagine it’s easy to cover the Porta Venezia toll booths in Milan.
IM: No, it wasn’t. But I had two of my studio assistants, Benjamin and Francis, who went over to work on that—of course with the Trussardi Foundation—they got these climbers because the buildings are protected so you couldn’t put anything around it. So, they had to use scaffolding for parts of the building and also create these water backs, which should be used in supporting the weights. They had to reinvent other things in order to like realize it. And it was a project that was done in a really short amount of time. So, of course, some of the experiences from doing older projects and also learning from newer experiences from the guys who were working there and how to install was quite interesting.
SB: Also connected to family, your father is a civil engineer, so I imagine a lot of your architectural interventions or your city interventions maybe somehow connect to things you learned from him.
IM: Maybe it’s what you see. And Ghana is a place where there are always constructions that are started and then just left halfway and then several years later they come back to it. So, you always see buildings at a point where they seem like they’re heading towards the future but they’re also trapped in time. I think subconsciously when you live in a society where you see these things constantly, and of course, there’s always construction work in the city. After all, sometimes you look and it could be appropriated. It’s not that difficult. Of course, structurally things have to be taken seriously. But even just the principle of it I think like, Why can’t we explore this aspect of it? And that’s where I think it’s inspiring at that point.
SB: It’s so interesting to think about Ghana in connection to time. How do you view Ghanaian time?
IM: [Laughs] If you want Ghanaian time, Ghana time is a time ahead of time itself. There’s always this joke that when in Ghana when there is a meeting they always say that please come at seven o’clock, but I don’t mean Ghana time because Ghana time is the day after. [Laughs] Because people have their own sense of time, and I think that has been one of my interests. The key thing to note about the ideas that I work with is that Ghana, like a lot of countries in Africa, I think that our golden age was in the sixties, in the late fifties, early sixties even to the late sixties. The time of independence, the post-colonial age, when there was a lot of emphasis on building new infrastructure, really modernist buildings. A lot of which was finished, used briefly, some which were never finished.
There were projects that were established at the point where, in other parts of the world they were still grappling with war and they didn’t really understand because we were flourishing. There was a strong emphasis on empowering workers, things like that. And suddenly it all died off in the mid-sixties and early seventies, when there were all these structural adjustment programs and all that privatization of public infrastructures and spaces and all that. So, we’ve always been living… When in the past we were modeling the future and then it died and then now we are looking at it, almost like in the past. So, there is something very paradoxical about it. So for me, I think that we’ve always been living in a future from the past because at a time when Ghana was imagining, creating certain infrastructures like concrete motorways and all that, there were only few countries in the world who were thinking that that’s in terms of connections and all that.
But at the same time, we also inherited a huge legacy of infrastructure from the British colonial administration, railways and all that, which could have been expanded to connect the country beyond the exploitation of commodities and all that. But in the sixties also, then again, it all died. So, I’m very much interested in what Ghana could have been in the past and not necessarily now. But then, using that as an idea, as a prompt to make, to create institutions now or to make work, which can somehow remind us about what we could have done to somehow create this new future that our children or children’s children will inherit in a different way. So, it’s not a simple one. It’s quite a complicated one, but it’s one which is worth exploring because we like to oversimplify the world. And I think that it’s important that we make it complex and work with it to a point where it becomes very simple for us to work with again.
SB: You’ve now, as an artist, gotten to travel a lot, spending significant time all over the world, a lot in Europe, a lot in America. What are some of the big misinterpretations that you think Americans, Europeans have of Ghana, or more broadly, Africa?
IM: I don’t know. It’s mostly—I think it’s also there in the poverty issue, because it always comes back to that point of dependency. But honestly, when you think about it, I think we really have to think deeply about what that thing is, dependency and all that. Because a lot of the world’s resources actually come from the continent of Africa. A lot of the electronic gadgets that we use, like our phones, iPhones, they would not function if coltan and other things were not violently extracted from a place like Congo. A lot of museums for archeology wouldn’t exist if objects were not looted, which are based on a foundation of a lot of the cultures that are instilled in us.
