PRESS RELEASE

Orderly Disorderly is the third in a trilogy of large-scale end-of-year exhibitions held in the Science and Technology Museum, Accra, by fresh graduates, alumni and special guests of the KNUST Fine Art Department in Kumasi. The terms of the trilogy were launched by Silence between the Lines, an experimental exhibition of emergent art held in Kumasi in February, 2015. Some common features of this body of exhibitions are intergenerational conversations, collective curating, accessibility programming, especially, braille translations of exhibition texts and open-source coordination, and off-site ‘prosthesis’ projects.

Following Gown must go to Town…(2015) and Cornfields in Accra (2016) respectively, Orderly Disorderly (2017) presents a constellation of projects by over 80 selected artists, and a body of archives of the Kumasi School which includes manuscripts of poems authored by Uche Okeke. Supplementing the artist list is a generic participant ‘The Unknown Artist’, marking the ineluctable site of exception which haunts art projects operating within the finitude of capitalist processes. The curatorial muse is Iranian film maker Abbas Kiarostami, the author of Orderly or Disorderly (1981), whose films star children and amateurs in lead roles.

The exhibition also honours the lifework of Ghanaian modernist Ablade Glover, dubbed Order in Disorder, which culminated in the political vision of an artists’ alliance in the early 1990s when decades of domestic and international neglect had left Ghana’s cultural institutions emaciated. This modest vision of emancipatory politics and courageous social action in a milieu of hopelessness, inspires blaxTARLINES KUMASI, the contemporary art incubator and project space of KNUST organising this exhibition.

Orderly Disorderly will be opened by the guest of honour, the artist El Anatsui.

 

‘ORDERLY DISORDERLY’: KNUST END OF YEAR EXHIBITION

OPENING: FRIDAY, 30TH JUNE, 2017

MUSEUM OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY, ACCRA

ORGANISERS: blaxTARLINES KUMASI

SUPPORTED BY: GHANA MUSEUMS AND MONUMENTS BOARD

Orderly Disorderly (2017) poster

…from Love and all ITS Friends…Part 1 is an art exhibition featuring Georgina Fynn, Tracy Naa Koshie Thompson, Louisa Badger, Dickson Artoqui, Gideon Olaga-Jumpa, Praises Adu Benhene, Daniel Osei Poku, Kelvin Haizel and Emmanuel Ocran, curated by Patrick Nii Okanta Ankrah. The exhibition puts together works that altogether raise questions of how synthetic and mechanical objects interact with biological lifeforms when they encounter each other.

Benhene’s damp decommissioned clothes — folded, stacked, hanged, cast in p.o.p — collected from “galamsey” (illegal mining) and car fitting sites are presented in sculptural and installation form. Not only do they embody a presence of things in decay but also of materials frozen in time and of things that are becoming. The clothes that have been preserved in their natural state with accumulation of dirty oil stains, sweat, and dust have molds/mildew/fungi growths on them. Poku’s installation of severed cattle horns strung together grotesquely hang from the ceiling. Visible on them are horn moths that feed on its keratin. What happened to the cattle? The question is answered in a video work by the artist which shows how the commodified ungulate animals are transported from various parts of the Northern region of Ghana and subjected to brutal fates of butchery for a ready consumer market. Both Benhene’s and Poku’s works emit smells consequent from the immanence of decaying and emerging life forms.

Artoqui and Olaga-Jumpa are horticulturalists whose plants are brought into conversation with synthetic materials. The former’s experimental attitude has permitted him to successfully cultivate strawberries in Kumasi.1 The latter’s plants — Snake Tongue, Urn, Lillies, Purple Heart, etc — are distributed within the exhibition space. Both are cared for throughout the period of the exhibition. Thompson’s plastic forms made from melted polystyrene mit oil paint appear in conversation with these plants. She melts the polystyrene with gasoline (which is almost like a reflexive gesture of transforming something with its own self to test what it becomes). In the family of petroleum-based products, Ocran’s installation of bended, torched and twisted PVC pipes and plastic gallons extends the space of the exhibition from its interior boundaries into an outdoor environment. Badger’s participatory work — writing on blackboard sited on the fence of the old KNUST Museum (away from the other works) — locates itself in an outdoor space and invites public intervention by way of writing on the blackboard to continue the preambles she defines on subjects such as love, rain, journeying, and so on.

Still within the interior space of the exhibition, Fynn’s and Haizel’s objects exist in varying states of objecthood. The former’s are made with brown paper and stiff fabric through processes of soaking, wood-block printing, bleaching, dying and drying. One is sculptural —a mould made from a log displayed on the floor— the other is a rectangular board, with the same brown paper treatment, diagonally mounted to connect the ceiling to the floor. Haizel’s process of printing and pasting opaque and transparent images onto disused car doors and lamps respectively also inheres the idea of mapping images onto objects. The lamps are electrically wired and powered by car batteries.

The exhibition becomes a theatre of various technologies of life participating in the dialectical process of being and becoming… Could Love, then, be the attitude that acts as the universal binder for these forms?

— Written by Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh (2017)

Note:

1. It is not impossible to grow strawberries in tropical climates. Appropriate soil, water and care conditions (i.e. love) will ensure its success.

