Exchanging Values: On Ibrahim Mahama’s Praxis

*The following was given as a presentation at the ‘African Modernism: Architecture of Independence’ symposium on the panel “Exchange. Exchanger. Before, After and Hence”. Ibrahim Mahama confronts Max Gerlach, Drew, Fry and Owusu-AddoAn essay will be published forthcoming. 


For this symposium I propose to interpret Ibrahim Mahama’s politically engaged practice in terms of contradictions in the way it responds to the global neoliberal catastrophes at hand— migration crises, privatization, precarious work and so on. I prefer the dialectical method which proves more dynamic in dealing with immanent contradictions. Through this lens, we can come to terms with oppositions without having to cast one aside or wish the other away. In this context it then becomes imperative that as Mahama confronts the bigger issues affecting the masses of humanity he must also question his own assumptions and potential complicity in this system of economic disempowerment as it relates to his internal processes of acquisition and negotiation of/for objects, materials and labor (especially as he works with Kayayei1, “shoe-shine” boys, truck drivers, students, refugees, and so forth who are already vulnerable to many forms of exploitation).

An example of dialectical tension in Mahama’s practice can be cited when he smuggles commodification back into art by causing alienation of the everyday materials he nominates from the labour class that rely on its use value and when he, at the same time, attempts to universalize the principle of freedom of movement for non-European people. For example, when Mahama participated in the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015, he had intended to travel with five of his workers/collaborators to assist in producing and mounting his walk-through installation at the Arsenale. All five of them were denied visas by the Italian Embassy. However, the overused jute sacks, which have now acquired the status of commodity through circulation in the art market, had already been shipped from Accra to Venice with minor problems. The reason these workers were denied entry into that part of Europe is because the embassy was certain they would not return to Ghana, their home country, given their condition as economically precarious workers. 

The rising tide of Right-wing xenophobic/racist populism around the world, but particularly in Europe with the threat of African and Arab refugees knocking on its doors, renders it as though the Italian Embassy recognizes the urgency to thwart Mahama’s attempt to globalize “Free Movement” — one of the founding principles of the European Union (EU) that recognizes and preserves the principal right of EU nationals to move and work in member countries— by extending it to citizens of other parts of the world, and how dare he! In fact, to paraphrase the European Commission (EC), the freedom to move to another EU country to work without a permit is, more or less, an exclusive right reserved for EU nationals.2 

Slavoj Žižek points out that “[t]he actualization of this freedom [that ‘everyone has the right to settle in any other part of the world, and the country they move in to has to provide for them’] presupposes nothing less than a radical socio-economic revolution”3. Why? Because, as in Mahama’s gesture, it intends to proffer an obverse reality rooted in equality and universality which overturns the “commodity fetishism” most of the world has been absorbed in since industrial capitalism took shape in the 19th century— that is, in the way we prioritize commodities over people.

We see by the foregoing that those whose labour produce the commodities Mahama’s practice relies on are those who are themselves restricted from moving across those same borders the product of their labor has transcended. This is a contradiction of corporate capitalism. Now, in the same example, an internal contradiction to Mahama’s practice is revealed: that Mahama, in the name of art, causes alienation of the everyday objects he nominates from the labour force which produce it — whether they are old jute sacks, sewing machines, wooden ‘shoe-maker’ boxes, etc. This way, the materials, when they become art, reinforce the class antagonisms which keep the poor and rich as they are. This is owed to the fact that after production, the works are fetishized as they participate in the art market (the capitalist market system) and circulated within elitist galleries around the world. It is this alienation which makes it nearly impossible for the labourers to become co-authors or co-producers, except in a symbolic sense, as far as ownership and spectatorship of the work is concerned. A gulf is created between the space they inhabit as producers and the elitist places of spectatorship. The magnificent tapestries may travel the world but the bodies of its labourers tend to be left behind. 

But if Mahama’s nominalist gesture portends to alienation, his efforts to globalize free movement undermines it— that is, attempts to mitigate the distance reinforced by alienation. Mahama’s insistence on making these invisible labourers seen became more productive two years after the visa denial incident when he participated in documenta 14 in Kassel and Athens in 2017. During this time the artist was able to get two of his workers to travel to Kassel to produce his installation and also to become spectators of the prestigious quinquennial. This is something that would have otherwise not happened had it not been for the artist’s stubborn approach to confronting these new forms of apartheid.

I perceive these tensions as necessarily bound to Mahama’s processes of negotiation and objectification through art. Through them the artist forges a compelling reality. Before we morally deride his work as predatory, we must understand that, as an artist, he is intervening in a political economic system which prioritizes profit as its supreme ethic and which is indifferent to morality. Consequently, he must also adopt a strategy that can speak to the system from deep within its bowels. As Mahama shows his work in Africa, Asia, Europe, South America and elsewhere, he is simultaneously bringing attention to the multiplicity of ways labourers/workers are exploited and the complicit role art tends to play in this condition. The way I see it, the artist has adopted a positive posture to coming to terms with the inconsistencies inherent in the status quo and has consciously appropriated these processes into his work. This has become his ethical method. His aesthetic approach, therefore, could be said to be taking advantage of the contradictions of capitalism to reveal its problems to us by implicating himself. What is to be done is therefore an open question to all of us.

— (2018)


  1. Typically, Kayayei are women who have migrated from the Northern region of Ghana to Accra, the capital city, who carry goods for shoppers in open markets in Accra. Those who move outside the markets work as domestic cleaners who go around cleaning people’s homes with the aim to do any house chore permissible— some wash and babysit, others fetch water for households without running water and so on. The excesses of such workers flooding into the capital city annually means that value for their services keeps plummeting. Owed to their precarious conditions of work and desperate accommodation situations (some sleep on sidewalks, in front of shops, in wooden kiosks, overcrowded rooms, under trees, etc), they are left vulnerable to a wide range of factors including landlords who extort rent, shoppers who merely pay them meagre sums for their services, rapists, robbers, reckless drivers, rainfall, social prejudices and on and on. According to Citi News, they earn between nothing to about GHC 30.00 (approx. $5 or $6) per day with no health benefits. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=7&v=jPTUcapcu58. 
  2. See http://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=470&langId=en
  3. See Slavoj Žižek, Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbours, 2016, Penguin Random House, UK, pp. 83, e-pub (iBooks).
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