And also even now, with regards to multinationals, like of course Shell, BP buying, oil explorations in countries. Where, for instance, the last time when Ghana discovered oil, one of the, I think, the agreement that was signed at the time Ghana was only supposed to get ten percent of the oil. Whereas in Norway, when they discovered oil, they refused to let the Americans drill it for them, and then they owned completely the entire production, and they were able to generate an endowment for—
IM: In two hundred years ahead of time, if no one even worked in Norway, they would still be able to at least sustain the entire population. So, it is one of those misconceptions. Africa is not really poor, in a sense, and it’s not dependent on anything. I think it’s just the systems that have been set in place [in the] post-colonial period. That is the thing that we are trying to deal and grapple with. And I think through art people can be a lot more, I don’t know, thoughtful about the way they think about the continent and what it has to present to the rest of the world and the way we relate to it.
SB: How do you think about migration in this context?
IM: Well, moving from one place to another in the world basically, I’ve always thought that it should just be a free human right. We’ve made the system so complicated that we would rather, so for instance, let me take U.S. and Mexico. The United States would rather export Mexican culture, food, and everything, but suddenly the president proposes that let’s build a wall to cut these people off because these people are the worst people that could find themselves in our society.But then again, without the labor of these people, it would have been almost impossible to live in America because a lot of the work that is been done, services and all that, they are being done by these same people who actually afford you the right to be able to do other work.
But I think now is also a bit complicated because you have companies like Amazon, which are not just working with, let’s say, exploited labor like Mexicans, all that, but also working just with Americans and they are not actually paying them the wages that they deserve. So, I think to a point when we perpetuate these acts or these actions to a point, it comes back also to somehow haunt us within our own given communities and spaces.
SB: I’m interested in this idea of importing and exporting culture. It seems like a very central idea of your work and last year you opened an art center in Tamale, in northern Ghana. What was the impetus for creating this? I understand it’s been a long ongoing project. You started building this building in 2014. Tell me about [that].
IM: So, the Savannah Center for Contemporary Arts—SCCA, for short—is an artist-run space. I started working on it in 2014 when I earned the first money from selling my work as an artist. I knew one of the notions is that, as an artist in Ghana, a lot of people didn’t want to go on to practice art after school because they thought they couldn’t sustain their practices because they wouldn’t sell any work. Of course, in most cases, it’s true that as an artist you don’t really sell, but it’s not really true that as artists, we cannot sustain a practice.
So, I wanted to prove a point by using the paradoxes of the artworld itself. Because, come to think of it, these bags seem like they have no sense of value, but through that magical thing called art, when it touches these things that we produce as artworks, they go on to museums, private collections, but what happens when the capital is generated out of it? So, I wanted a capital to somehow go a longer way to transform the space or the community because we don’t have modern arts or contemporary arts institutions and things like that. I thought, Oh, maybe an artist could create a space that could change the whole perception around art and the reception of art itself.
SB: The money becomes an art project.
IM: Yes, exactly. Because whoever thought that, excuse me, to say a piece of sack which looks like garbage could suddenly be sold to an institution as a work of art and suddenly the money used in building an institution which an entire generation of young people can now suddenly have access to these facilities, which previously was not. It seems rather silly and impossible and stupid, but I am interested in exploring this aspect of it. Can we use the contradictions of capital against itself and see how we can push it forward? It’s not always so bad. Sometimes it can transform a given society if we really think about it critically. And for me, that sense of criticality is where the foundation of the institution lies.
SB: Talk to me a little bit about the work that you’re doing there. How are you engaging the local community, and what are your goals, visions, aims for the project?
IM: So, SCCA currently, the first base we opened in 2019 in March was dedicated purely to retrospectives of the older generation. So, the first exhibition we opened was of an 80-year-old Ghanaian artist called Kofi Dawson. He was a painter. He also made some sculptures and he kept a huge archive. So, his exhibition lasted ten months. It’s only recently closed. And the next exhibition we have planned is in the end of April, by a painter, also a sculptor, a poet, a playwright, Agyeman Ossei.