…from Love and all ITS Friends… Part 1
Opening: Thursday 27th April 2017, 5:30pm
Closing: Wednesday 31st May 2017
Opens from 9am — 8pm
Venue: The Painting and Sculpture Department
Participants:
Georgina Fynn, Tracy Naa Koshie Thompson, Louisa Badger, Dickson Artoqui, Gideon Olaga-Jumpa, Praises Adu Benhene, Daniel Osei Poku, Kelvin Haizel and Emmanuel Ocran.

Curator:
Patrick Nii Okanta Ankrah

The image, thought of not just as signs or marks perceptible exclusively by sight but as existing in an expansive realm encompassing other apparatuses of perception, opens up an enticing array of possibilities for art. We can think of how it exists on screen as a video object or magnified through light rays beaming onto surfaces/objects; as word, dialogue, or gestures on stage; as photography or painting; as braille, mathematical ideas and so on. By breaking its [over]reliance on resemblance or reference to something beyond itself, we can further constitute many forms of what the image can potentially be whether through skilled or mechanical means.

Kelvin Haizel’s solo exhibition, “Things and Nothings” (2017), deals with immanent forms of the image — still and moving — and opens up an ontological dimension to its status. The artist posits a relationship of identity and alterity between things and nothings. In the realm of phenomena, he asks how the transition from image to object occurs, what the object of an image is and how we can tell things from nothings.1 The sub-text to this relationship of alterity is based on a logic of hierarchies; therefore value judgments such as banal, mundane, pure, and so on made about a thing or nothing functions on such ordered principles of objectness.

Haizel’s image-objects range from installations made from disused car and motorbike parts (doors, head lamps, tail lamps, indicator lights, taxi top signs), a video displayed on an upward-facing screen fitted in a rectangular wooden encasement and a single-channel video projection. The car doors are installed in both interior and exterior environments of the exhibition. On them are lamp attachments and opaque photographic prints.2 Images on transparent sticker are superimposed on the tail and head lamps. Light rays beaming through its bulbs through the images animate the lamp objects.3 The lamps are strung into electrically wired systems comprised of indicator lights, tail lamps, head lamps, flasher units and images on transparent sticker, distributed into two independent installations powered by car batteries. The flasher is the mechanism that causes a number of the lamps to pulsate light and steadily alternate soft ticking sounds that subtly pervade the exhibition room. In this sense, light and sound become forms that also fill space — internal and external.

The projection shows a soundless video of two hands playing an improvised version of the pit and pebble board game, Oware. The picture is a network of parallel columns of images serialized uniformly into a coordination of moving images. Slow motion and fast forward operations exacerbate movement and achieves an unnerving spectacle of moving images in symmetry. The video displayed on screen in the wooden encasement remixes scenes from the music video of Casper Nyovest’s hip hop song War Ready. Haizel proceeds to stretch his one-minute-thirty-six-second extract from the aforementioned video into a twenty-minute sequence. This causes his moving images to behave like fragmented stills colliding, frame by frame, into each other. Here, the immanence of still and moving image is given visual form — the image behaves like still shots that have been broken apart and are beginning to stitch themselves (at a snail’s pace) together to constitute a picture.

Our conception of what the image is is extended, compounded and layered when printed and handwritten information contend with holographic seals, bar codes and braille embossments on pharmaceutical boxes pasted in one corner of the exhibition space. This is the subtlest and most ambiguous form of image in the exhibition: with regard to the braille, it makes itself intelligible by touch; for braille-literate spectators the information is accessible; for illiterates, they are patterns of dots in relief on the flattened boxes. The braille embossments reveal themselves upon closer inspection and so for spectators who do not bridge the distance between themselves and the art objects all that is seen are the flattened boxes. There is a gap here between what is known and what can be known. One form of sensory perception fails or must fail for another to make the information contained therein intelligible. It is also possible for touch and vision to participate in unraveling the layers of imagery/meaning. In this palimpsestic image there is a constant interplay of meanings availing themselves and others becoming elusive. The patterns of dark and thin lines, digits, alphabets, embossed dots and holographic prints function together to constitute something more than their pragmatics. If we decide not to overemphasize what is happening on/in the pharmaceutical boxes — with its multi-sensorial implications— we could resign to an indexical position invoking a disembodied eye contemplating flat objects on a wall.

And so we find ourselves returned to the questions the artist begins with in the first place: “How do transitions from images to objects occur? What is the object of an image?”.  The image can be subverted, extended, reduced and it can also act as a tool which subverts, extends and reduces either itself or the reality that produced it.

— Written by Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh (2017).

Things and Nothings

Solo exhibition by Kelvin Haizel

9th — 27th May, 2017, opens from 5:47pm – 8: 21pm from Monday to Friday.

Venue: Old KNUST Museum, KNUST, Kumasi, Ghana.

Supporting institution: blaxTARLINES KUMASI, Project Space for Contemporary Art, KNUST, Kumasi, Ghana.

