In Conversation with Kwabena Agyare Yeboah

Kwabena Agyare Yeboah: Ghanaian artists before you like El Anatsui and Brother Owusu-Ankomah have explored the subject of identity through local (Ghanaian) textile. It is quite fascinating that you choose Asafo flags which are as cultural and historical artefacts as symbols of violence to explore the same theme.

IUB: I suppose this constitutes the broader category under which my recent research series titled Prison Anxieties can be placed. The specific concern of this series is identity in the form shaped by nationhood and the nuances this form of existing in the world come with. The work titled “Notion:06, 03” uses Asafo flags as a form of representation through which a critique of nationhood or national identity can be made. Asafo flags play a fascinating role in Ghana’s cultural history— from violence to poetry. My interest was to see how I could appropriate its formal language to re-interpret political identities from the Ghanaian perspective in relation to others in today’s world.

Kwabena Agyare Yeboah: Subtly, the Asafo flags are imitation of colonial infrastructure. Same can be said of the concept of nationhood we see today.

IUB: Historically, Asafo flags were adapted from the British settlers’ use of their own flag by the warrior or Asafo groups of the Akans. One significant feature of the Asafo flags, before 1957, was the Union Jack in either the left or right canton. This was a way of pledging allegiance to the colonial authority at the time. The symbolism changed after 1957, when the Gold Coast attained its Independence and became Ghana. The Ghana flag was now represented in the canton. The flag essentially stayed the same in form but the elements within it changed to reflect the politics of the time. This is something important to begin to think through: that a cultural symbol is ‘big’ enough to contain the nationalist spirit. Perhaps there is something to discover if we focus a bit more on what this could mean.

Kwabena Agyare Yeboah: Your series title Prison Anxieties reminds me of Efo Kodjo Mawugbe’s Prison Graduates. It should be the metaphor of prison as colonial power.

IUB: There is a common logic that ties the phenomenon of slavery to colonialism and capitalism: and that is exploitation – of people, land, material, resources, etc. and so it is important to look at the subject of colonialism a bit more broadly. I am not familiar with Efo Mawugbe’s Prison Graduates but the metaphor of prison as colonial power is implicit and shared in my own research series. The series explores a subjective unease and seeks to come to terms with difficult questions surrounding the political identities and realities one inherits – such as, in my case, Akanness, Ghanaianness, Africanness, blackness, otherness and so on – by existing in one or simultaneous locations, and the cultural baggage that accompanies it.

Kwabena Agyare Yeboah: How contestable is what one inherits, these political identities and realities?

IUB: I would say they are certainly contestable. But this a cultural fact which is not so obvious. It is not so obvious because we tend to take what we are (or in this case what we become) for granted. For example, I agree with James Baldwin, who, speaking on the condition and predicament of the American Negro, said that “Color is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality”.(1) Zora Neale Hurston echoes this idea when she, too, says “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background”. I take this to mean that we become things when an antithetical ‘other’ is present or invoked. But classical logic tells me that the contradiction of ‘white’ is not black but rather ‘not-white’ and vice versa. This challenges my perception of identity in many ways. The power system that invented and produced the American Negro perceives it solely in relation to itself; therefore the gaze is not reciprocal. It is essentially the same as the system that necessitated the creation of the ‘Ghanaian’ in the African historical context. And although Baldwin may have been speaking particularly to race relations in America, we find parallels everywhere around the world when we look particularly at economic and political issues. ‘Ghanaianness’ must assert itself against other nationalities but it does so solely in relation to itself and this always denotes a power dynamic. For me to espouse my own nationality also means juggling it alongside other pre-existent forms of identities, ie. what preceded Ghanaianness — Akan, Akuapem, etc. which may come with privileges, or not, in the milieu within which I use them. My work looks at the intra-ethnic relations within Ghanaianness as a microcosm to some of these more global problems.

Kwabena Agyare Yeboah: It seems as an unending journey. You talk about pre-existent forms of identities. Take Akan for example. It is made up of different states like Asante and those states are founded on clans which have principal towns. Like Oyoko for Kumasi. Biretuo for Asante Mampong. Aduana for Dormaa Ahenkro. Juxtapose this with what Taiye Selasi advances with her TED Talk “Don’t ask where I’m from, ask where I’m a local.” With migration as fluid as never, can identity, be it personal or political, ever be true?

IUB: You make a good point. In this case, I think its absoluteness is what is being contested. The political hats we put on or the personal identities we espouse are always susceptible to change but truth, as a concept, implies that which is self-evident. I do not, for example, think that my Ghanaianness or so-called ‘blackness’ is self-evident (and I should add that no racial categorization is). It is something I become and use as ideological currency where necessary. Empires come and go; nations rise, fall, merge (West Germany/East Germany) or break up (Sudan/South Sudan). What then happens to the forms of identities that are contingent on these? They transform. I have to say, however, that I do not think the journey is unending or should go on forever. For example, out of migrations and interactions between people and people and people and land we have groups such as those that constitute the Akans. This is a concrete point in the continuum and it should be plausible to begin the narrative with this as an axiom. The field of identity is replete with paradoxes which also form part of our realities. To be able to deal with these complexities, we must appeal beyond classical logic.

Kwabena Agyare Yeboah: I cannot get over the fascination of Asafo flags. Let’s talk about transnationalism. The flag admits many nationalities, warriors who fight on a side based on all manner of reasons. The performance of such citizenship is like that of modern state-nation.

IUB: I think the Asafo flags have something to contribute to contemporary discourse on nationalism and other such subjects.

Kwabena Agyare Yeboah: Edward Snowden says “I would rather be without a state than without a voice.” When one renounces the political identity, is it sufficient to just give up one’s passport?

IUB: To realize revolutionary change – in the sense of a new social system or political order – goes beyond merely willing it into being. There are those who wish to implement change on a symbolic level. And there are those who wish to implement actual change, by recognizing their position within the current state of affairs and being part of the production process of implementing this change. The two are not the same and they, obviously, elicit different results.

 

Kwabena Agyare Yeboah lives in Accra. His poem was nominated for PushCart prize by The Ofi Press in 2015.

Notes:

1. Letter From a Region In My Mind – James Baldwin, published by The New Yorker, NOVEMBER 17, 1962 ISSUE

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