And then we also have exhibitions planned with architects, modernist architects who design buildings, musicians, scientists, archeologists. There’s an archeological department at the University of Ghana, in Accra. I’ve been in conversation with some of them, the professors and also an old man in the north who is from the upper north, who’s been interested in the history of archeology in Ghana. He’s been writing a lot because when he was a child when we were going to the farm and all that they used to find these clay verses. But they never really understood what they were because people bury things in the ground thousands of years ago. So, that idea that when some of these things were on earth they were either looted or sold to museums around the world, or they didn’t know what to do with them. So all these things are where my interests come from.
So, how can we build institutions that can somehow contain this and create a new sense of culture for children who are yet to be born or children who are even now growing up? Because we as adults, we are somehow trapped in our own ways because we only attach a sense of value to certain specific things within our society. And culture always seems to be that bottom chain. But I think that if we manage to create these institutions which can instill that sense of love and understanding in these aspects, these children will grow up and they will place a different sense of value on these things. So, it’s not something you can do and immediately expect results. I was collecting all kinds of things so aside [from] looking into the archeology, I was negotiating with the railways in Ghana to collect materials, archives, some of the old trains to turn them into classrooms and residential spaces. I bought some old aircrafts. Currently have six planes.
SB: Just on the property.
IM: Yes. I bought a lot of land, also, so over four hundred acres of land. It’s for the foundation of the institution and also looking at it in the future because you’re not just building something now; you’re thinking about longevity: How will it expand in the future? How would other forms of programs you created about it in the future? Because come to think about the fifty years from now, some of these lands that we bought as part of the institution, it will be impossible to have access to these lands. So you have to think in the long term, and that is where the excitement is, that the fact that all these histories I spoke about, with regards to the architecture from the past and how they were deeply rooted in a certain crisis at some point could suddenly inspire us to create things that would somehow unfold new futures, but using the past as a point of reference.
SB: Right. It’s almost like taking an understanding of what we have in our own time, but trying to create a new one in a different time.
IM: Exactly. It’s almost like a certain time travel where you’re almost trying to go back to the past through the present. And also using the future, which is yet to come. There is an interesting film I admire, Interstellar—not the quest of an Orleans Interstellar, not the entire film, but the ending, where [Joseph] Cooper finds himself in the Tesseract, where he has to confront his daughter’s past, which his daughter always claimed that there was a ghost trying to communicate with him. And Cooper actually followed his daughter to the NASA space station, which then, now, led him to space several years later. He comes to fall in the Tesseract only to realize that he was the ghost that actually sent the message to his daughter and himself to come to this point. It’s like a loop.
So that’s how I think about these systems like building arts, the arts work from all these old residues to make these works, which come back to somehow relook at the situation to see if we can revive those spaces, give them new functions also to create new other spaces that would go. So it’s going back and forth.
SB: I understand that you’re also looking at agriculture and housing and education. How are you developing those programs?
IM: Well, the main project as part of our institution is looking at education of children in not just the given value to the institution, but also just looking at their place within it in the long term. So we do a lot of workshops with kids. For now, we were doing workshops around the old exhibition that we did with Kofi Dawson. And we’re thinking about… Because I’ve been interested in many things, like drone technology and all that, like airplanes, trains, archives. So how can we, for instance, the trains and other things that we bring into the context of the institution, some of those, the interior spaces could be used as classrooms. So for instance, in teaching children how to make apps, maybe code, do certain things that can allow them new points of entry into, let’s say, agriculture, issues regarding irrigation.
I’ve been talking to people regarding making solar panels and creating new alternative energy sources because we have an abundant amount of sun in the north in Ghana. It can get very hot, like 45 degrees [Celcius], but yet we just rely on the electric grid. Also, water becomes very scarce at some points also. But it’s possible to somehow create these dams, which you can then use to nourish the earth, to have a full year of planting crops and things like that. So, the idea is that these objects can inspire all these new systems. So, we’re just hoping that at least going forward when we begin to plant the shea trees, maize, rice. And most of these things are already part of the land, which we are using for the project, which the community members actually already produce. But it’s more or less how we find ways to draw those community people into the larger part of the institution. We have to be sensitive to that.