Notes:

  1. The thesis for Kelvin Haizel’s project is captured in the following when he writes : “Things and Nothings” is the result of investigations into the image (still and moving). A thing is considered a thing because it has yet to enter any form of categorization outside of being a thing; it has yet to be classified. However, nothing is already classified among the sub (-stitute) (-altern)            (-standard). It may be considered as inferior, derogatory and or lowly within a certain hierarchy of objects. In another breath the image as nothing may be thought of as not-special, banal or even mundane. In the world saturated with all sorts of images, we could experience them in their material form as objects that are things or nothings. How do the transitions from images to objects occur? What is the object of an image? How can we tell things from nothings? Using a body of work produced over the past two years, I present the image (in both still and moving form) and the objects they become”. See Things and Nothings (2017) exhibition brochure.
  2. These photographic prints are scenes from motor accident sites that Haizel has documented. He fictionalizes his documentation of these sites of trauma by introducing playful, but foreign, elements such as stuffed animals and footballs. This subversive gesture wrests his photographs from the genre of documentary into compositions contesting their own facticity. The images on the tail and head lamps are also from these sources.
  3. Perhaps, it is a fact of auto electronics that light shines through tail/head lights. But when it ventures into the ambit of art — the realm of intentionality and freedom — this fact can no longer be taken for granted. The artist’s nominalist gesture activates a non-functional part of an auto-mechanical system. It may exist as it is, unaltered from its state of disrepair, or subjected to additional processes, procedures or operations to become something compounded or other or more than what it is.

Memory and Amnesia: In the Presence of Absent Futures

Let us think of the library as an event where time and place are in perpetual conflict: a place where one is able to open up their imagination into different worlds potentially subverting the past-present-future teleology: a heterotopia where fictions of time and place become possible. The library is also a repository where informational material sourced from various geographies, demographics, references, histories and so on are recorded, archived and reorganized according to a logic of mythical relations invented to conform to internal indexical systems and/or organizational principles. The mythic relations may be based on synchronic or dialogic principles; it may also be hierarchically structured. That the library is a site of heterochronies — a place “of all times that is itself outside of time and inaccessible to its ravages”1— subject to systems of sourcing, archiving and reorganization which conform to an institutional ethos is testament to its conflicted nature: for these become the systems by which it attempts to constitute all times as well as vet what makes it into its space and what is left out.

Memory and Amnesia: In the Presence of Absent Futures reflects on the dialectics of the library as place of political relations through which potential futures can be envisioned. The exhibition is sited on the ground floor of the Prempeh II Library on KNUST campus. The titular “Memory and Amnesia” distinctively sets up an opposition between a thing and its negative. The antinomies result in a paradoxical theme under which binaries participate and the exploration of possible futures begin. Seven artists’ works ranging from photography, video and installation populate the areas between the security center and discussion area of the library’s lending section. Selasi Sosu’s single-channel video installation projects abstracted glass images onto plexiglass — the still image is visible from both sides of the translucent screen and is changed on a daily basis. Mawuenya Amudzi’s installation is a four-stack hexagonal monument of disused cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors with light fixtures. Images are transferred from transparent sticker onto the screens. Light emissions from the monitors through the images gives the form a theatrical quality. On theatricality, Caleb Prah’s tableaux, inspired by medieval stained glass windows, is a staged composition of individual subjects haloed by baskets (objects of their profession) symmetrically facing each other. His two works, framed with aluminium and glass, printed on flex, mounted against windows with draperies on both sides, animated by natural light evokes the aesthetics of a church room window or perhaps one in a living room. Francis Nii Addo Quaye’s video montages sequence “poor images”2 of derelict architectural structures, old posters, advertising boards, notices, etc dubbed with sounds recorded from radio stations and the streets of James Town in Accra. Quaye’s video editing technique of ‘moshing’ images, audios and texts into a sequence achieves the effect of bombardment mimicking urban societies where one is constantly barraged with aural, image and textual information.

Deryk Owusu Bempah’s 9ft x 14ft photograph on flex mounted on the east end wall of the discussion area depicts an empty tunnel. The tunnel is of a real place on KNUST campus (it is usually a busy interstitial space connecting the main building of the Republic Hall to its annex building). There is an uncanny vacantness in the trompe l’oeil of continuing space in this picture. In the exhibition space the photograph sits behind a spiral staircase that leads to the upper floors of the library. The actual space of the spiral staircase and the illusion of vanishing distance beyond the two-dimensional support of the photograph potentially causes the spectator to contemplate, if only for a moment, how to engage this two-fold visual cum phenomenological paradox. Teresa Menka’s absences characterized by photographs of unoccupied places (bedrooms, kitchens, workshops, farms, etc) exacerbate the theme of negated presence. Menka’s photographs printed on paper are mounted on both sides of three wooden shelves horizontally placed and in diagonal relationship to each other. Eric Gyamfi’s black and white portraits printed on cloth are laid facing upward on all tables in the discussion area. Users of the library participate in the life of the work and/or its use depending on how they engage it: could this merely be a decorative gesture? Does the work function as a table cloth? Is it art? This display strategy makes Gyamfi’s photographic cloths a function of the use of the discussion area itself and breaks any distance between the audience (or users of the library) and the work. An intimate engagement is then established when the spectator is able to touch and inspect the work more closely countering an otherwise contemplative gaze.

The exhibition also calls the status of the image into question.

— Written by Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh (2017).

“Memory and Amnesia: In the Presence of Absent Futures”

Participating artists: Caleb Prah, Teresa Menka, Selasi Sosu, Deryk Owusu Bempah, Eric Gyamfi, Mawuenya Amudzi and Francis Nii Addo Quaye.

