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The curatorial statement of the inaugural Lagos Biennial (2017) calls participants and audiences alike to “re-think” and to “re-imagine”. It seems to align itself with a transgressive attitude to instigate political action through art and to shift the siting of art from the autonomous space of the white cube into the theatrical realm of the community.1 The premise for this is based on an artistic investigation into the hopeless conditions of “losers in societies around the world — the unseen majority who are pushed to the brink of their existence” 2, in other words, global sufferers in a neoliberal world disproportionately bearing the injustice of policies of privatization and deregulation resulting in wealth concentration, worker insecurity, atomization, invasion of privacy, you name it.

At the risk of falling into conservative traps of regionalism, the statement again calls for a reflexive approach: to consider the city of Lagos and its multicultural dynamics as leitmotif to reflect on conditions that impact this global mass of precariats. This anti-regionalist position seems to invoke, at the very least, the conception of art as an expansive site that has the capacity of inclusivity to be able to address the aforementioned problems from various regions across the world through international participation3.  At the end, the artistic director summarizes things in this way: “[A]rt will be put to the ultimate test; can it save the world or at least make an attempt?”.

There is a sense of naive optimism in the rhetorical question which could be problematic as a political basis for the biennial’s engagement of local communities in Lagos. It seems to be taking the redemptive potential of art for granted without critically considering the contradictions of capital and contemporary art. First of all, the traditional postwar large scale international exhibition structure — of which the biennial is one— is itself in crisis and may have run its course and so using it as the platform to speak to issues of poverty may be a contrivance.4 For the simple reasons that it relies on blockbuster budgets and has become excessively commercialized events for cultural tourism, the opposite can be true that contemporary art too is complicit in this socio-economic dynamic of financialization, exploitation and disempowerment that artists and curators often delude themselves about intervening in. And so rather than save the world, art can sometimes create more problems for it. Hito Steyerl summarizes this point more succinctly when she says “[i]f contemporary art is the answer, the question is, how can capitalism be made more beautiful?”

 To highlight this paradox is neither to take away from the potency nor the legitimacy of art in our time. Artists and curators who take the symbolic freedoms offered within the limits of art for granted may be shocked to learn that there is an outside world often infested with harsh realities to be engaged. There is no reason to overburden mega art events such as the biennial (which has internalized capitalist systems for its operations) with the task of salvation. Even if so, we cannot expect all artists to fulfill this interventionist call; it would be for the politically engaged artists to make that decision. (And within this category of practitioners we can further distinguish between so-called productivists and reformists. The former seek to deracinate the status quo in favor of a new system altogether while the latter are preoccupied with preserving the conventions of the status quo but by changing it at the symbolic level).

When a critical context is not set for such political claims for an exhibition project, it only gives fodder for misinterpretation. The controversy surrounding the biennial and the condition of the squatters at the Old Running Shed provides an insightful example into what I mean here. In an article titled “Life in Lagos imitates art as squatters evicted for biennial exhibition”6 a journalist seems to be attacking this uncritically benevolent position taken by the biennial organizers. For the journalist, “[i]t is not just the fact of the evictions [of the squatters], but the violent manner in which they are often carried out.” The article does three things as I see it:

1. It exposes the flaws in the curatorial claims and raises the corollary that art can exacerbate misery for poor people.

2. The writer conveniently side-steps aesthetic judgments so as to overemphasize political and moral ones in her discussion of an artistic project. At best her description of the few art works mentioned is burlesque and based on a priori judgments. There are equally aesthetic concerns to be raised about the biennial as there are ethical ones. Once equivocated, this imbalance could mar the whole process of criticism.

3. The article sensationalizes as well as mystifies the problem of poverty in Lagos, as if there is something essentially special about poor people in Nigeria. But very little distinguishes poor people in Lagos from those in North Philadelphia or New Delhi, for example, apart from geography. What they have in common is a geopolitical structure that conspires against them to remain in that condition in order for the system to thrive.