SB: What’s Tamale like?
IM: Tamale is the third-largest city in Ghana. Geographically, it is in the upper parts of Ghana, about two and a half hours away from the border of Burkina Faso. So from Tamale to the Burkina Faso capital, Ouagadougou, is about a five-hours drive. It has a population of about six hundred thousand people. The Dagbon region in all has a population about maybe one point something million people and Tamale has the second international airport in Ghana, aside Accra. So if you’re flying to Ghana, you have to fly to Accra before you can fly anywhere else. But [the] majority of our population are Muslims. Historically, if you needed to go to Mecca for the program, you had to go to Accra. But in recent years, they expanded a runway of the airport. So now, we have the airplanes coming straight from Saudi Arabia to Tamale to pick [up] pilgrims and take them.
So the idea is to… Recently there was a sod that was cut to expand it into a proper, international airport. So we’re hoping that, at least in the future, it can host the regional flights, and eventually, it can also become a destination for international flights coming in directly into Ghana. And once that happens, it will change the city in itself. But for now, whilst it’s not, we are enjoying it as it is, have the peace and calm and then we are trying to at least intervene within the cultural systems and other fun things. Until that happens, so there are things which are yet to happen, but at least we have to do the work that we’re doing now. So, at least when those developments come in the future, it will make a lot more sense.
SB: It’s interesting thinking about infrastructure in the context of what you’re doing, obviously going back to what your father does professionally too, but how do you view the current cultural infrastructure—if we can call it that—in Ghana, and what are your hopes with the SCCA and your other projects bringing more awareness to art, to culture, and to showing young kids there what’s possible?
IM: To be fair, we have these sense of national cultures around the country, so they are basically cultural institutions which are there, which are supposed to promote arts and culture, but it’s mostly very reductive. There are a lot of traditional practices that are there that are showcased, very literal, simplistic paintings, so-called very traditional practices like drumming and dancing, things like that. But we are a lot more than that. We’re connected through technology and all that. I thought that when we’re building SCCA—currently I’m in conversation with the interim director of the Center for National Culture in Tamale to find ways in which we can connect our programming to theirs in a way that some of the workshops that we have or things that we do. Like, for instance, when I have a budget through the work that I do to do things that SCCA. Can we allocate part of the budget to them to make sure the workshops don’t just happen at SCCA, but also happen with them?
So, in a way that our programming can also somehow give the institution a new way of functioning, because I think that the idea of—sometimes the private sector maybe proposes more radical ways of doing things. But I also think that the states, the public sector, is very important. No matter what we do, we have to try as much as possible to sustain that. Because that is what we all own, collectively. Because what if I decide tomorrow that I’m not interested in funding or running SCCA anymore and it collapses. But the state institution has to run because an entire generation depends on it because that is what the taxpayer’s money is supposed to do.
But then again, they are not funded. They are not given the right capital that they need in order to create the programs that are there, and when it’s even done, you don’t have the right people who maybe managed those institutions. So through maybe SCCA and encouraging artists who are coming out from the arts college, who have interest in ideas but they don’t want to practice as artists, they can begin to work in institutions like that to see how they can contribute also to the development of different cultural forms across the states and then in the region at large.
SB: How do you think art can shift Ghanaian culture?
IM: It’s not a difficult one, but it’s just the interest. It’s the interest. One, it can shift the way we look. For me, as I said before, the ideological struggles are the main thing and art has a tendency of re-shifting the way we think about just our place, the way we look at things, the perspectives as which we come at it from. It could be the same thing, but each time you come at it, because each time you see a work of art, you don’t look at it through the same lens. The lens always changes depending on their context, depending on the situation, the condition, all that. And I think that, that’s what art has to promise.
For me, as an artist, I constantly strive to make work which always changes, not just in terms of form and materiality, but also just with regards to context—where it is placed. Today, if it’s placed here and you see it. Tomorrow, if it’s in a different space, the conversation changes. Like when we started doing the jute sacks, the fact that it’s covering a building in the city center… It’s different when it goes to America, it’s different when it goes to Germany, it’s different when it covers a castle, it’s different when it’s in water, it’s different when it’s hanging in a gallery space. So those different things, the fact that the same thing each time you come at it, you see it, you’re like, “Oh, this is different. I never thought about this.”