Curator: Mavis Tetteh-Ocloo

Advisors: kąrî’kạchä seid’ou, Dorothy Amenuke, Kwame Opoku-Bonsu, Kwaku Boafo Kissiedu, George Ampratwum

Partner institutions: Prempeh II Library, KNUST, blaxTARLINES KUMASI, Department of Painting and Sculpture, KNUST.

Notes:

  1. Michel Foucault, in his essay “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias” (1967) outlines six principles of what he calls “heterotopias”. He distinguishes this concept from utopias (“sites with no real place”) as sites which exist but which simultaneously represent, contest and invert real sites — a counter-site. His third, fourth and fifth principles are the ones that squarely suit my trajectory of thought on the library. The third principle posits that “The heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible”. In the fourth principle is where he gives the specific heterochronic nature of the library: according to Foucault, “there are heterotopias indefinitely accumulating time, for example museums and libraries. Museums and libraries have become heterotopias in which time never stops building up and topping its own summit, whereas in the seventeenth century, even at the end of the century, museums and libraries were the expression of an individual choice. By contrast, the idea of accumulating everything, of establishing a sort of general archive, the will to enclose in one place all times, all epochs, all forms, all tastes, the idea of constituting a place of all times that is itself outside of time and inaccessible to its ravages, the project of organizing in this way a sort of perpetual and indefinite accumulation of time in an immobile place, this whole idea belongs to our modernity. The museum and the library are heterotopias that are proper to western culture of the nineteenth century.” Even though Foucault is making his analysis of the library as heterotopic site in the context of nineteenth century Western modernity, I find that he is at the same time able to describe some universal qualities about this site. His fifth principle captures the systems of inclusion and exclusion that regulate heterotopias i.e. who is permitted to enter or not.
  2. Hito Steyerl defines the poor image as one which is first of all digital, ranked and valued according to its substandard resolution, of bad quality by being heavily compressed, itinerant, distributed for free, remixed (ie. reedited, reformatted, downloaded, shared), ripped (AVI or JPEG), with filenames deliberately misspelled and so on. See Hito Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen, 2012, e-flux journal, Sternberg Press, Berlin, pp. 30 – 44.

What happens when the exhibition form becomes a decoy — an anamorphic stain1 — that plugs itself into a system oblivious to it? “Something Played” is a curatorial project that brings to the fore issues of “exponential technology, looming ecological disaster, [and] concrete political action” through played objects — ranging from a console game, makeshift arcade game, [digitized] board game on screen, downloadable game app, sound, video and installation intersecting virtual/digital experiences with the material and optical. The exhibition features works by an app developer and eight artists: namely Aaron Sanson, Jonathan Okoronkow, Grace Gbedife, Adjo Daiki Apodey Kisser, Akwasi Afrane Bediako, Percy Nii Nortey, Moro Samiratu Abdulai, Kelvin Haizel and Prince Osei Owusu Bempah.

Sited on the second floor of a three-story building located on the commercial corridor of M-Plaza Drive in Asafo, the exhibition exists within the cacophony of architectural styles, sounds, images, and happenings that characterize such commercial districts in Kumasi and engages potential publics from transport yards, wholesale/retail outlets, pharmacy shops, banks, betting stores, and many more, as if to make the claim that in this arena, too, contemporary art has a right to exist. To interact with the briskness external to the exhibition environment an LED advertizing board on the front of the building has been appropriated to display Haizel’s, Abdulai’s and Nortey’s videos. For Abdulai and Nortey, the videos show their working processes: of immersing fried shrimps and dried anchovies in resin-accelerator-pigment mixture and ironing soiled fabrics collected from fitting shops cut, stitched and glued to construct rigid sculptural objects in the form of mechanical auto parts, respectively. Haizel’s video depicts two hands on either side of an Oware board game wearing clinical gloves, moving capsules — instead of pebbles — from one pit of the board to the other. The videos become part of a sequence of advertising material displayed on the LED mount marketing tinned fish, herbal soap and other beauty products.

In the exhibition space, Bediako’s makeshift arcade machine, built from parts of a desktop computer, retunes old games into his own versions — adapting the 2D aesthetics and run-time environments of “Super Mario Bros” into “Super Catholic Bros” — for an interactive experience. Across from this installation is Sanson’s Counters Ball Pro game (available on Google Play Store) projected onto the wall in one corner of the exhibition space — the single channel video setup permits one player at a time. To the left of this work is Okoronkwo’s engine oil drawings on plywood “inspired by mechanical bodies in fitting shops” in Kumasi. This work is mirrored on the opposite wall. Kisser’s stickers on wall usher the spectator into the exhibition and is distributed throughout the exhibition space to subtly interact with the other works. Nortey’s rigid sculptural objects composed into auto engineering parts sit in-between Okoronkwo’s drawings and Gbedife’s digitally manipulated photographs of working class citizens in Adum, Ayigya and other neighborhoods in Kumasi. Bempah’s acrylic paintings on table cloth with glued plastic cut-outs appropriate Hyacinthe Rigaud’s 18th century portrait of Louis XIV in Coronation Robes and a bank note depicting the Big Six of pre-independence Ghana rendering the heads of the figures with mortars. Abdulai’s gesture of preserving aquatic life in gel-like luminescent form is, in one mode of display, mounted on a wall encased in an open mini suitcase inspired by commercial wrist watch and phone sellers’ mode of displaying ware. The other display method of her work sees its luminous character stimulated by a torch light underneath the gel-like grid form mounted on glass placed on a wooden bar stool flipped upside down. The indoor display of Haizel’s video is mounted centrally in the exhibition space, next to Abdulai’s aforementioned work. Haizel’s video object is displayed on a screen fitted in a rectangular wooden encasement with two seats provided on both ends of its long sides. This display strategy inverts the normal order of the two-player Oware game by making it accessible to spectators exclusively in a visual, not playable, form. In an inner-room within the exhibition space, there is a game lounge with an X-Box console and a flatscreen monitor mounted on wall. Here, spectators literally indulge the virtual realm.