It is true that sensationalism in mainstream media is what sells. But beyond this “intensified bottom-line orientation”7 of mass media institutions, I suspect a much deeper reason for this kind of deft primitivism. Mass media has become contemptuously assimilated as a propaganda tool by private corporations —  that is, they too have become actively culpable agents of neoliberal capitalism. The journalist betrays this fact by resorting to a simplistic moralist accusation of the biennial organizers rather than performing a systemic analysis of the conditions that manufacture inequality to produce binary oppositions of rich and poor, haves and have-nots in Lagos — such as colonialism, economic globalization, deregulation, Structural Adjustment Policies, and so on. The sanitized judgments passed in the article are no more useful than the naive optimism expressed in the sentiment of art saving the world. Art and media practitioners today ought not be blindly self-righteous in their critique of social injustices. The question is not whether the biennial (or its organizers) can stop or delay the inevitable fate of the precariats at the Old Running Shed (indeed, it seems to have facilitated their eviction). There is a global community of such desperate and disempowered groups and the solution is not only to appeal to them symbolically through art. This tendency merely psychologizes the problem of poverty and ends up with the desire to make poor people ‘happy’ rather than resort to the solution of attacking the root cause of economic disempowerment by redistributing wealth.8

To its credit, the Lagos Biennial functioned in somewhat unorthodox fashion to the traditional biennial system by the fact of it being low-budget and relying primarily on volunteers, goodwill of sponsors, commitment of artists who largely mobilized their own funds and optimizing limited resources in a milieu famished of cultural support. It also enhanced cross-regional collaborations by featuring thirty nine artists from over nineteen countries worldwide. To the extent that it functioned in this way it paradoxically gained something and lost it at the same time: it gained in the sense that its very existence could have been a potent critique of the postwar exhibition model currently in crisis. What it lost is in the way it reneged this vital opportunity from which to intentionally enunciate an anti-biennial politics from the perspective of Lagos. Is it not perilous to be this dispositionally indifferent in such a political arena?

That said, contemporary art is a minefield of contradictions and is often elusive to classical logic. Rather than argue that it will save the world, it may be better to assess that contemporary art is already embedded in the problems of the world (and sometimes culpably so); this permits us to then begin our dialectical expositions. Curatorial work in Africa in the twenty-first century must prove itself rigorous not only to invent new canons but also to come to terms with this unique moment in history that makes it necessary to significantly shape art world polemics. We must seize this opportunity with resolute conviction.

— Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh is a curator based in Kumasi, Ghana. He participated in the Lagos Biennial 2017 as guest curator.

 

Notes:
1. On the question: “What are the results you are expecting from this first edition?” asked by Bisi Silva, Folakunle Oshun, the artistic director begins by responding, “[w]e intend to go beyond the “white cube” and into the community letting the city dictate the pace.” See biennial catalog, conversation between Folakunle Oshun and Bisi Silva titled “Lagos: The Making of an African Capital of Culture”.

2. On the question “What is the curatorial premise [of the biennial]?” Oshun responds “[t]he first edition of the Lagos Biennial (www.lagos-biennial.org) hopes to highlight the stories of individuals, groups, and communities in the society who are marginalized from the center. This type of engaged intervention – critiquing the socio-political climate from outside in, is essential in a city like Lagos where the dichotomy of rich and poor prevails. Themed “Living on the Edge” the biennial seeks to explore the experiences of artists living in and around crisis situations across the world”. See biennial catalog, conversation between Folakunle Oshun and Silva titled “Lagos: The Making of an African Capital of Culture”.