And even I, as an artist, I don’t have all the answers. I think that’s one of the biggest problems that we have in the world: that we think that we always have the answers to everything. But we don’t know anything. We have to assume that we don’t know. We have to open ourselves to learning and finding new ways of doing things and accommodate things, and that is what art can do to our generation. And also in re-looking at the world.
SB: I can’t help but think that a core thing that you’re doing is creating conversation.
IM: Yes, exactly. That’s the main thing, is to create conversation, and conversation is important, particularly if we want to strive for change, if we want to go forward. Mostly, we don’t even want to have a conversation. We know and then that’s it. We are not interested in but true nuances and all kinds of things that we do, it’s begins to realign things and it’s not so bad to have a conversation after all, no matter how much antagonism that comes with. It’s, you learn something from it, and I think we have to open ourselves to that.
SB: I wanted to close on this idea of independence. Obviously, going back to Ghana’s independence, then I’m thinking about your own independence at age 5 and now also where you’re working as an independent artist. Of course, you have White Cube as a gallery and then you’re working as a director of the SCCA. How do you manage to do everything? And connected to that, what do you think of the idea of independence itself in connection to that freedom to be able to do all that you’re doing?
IM: Well, I think to start with it’s quite exciting because a generation ago, it might not have been possible to be able to do this. It’s having the economic independence also to be able to do some of the things that I do is also important. Of course, we always think that we could do a lot more if we had more, but sometimes maybe things are just supposed to be the way they are, so at least to create a certain pace. It’s good to be able to work with the gallery that can support the work that you do financially with regards to helping you to make the right sales that you need to institutions to build your practice and at the same time at least to be able to give you the capital that you need to continuously do what you’re doing.
But at the same time, when you construct something with it, like SCCA, there are so many people who work there. So we have an artistic director [and] an administrator, who is one of my studio assistants. We have an administrator, another administrator. We have a librarian. We have young artists who are doing their national service with us there. We have a team of carpenters, plumbers, painters who maintain the exhibition and the space going forward. And of course, when we open the extended space, which we are in April [opening] a new space, we’ll have more people that we need to employ.
So that sense of responsibility, being responsible for all these people and being able to work and then know that the work that you are doing is actually working to pay them in order to keep the system that you’ve proposed. It’s a very difficult thing, but it’s exciting because there is an agenda of being able to get something right. Because if it’s state-managed, because normally a lot of people who might be employed into positions like that from the state, one, they might be unqualified for it. They’re only there because of party politics. And then secondly also they might not really have a core, I don’t know, core principle to protect the institution and then see it develop and then transform their thinking of a generation and all that. And that is what we believe in. That is what actually inspired me to think about shifting my practice from making artworks, covering buildings into creating this institution.
So, that freedom in itself is something that you cannot take for granted. So, I try as much as possible to constantly think how can that develop going forward and somehow, how can I pass that on to maybe a much younger generation through the things that I’m building whether it be artworks that I’m making, which can be a gift back to the generations that are yet to come, who can use it differently but in a much more conscious way. And I think the consciousness is where the struggle currently is.
SB: Do you have hope?
IM: A lot. I wouldn’t do any of the things that I’m doing if I didn’t have hope. I’m very hopeful, actually, about the future. And it’s only because they are people who’ve sacrificed so much for us historically. And then also on a daily basis. If you look at work that has been done by ordinary workers, you realize how much people contribute to the building of an economy, but yet are so deprived because they are never really rewarded as they’re supposed to [be]. As an artist, you can only be grateful and also contribute to change the existing narrative or the mechanism that is making things run the way they are.
SB: Thanks for coming in today. It’s great to have you here.
IM: Thank you very much. It’s been wonderful.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on Jan. 27, 2020. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity. This episode was produced by our managing director, Mike Lala, and sound engineer Pat McCusker.