The exhibition deals with the concept of play as “fundamentally ambiguous”, opening it up to literal, paradoxical and political interpretations.

— written by Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh (2017).

Exhibition duration : 21 April – 5th May, open daily 9am – 7pm at Green building near VIP Parcel Office, M-Plaza Drive, Asafo, Kumaso.

Participants: Jonathan Okoronkwo, Grace Gbedife, Adjo Daiki Apodey Kisser, Aaron Sanson, Akwasi Afrane Bediako, Percy Nii Nortey, Moro Samiratu Abdulai, Kelvin Haizel and Prince Osei Owusu Bempah.

Curator: Selom Koffi Kudjie

Supporting institutions: Department of Painting and Sculpture, blaxTARLINES, KUMASI, Birago Multimedia

Advisors: kąrî’kạchä seid’ou, Kwaku Boafo Kissiedu, George Ampratwum.

Note:

  1. Essentially, this is the attitude advanced by kąrî’kạchä seid’ou’s emancipatory art teaching that shapes contemporary art practice in the Kumasi College of Art. seid’ou explains that “[w]hat we hope to advance in Kumasi [College of Art] is a field of “general intellect” which encourages student artists and other young artists to work in the spirit of finding alternatives to the bigger picture which excluded their voices but paradoxically by first becoming an anamorphic stain in the bigger picture itself. This way, the stain instigates a new vision, which requires a necessary shift in the spectator’s perspective. And this shift in perspective leaves the older picture as a stain in the new picture”. See: “Silent parodies: kąrî’kạchä seid’ou in conversation with Jelle Bouwhuis,” in Project 1975: Contemporary Art and the Postcolonial Unconscious, eds. Jelle Bouwhuis and Kerstin Winking (Amsterdam and London: SMBA and Black Dog Publishing, 2014), 109–18
Something Played, exhibition poster

Exhibition poster

Photo by IUB8

Something Played, 2017, exhibition building on M-Plaza Drive commercial corridor, photo by IUB

Photo by BA-J10

Something Played, 2017, Installation view, photo by Selom Kudjie

Photo by Kudjie

Something Played, 2017, Installation view, photo by Bernard Akoi-Jackson

Something Played, 2017, photo by IUB

Akwasi Afrane Bediako, AP-T, 2017, cathode ray tube screen, keyboard, system unit, detail. Photo by Bernard Akoi-Jackson

Photo by BA-J13

Samiratu Abdulai Moro, I won’t selfish (ii), 2017, fried anchovies in resin-accelerator-pigment mixture, 3ft x 3ft, detail

Jonathan Okoronkow, OUT OF USE…AND BEYOND 1, 2017, drawing on plywood, engine oil, 4ft x 8ft, installation view, photo by Bernard Akoi-Jackson

Of the Oval and the Cross: the Play Production Osiris Rising in Terms of Images

 

The image — still, moving, analog, virtual, material, digital, aural — constitutes a profound form, medium, tool or even technique, depending on how one encounters or employs it. In the late 19th century it was offered a new life-form through photography and cinema but has remained, more lastingly, in the traditions of theatre where illusions constitute raison d’être for a communal engagement.1 Photography and cinema too had inherited illusionism from the painting traditions which preceded them. Contemporary visual culture seeks to regiment our sensibilities and experience of the world, almost exclusively, on the empirical and conceptual experiences of the image — talk of radio, billboards, television, the Internet and so on. Prior to the digital age there was talk of the auratic, original or authentic image; today, we speculate the “poor image”.2 Images cannot only be thought of as objectifying the real: dialectically, they also construct reality and tend to become it. Therefore, in a globalized, neo-liberal, financialized world system the image still plays a capitalistic role in our everyday lives.3 Bodily practices — theater, performance art, dance, music, etc — engage the spectacle of the image in myriad ways. I am, for the purpose of this note, particularly interested in theater with Dr. Agyeman Ossei’s dramatic adaptation of Ayi Kwei Armah’s novel Osiris Rising (1995) for stage as my subject of discussion.

In Osiris Rising, Armah retells the Osiris/Isis myth but sets it in a neo-colonialized West African state with radical intellectuals bent on changing their society by first revolutionizing its educational system. Like the Companionship of the Ankh in its day, the group seeks to resurrect “the ancient values of our humanity; our human face, our human heart, and the human mind our ancestors taught to soar.” They are successful. Ast (Isis), the African-American historian who travels back home to Africa to find work and love in Asar (Osiris) is left bearing his seed after his body is shattered into fourteen pieces by gun shots on the Bara River, ordered by the DD (Set).