3. It is recorded on the Biennial Foundation website that the Lagos Biennial is “not driven by Afrocentric ideologies but rather embraces the unifying simplicity of the human experience”. See http://www.biennialfoundation.org/biennials/lagos-biennial-nigeria/

4. Are we not already in a post-biennial paradigm? What have we learnt from such longstanding curatorial interventions on the African continent such as Dak’Art, Bamako Rencontres, and Marrakech biennials? The ghosts of Johannesburg bienniale, Cape Town biennale and Benin biennale still come back to haunt us. Why could they not go beyond two editions? Documenta in its 14th edition and the Marrakech biennial are amongst prime examples of mega international art events riddled with debts. See the following links for more information: “Documenta rescued from bankruptcy”, https://artreview.com/news/news_13_sept_2017_documenta_rescued_from_bankruptcy/, “Marrakech Biennial cancelled due to lack of funds”: http://theartnewspaper.com/news/marrakech-biennale-cancelled-due-to-lack-of-funds. We must rethink these structures (especially the ones that exist in Africa) if they exist in schizophrenic limbo to serve neocolonialist interests. In response to problems of cultural tourism, exploitation of labor and intellectual property, all of which the traditional biennial format cannot adequately deal with (because it also thrives on it), events such as Arte Nueva InteractivA, inSITE and The Roaming Biennial of Tehran serve as alternative models. Proposing exhibition models that rely on collectivism, low-budget, non-site-specific and nomadic orientations, they also optimize virtual social media platforms. As insufficient as these may seem, they, at least in attitude, remain resolutely intolerable to annexation by governments and commercialized interests.

5. Hito Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen, e-flux Journal, Sternberg press, 2012, pp. 93. Steyerl goes on to state that“[t]he art field is a space of wild contradiction and phenomenal exploitation. It is a place of power mongering, speculation, financial engineering, and massive and crooked manipulation. But it is also a site of commonality, movement, energy, and desire.”

6. See Ruth Maclean’s article published by The Guardian here: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/oct/26/lagos-biennial-holds-mirror-to-gentrification-as-squatters-evicted. The Lagos Biennial Team responded via Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=915341811940512&id=596729820468381&pnref=story

7. Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky write about this twentieth-century century phenomenon where they focus on “[t]he growth of media conglomerates that control many different kinds of media (motion picture studios, TV networks, cable channels, magazines, and book publishing houses), and the spread of the media across borders in a globalization process.” See Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Pantheon Books, New York, Introduction, 2002

8. Arundhati Roy, in the wake of the Occupy Movement, gave a speech to the People’s University published as the afterword in her book Capitalism: A Ghost Story (2014), in which she makes the following demands for the abolishment of capitalism:

“They (the 1%) say that we don’t have demands… they don’t know, perhaps, that our anger alone would be enough to destroy them. But here are some things — a few “pre-revolutionary” thoughts I had— for us to think about together. We want to put a lid on this system that manufactures inequality. We want to put a cap on the unfettered accumulation of wealth and property by individuals as well corporations. As cap-sits and lid-ties, we demand:
One: An end to cross-ownership in businesses. For example: weapons manufacturers cannot own TV stations, mining corporations cannot run newspapers, business houses cannot fund universities, drug companies cannot control public health funds.
Two: Natural resources and essential infrastructure — water supply, electricity, health, and education — cannot be privatized.
Three: Everybody must have the right to shelter, education, and health care.
Four: The children of the rich cannot inherit their parents’ wealth.”
See Arundhati Roy, Capitalism: A Ghost Story, Haymarket Books, 2014, pp. 95

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Frank Gyabeng’s curatorial project “Its a Hit” is an artistic extrapolation of the film medium vis-a-vis Ghana’s history of cinema. Working with filmmakers, actors, and crew from Kumawood (a loose term that refers to film productions in the Akan language made in Kumasi), the exhibition posits a critical relationship between film, video, performance and theater. The curatorial model incorporates video, sound, and installation, and permits a conflation between actors and non-actors, artists and non-artists in a concerted process of collaboration. The exhibition is splintered across sites identified as History Room, Living Room, “live shoot”, live stream (via Facebook) and “sound on trees”. I will focus centrally on the History Room and live shoot to think through themes of form, fiction, time as well as other characteristics of the medium.

The History Room in the exhibition displays props from Samuel Atta Frimpong’s set design for the live shoot, and a copy of the Ghana Film Act (Act 935) of 2016. The Act serves as “the legal framework for the production, regulation, marketing and development of the Ghanaian film industry”. It established the National Film Authority with the mandate to create “[an] economically self-sustaining and culturally conscious Ghanaian film industry to develop local production, distribution, exhibition and marketing of its films”. The Act had been in Parliament for over two decades before being passed.