A traditional characteristic of a play on the proscenium stage is its frontality: the platform on which props change positions and actors move is oriented to face the audience. The audience is a collective body captivated by the happenings on the stage before them through actions animated by lighting, sound, costume design, set design and movement. Ossei’s adaptation of Armah’s prose narrative depicts the latter’s texts as embodied, expressed, living images on the stage of the Efua T. Sutherland Drama Studio.4 He preserves Armah’s didactic style while taking care to color imagery where necessary. He approaches set, prop and costume design with an experimental attitude, while making music a tangibly prominent form in the play — evident in his collaboration with faculty and students of the music department of the School of Performing Arts, Legon, graduate students from KNUST College of Art, National Symphony Orchestra and other musicians using music from folk (Nwomkro, Zigi, Yaa Amponsah, Borborbor, Fontomfrom), horn, and percussion ranges. Aspects of the dialogues appropriate melodies from King Bruce’s post-colonial ballroom highlife as well as Armah Pinoh’s Maria and Benjamin Paapa Yankson’s Tena Menkyɛn, emphasizing the cantata form typical to the oratory of traditional theater.

The minimal set design is characterized by two monumental ankhs — the one (a cut out) is centered in the background and the other (a solid member painted gold), is mounted on the ceiling in the foreground. The scale of the ankhs are in relation to the fact that it forms the symbolic crux of the narrative. The ankh in the foreground, from a frontal viewpoint, is mounted quasi-perpendicularly to the background ankh. The decision to mount the foreground ankh on the ceiling takes from the scene in the book when Ast and Asar make the trip to see the historian, (now become farmer and educator of young children) Ama Tete, in Bara. While there, Ast momentarily closes her eyes due to exhaustion, throws her head back from the sofa on which she is sitting, looks up and notices an ankh that formed “the centerpiece holding the roof beams” of Ama Tete’s home. The visual composition of the ankhs become compelling when we find out in this particular scene that that is where we learn the histories accompanying Ast’s ankh, Equiano’s broken ankh, and the secret Comapanionship of the Ankh. I will dwell on this spectacularly dramatic mise-en-scéne to discuss some of the imagery constructed by Ossei and his ensemble.

A visually striking image is composed when Ast, after learning the daunting stories of the ankh — seemingly to have realized her own life’s purpose — proceeds to lift her ankh with both hands high above her head tilting her countenance to meet it with deep conviction proclaiming “whoever you are, I have sought you and found you. Here I am. I want to work with you. To live with you.” Ast’s character is seated in the middle-ground of the mise-en-scéne to the right of the two ankhs in the fore- and background.5 In this image the director is able to achieve five effects as I see it: 1. Establish a formal dialogue between the three ankhs in the mind of the spectator 2. Interplay the poetry of the symbol, its historicity and relevance to the story. 3. The audience, in this moment, are confronted with the repetitive effect of a singular form, the ankh, and how this technique carries the story. 4. The rhythmic interplay of scale and form inflict the imagery of the ankh brilliantly on the mind of the spectator. 5. The frontal orientation of the stage permits a quasi-deep space cinematic effect when a totalizing image is composed, flattening fore-, middle- and background into a tableau. Further on the tableau, this effect is heightened with the director’s use of freeze-frames at specific moments in the play to permit narration. This extra-dramatic technique mimics a flat image. It works for the distributed narrative. It functions to disrupt the audience’s contemplative gaze as well as serves to interrogate illusionism in theatre. (Having actors mount the stage from either sides of the play unexpected by the audience also achieves this purpose). This could be read as a technique used to focus on narration. It also permits the composition of what becomes equivalent to a photographic tableaux in terms of theatre.6

In the afforementioned scene, we witness the moment-of-truth for Ras Jomo Cinque Equiano. He had come to Ama Tete for “confirmation, not information” of his royal ancestry. In the book Armah describes an African-American megaloman with delusions of royalty in his bloodline come back to Africa to take his rightful place who ends up in a duplicitous, hedonistic seduction of his victims and eventually colluding with anti-revolutionary government operatives. Equiano’s character is brought to life amidst the pomp of raucous horns, ecstatic Fontonfrom drumming and hyper-flamboyant costume which sufficiently confers a larger-than-life status on the character, accompanied by the trio of Sisters to whom he is married and the fake Ethiopian Prince Wossen.

Ama Tete’s character is another immaculate translation from text to living image. Ossei, recognizing her centrality to unraveling the history of the ankh, ingeniously distributes the narration of the story between three voices; Ama Tete’s and two other shadow characters. This worked brilliantly on a conceptual level but also in terms of stage craft and movement: in short, it brought a dynamic experience to the character. The one and her shadows, speaking lines in unison, occasionally taking individual turns in the narration, keeping the audience engaged and choreographing their movement to alternate between uniform and independent gesturing ultimately enlivens the stage with an enthralling dynamism in one of the most dramatic scenes in the play.