Other objects in the History Room include handwritten and printed film scripts by Kwaw Ansah, Christopher Kyei and Enoch Agyenim-Boateng and two videos on screen: the one is a documentary titled An Honest Reality made by filmmaker and academic, Jim Fara Awindor, that discusses the evolution of cinema in Ghana from celluloid to digital technologies (the birth of the internet, rise of home videos, etc), its economic and socio-cultural implications. The other video work is a lot more ambiguous: it is not titled and is also not indexically traceable to an author when encountered in the exhibition. The work was done by the curator himself. Per conjecture, this could be a strategy to undermine his own project by inserting its counter-argument, or done in the spirit of jest, or as some sort of decoy. Or not.  This “hole” is left open for speculation since the curatorial statement is silent on it.

The video is a two-minute-fifty-second split screen of scenes extracted from 20th century Soviet Union and Third Cinema classics, Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Heritage Africa (1988) by Sergei Eisenstein and Kwaw Ansah respectively. The former’s “Odessa Steps” is juxtaposed with the latter’s “Petition scene” — when workers were massacred after they had marched to the colonial headquarters and insisted to deliver a petition to the governor — with overlays of sound from both scenes.  The issues brought to the fore are not only technical, i.e highlighting similarities in directing and editing techniques, but also centering on the politics they share of agitation and inciting working class revolution.

At the exhibition opening, the short film Uncalculated Love was shot in situ, edited and premiered the following day targeting the same audiences who witnessed the production live. The decision to combine pre-production, production and postproduction in rapid succession, unimpeded by duration, countenances the hyper-proliferation of Kumawood films, demystifying filmmaking in terms of production and distribution. Taking a quasi-Medvedkin1 approach, the live shoot and consequent screening introduced a reflexive dynamic to the experience of the exhibition. The dynamics of filming, editing and screening to audiences of the same bracket is further complicated by the fact that, for this shoot, some members of the audience were spontaneously cast as extras. And so, at the same time that the audience are contemplating the spectacle of cast and crew before them during the production, there is also participation.

During the screening, some obvious but important things happened that merit discussion: the finished video that is being screened contains elements of what is factually there when the spectators were witnessing the shoot but, of course, omitting the presence of the camera and crew. In the film we neither see the several takes that the actors performed nor the varying dialogues they improvised on set. We also presently watch things in the film that could only have been possible in postproduction such as the special or visual effects. The medium, with all of its tools, techniques, and operations presents us with what we know to be true of the moment as well as what we know it not to be. But the fact that the finished work belongs as much to fiction as to reality is not an impediment to the spectators’ fascination with it. In fact it is precisely because of this dialectic at play, I think, that makes possible any wonderment of the images moving before their eyes. This dialectic also contributes to the poetics of the moving images.

If we think of the camera as a tool that records what there is in the objective world, editing is the operation that subverts this factography; fictionalizing what has been captured in realtime. One may raise the challenge that continuity editing poses to such a claim.  But I think that fiction is still a compelling aspect of film — even more so of the documentary film genre since it presents what is historically true by relying on archival footages, interviews, and other materials from various (sometimes random or arbitrary) sources and stringing them into a coherent sequence. This implies that the story is constructed in postproduction (ie. during the process of editing). The logic of its composition is therefore based on the principle of montage. And montaging, in terms of film, is essentially inventing mythic relations between hitherto unconnected images (still and/or moving).

On another point, the camera estranges the actor from his/her image. And so alienation is always happening as a fact of the medium — the camera performs alienation on one level with the images it records, while the editing bench and distribution channels for the film exacerbate estrangement of the image[s]. Walter Benjamin discusses this kind of alienation politically, in terms of the actor’s estrangement from their own image through the mechanical reproduction processes the camera offers. He draws a parallel between the kind of estrangement that happens between a factory worker and the product their labor produces and the actor before the camera whose image is now unhinged, severable and commodifiable destined for the consumer market.2

The live shoot at the exhibition is a process that highlights the deconstruction of the “fourth wall” (breaking the illusion/distance between what is shot and what is seen on screen) to, in a sense, massify the process of filmmaking — typifying the spirit of Kumawood. Spectators witnessed and participated in the filmmaking process from beginning to end. But between what was witnessed live and what was viewed on screen there was a third, hidden, element— the editor’s hand. This hidden hand, as hinted earlier, is also the authority by which we experience the story unfolding on screen.