At this point it is worth reflecting on what Ossei leaves out from Armah’s prose narrative, what he adds and how these decisions impact the play. I will discuss this by way of addressing the potency and constraints implicit in the manifold forms available to us for artistic expression — particularly for novelist and dramatist. Ayi Kwei Armah by using the novel form is free to take liberties Ossei cannot with theatre and vice versa. Ossei is constrained not just by physical elements — the stage, acoustics, set design, lighting, etc — to be able to tell the story, he is also limited by time in the linear and irreversible sense of a durational period for the play. The production was fitted within an approximate duration of two hours. These, strictly speaking, are limitations which do not apply to the novelist. The reader of a novel may pace themselves while reading and can always come back to continue from the page where they left off (time is not experienced in the literal sense). The consequence of this kind of abandonment is radically different for the theater-goer.7

Ossei, in a world of symbolic gestures, is also free to expand Armah’s narrative in ways the novelist could not have: by using pantomimes, collaborative production, interpreting the narrative in terms of color, lighting, music, material objects in space and so on. To discuss one form as more potent than the other would be unproductive. Rather, why not approach the issue in terms of the immanent relationship between potency and excessiveness in any given form. The questions to extrapolate then become: what is the threshold to tread, understanding where a given form is most effective/affective (or impactful) and where it potentially fails so as to be able to make informed judgments while employing it? How far can an artist push the limits of a chosen form? This requires critical understanding of the extents to which we can use forms either on their own or interdiciplinarily — especially if the artist is politically motivated. This is also where the decisions we make about our works have deep resonance.

Through “seamless synthesis of scintillating songs, dialogue and movement”,  Ossei’s epic production proceeds to render in a series of live imagery Armah’s scathing critique of neocolonial education in Africa. More generally, what Armah means by “neocolonial education” refers to “the education of West Indians, of African-Americans and of Africans within the framework of Western assumptions” proceeding “on the premise that the non-Westerner has no culture or literature; and that if the non-Westerner is to become really cultured, literate and historically conscious, it will inevitably be through his assimilation into the mainstream of Western civilization.”8 By no means is Armah’s politics merely cynical of the problem he diagnoses. His is an affirmative approach that proposes solutions: to this injustice, he articulates a three-step solution in the novel, words he puts in Asar’s mouth: “One, making Africa the center of our studies. Two, shifting from Eurocentric orientations to universalistic approaches as far as the rest of the world is concerned. Three, giving our work a serious backing in African history. The last would mean placing a deliberate, planned and sustained emphasis on the study of Egyptian and Nubian history as matrices of African history, instead of concentrating on the European matrices, Greece and Rome. We would also bring in Asian and pre-Columbian history.”9

In this context, both novelist and dramatist provoke us to seek intelligent understanding of all our realities, coupled with intelligent action, so as to be able to change them. This, according Armah, is “who we are and why”…

— Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh (2017)

(Photos courtesy Bernard Akoi-Jackson)

 

Notes:

  1. From the 1920s onward, European dramatists such as Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud had begun to posit a new kind of theatre, an emancipatory form of theatre, politically motivated and opposed to the theatre of illusions. Hence, Brecht’s epic theatre and Artaud’s theatre of cruelty. For further reading on epic theatre see Walter Benjamin’s Understanding Brecht, Translated by Anna Bostock, Verso, London/New York, 1998. Furthermore, Jacques Rancière critiques these anti-art attitudes of the early 20th century as reformist and therefore not revolutionary, in his book The Emancipated Spectator, translated by Gregory Elliott, Verso, London/New York, 2009.
  2. Hito Steyerl defines the poor image as one which is first of all digital, ranked and valued according to its substandard resolution, of bad quality by being heavily compressed, itinerant, distributed for free, remixed (ie. reedited, reformatted, downloaded, shared), ripped (AVI or JPEG), with filenames deliberately misspelled and so on. According to Steyerl, “[t]he poor image embodies the afterlife of many former masterpieces of cinema and video art. It has been expelled from the sheltered paradise that cinema seems to have once been. After being kicked out of the protected and often protectionist arena of national culture, discarded from commercial circulation, these works have become travelers in a digital no-man’s-land, constantly shifting their resolution and format, speed and media, sometimes even losing names and credits along the way.” See Hito Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen, 2012, e-flux journal, Sternberg Press, Berlin, pp. 30 – 44.
  3. As acutely diagnosed by Guy Debord in the 1960s. However Debord’s solution, for a détournement of capitalist images, adopted by the Situationist International artists showed its problems — capitalism was able to subsume its attacks and assimilate it. As well, we would, today, need to rethink Debord’s essentialist thesis on alienation —  for what would our “true essence” to return to be when, for example, epigenetic studies tell us that our genome behaviour is itself dynamic and contingent? Also, scientific and technological advancements go a long way to enhance our logistics of perception rather than interfere with them. Once invented — images, machines, tools, etc — we have a way of internalizing these systems and adapting them to our individual natures and applying them to social relations. The Internet revolution has radically impacted social relations today (think of the various social media platforms). The forces of alienation have been reinvented along with these developments.
  4. This venue is where the first four stagings of the play was hosted. The set design I describe in this note apply to this stage specifically. It may change as the play travels to other venues across the country.
  5. A similar image is constructed in scene two (Ast and Nwt scene) for which this analysis also applies.
  6. Talking of the tableaux form — either in terms of classical painting or photography from the 1970s onward — brings two notes to the fore: the tableaux, because of its scale (in relation to the spectator’s body), imposes a necessary distance between itself and the spectator in order to achieve the confrontational encounter between the two. This form is also not nostalgic of painting. According to Jean François Chevrier the photographic tableaux is a return to classical compositional forms “along with borrowings from the history of modern and premodern painting, but that movement is mediatized by the use of extra-painterly models, heterogeneous with canonical art history – models from sculpture, the cinema, or philosophical analysis” and this attitude reactivates “thinking based on fragments, openness, and contradiction”. Thinking about it this way captures Ossei’s application of extra-dramatic techniques to be able to bring Armah’s prose to life. See Jean François Chevrier’s essay The Adventures of the Picture Form in the History of Photography (1989), translated by Michael Gilson (slightly abridged translation of ‘Les aventures de la forme tableau dans l’histoire de la photographie,” originally published in Photo-Kunst: Arbeiten aus 150 Jahren, exh. cat. (Stuttgart: Graphische Sammlung, St!aatsgalerie Stuttgart, and Edition Cantz, 1989). 47-81).
  7. It is true that Ossei’s style is anti-illusionistic and therefore incorporates extra-dramatic techniques like montage which opens up a fictional dimension to the relationship between different images rather than ordering itself on the logic either of a continuity or linear progression of time. On the logic of this [cinematic/radio] technique scenes are not continuously sequenced and therefore the audiences’s relationship to realtime is broken. I observed, during rehearsal sessions, the montage effect fully operational in the sense that the scenes rehearsed on a given day freely re-ordered the sequence of the narrative. However, when the play is performed to the public it conforms to the progression of events from the source material: i.e.. in the order that the novelist tells the story. My point here is that the experience for the theater-goer is in realtime (not like the reader of the novel); therefore, if the theater-goer abandons the play at any moment within the duration the play is showing she misses what has transpired during that period until such time that she returns.
  8. Ayi Kwei Armah, Remembering the Dismembered Continent: Essays, Per Ankh, Popenguine, Senegal, 2010, pp. 198
  9. Ayi Kwei Armah, Osiris Rising: a Novel, Per Ankh, Popenguine, Senegal, 2008, pp. 125