These are some of the paradoxes we are invited to contemplate in Gyabeng’s curatorial project. For me, the most remarkable aspect of the project is that he forged collaborations with a diverse group of non-artists. “Its a Hit” opens up the principle of multiplicity in contemporary art.

— IUB (2017).

Credits:

It’s A Hit: Part 4&5
5th – 6th May, 2017
Old Techsec Block – KNUST
Curated by Frank Kofi Gyabeng
Collaborators: Isaac Danso aka Sptous, Samuel Antwi aka Khemical, Samuel Atta Frinpong a.k.a Attas, Marfoa Acheampong, Joseph Amoasah a.k.a Black Scorpion, Jim Fara Awindor, Kwaw Ansah, Nana Osei Bonus, Bright Donkor, Gideon Osei, Anita Adu
Supporting institution: blaxTARLINES KUMASI, project space for contemporary art, KNUST

Notes:

  1. Aleksandr Medvedkin was a Soviet filmmaker whose revolutionary ‘Cinetrain’ films — documentary in form — were shot, edited and screened from mobile train cars and showed to the peasant workers on kolkhozes (collective farms in the Soviet Union).
  2. For Walter Benjamin “[t]he feeling of strangeness that overcomes the actor before the camera […] is basically of the same kind as the estrangement felt before one’s own image in the mirror. But now the reflected image has become separable, transportable. And where is it transported? Before the public. Never for a moment does the screen actor cease to be conscious of this fact. While facing the camera he knows that ultimately he will face the public, the consumers who constitute the market. This market, where he offers not only his labor but also his whole self, his heart and soul, is beyond his reach. During the shooting he has as little contact with it as any article made in a factory. This may contribute to that oppression, that new anxiety which […] grips the actor before the camera. The film responds to the shriveling of the aura with an artificial build-up of the “personality” outside the studio. The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the “spell of the personality,” the phony spell of a commodity. So long as the movie-makers’ capital sets the fashion, as a rule no other revolutionary merit can be accredited to today’s film than the promotion of a revolutionary criticism of traditional concepts of art. We do not deny that in some cases today’s films can also promote revolutionary criticism of social conditions, even of the distribution of property. However, our present study is no more specifically concerned with this than is the film production of Western Europe”. See Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936, Schocken/Random House, ed. by Hannah Arendt; transcribed by Andy Blunden 1998; proofed and corrected Feb. 2005, pp. 12, source: UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, translated by Harry Zohn. https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm

…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 essay, particularly interested in theater with Agyeman Ossei’s dramatic adaptation of Ayi Kwei Armah’s novel Osiris Rising (1995) for stage as my subject of discussion.

In the novel 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 on which 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 and tilting it to meet her countenance 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 stagecraft 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 as well as mediums available to us for artistic expression — particularly for novelist and dramatist. Ayi Kwei Armah by resorting to 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 the realm of symbolic gestures, is also free to expand Armah’s narrative in ways the novelist could not have: by way of pantomimes, collaborative production, interpreting the narrative in terms of color, lighting, music, material objects in space, and so on. To discuss one form or medium as more potent than the other would be unproductive. Rather, I prefer to approach the issue in terms of the immanent relationship between potency and excessiveness in any given form/medium. The questions to extrapolate then become: what is the threshold to tread, understanding where a given form/medium 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/medium? This requires critical understanding of the extents to which they can be used, either on their own or interdiciplinarily – more so if the artist is politically motivated. This is also where the aesthetic 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 the protagonist 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 on 7th, 8th, 13th & 14th April, 2017. 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