Eric Gyamfi’s black-and-white photographic series Just Like Us (2016), explores subjectivities of desire, sexuality, conviviality, despair, anxiety, intimacy, joy, and mundaneness and portrays the normality that circumscribes queer lives in Ghanaian society. The series is a documentary project developed over a yearlong period with subjects (some of whom are friends of the artist) who identify within the LGBTQ spectrum and others who do not. He describes the process as “living with people for weeks and months” to be able to tell stories from their perspectives. Sexuality, through this body of work, becomes a starting point to begin to explore themes of everydayness and raise questions about the problematics inherent in the concept of ‘normality’. Gyamfi, born in Ghana, received his bachelor’s in Economics and Information Studies from the University of Ghana and later developed his interest in photography by training in the Nuku Studio master classes —an annual photography workshop program open to local and international photographers.

See Me See You, 2016, Eric Gyamfi, Exhibition view8

See Me See You (2016) the resulting exhibition from the series — supported by the Magnum Foundation’s Emergency Fund — seeks to “instigate a kind of questioning of perception and reality” by raising the following questions: “Are queer/LGBT persons evil? Does queerness really equate to perversion? Can queerness be reconciled with religion? How do I see queer people and is the perception really true? What is the truth?”. The artist’s inquiry opens up a vast array of personal, socio-cultural, moral, political and philosophical concerns to extrapolate. This interest is not only raised in abstract propositions but implemented in tangible forms through the exhibitionary model Gyamfi implements at the Nubuke Foundation gallery— a contemporary art space in Ghana’s capital city, Accra.

See Me See You, 2016, Eric Gyamfi, Exhibition view2

Although the questions may elicit a binomial “Yes/No” mode of interaction, the exhibitionary form, however, complicates the dynamic. It functions as a site which permits an artistic interrogation into the social systems which determine what we perceive, how we can perceive what we are able to perceive, who is permitted in this process and the unspoken rules which determine the boundary lines between normativity, otherness and what could —if we are not too fixed on the inevitable binaries produced by such systems— potentially be interstitial positions with regard to sexuality. By the exhibition strategy, not only are spectators contemplating what is before them in the printed photographs mounted on black boarding against pristine white walls: it is a participatory and reflexive model countenanced by an ensemble of photographic objects, a black board and mirrors all of which are mounted in different halls of the exhibition space.

See Me See You, 2016, Eric Gyamfi, Exhibition view1

From the point of view of spectatorship, the photographic work becomes a transitive object which initiates a conversation between the artist and his audience(s), the latter of whom may then be compelled to contribute to the conversation by writing brief notes on sticky paper to be displayed on a black board. The board montages personal paraphernalia collected by the artist from the subjects he had photographed, their handwritten texts, and sticky notes with brief statements left by the exhibition’s public. Through this form, threads of conversations emerge and the exhibition’s public is implicated in a meaning production process that is initiated but not solely determined by the artist. In this way, the artist’s [pro]position confronts those of his ‘participants’ (the photographed subjects) and audiences: the outcomes of which may be antithetical, complementary, or perhaps even, indifference.

See Me See You, 2016, Eric Gyamfi, Exhibition view7

 

See Me See You, 2016, Eric Gyamfi, Exhibition view6

See Me See You, 2016, Eric Gyamfi, Exhibition view9

*”See Me See You” showed at the Nubuke Foundation/gallery from the 26th of November 2016 to the 28th February 2017.

– Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh is an artist who lives and works in Kumasi, Ghana.