by Robin Riskin
The Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art (SCCA, Tamale) is a space but it is also a moment, or a gesture. It is an institution and a building but it is also something immaterial—a generator of production systems, relationships that will take lives beyond the bounds of its physical space.
For five years, the artist Ibrahim Mahama has been quietly building an institution and exhibition space (originally meant as a studio) in his hometown of Tamale, Ghana. For several years, an assemblage of brick-makers, carpenters, glassworkers, plumbers, painters, electricians, etc. have been working on construction (led by Mahama’s father’s company, Savana Construction Company Ltd.). For one year, several artists came together to prepare an exhibition, a retrospective on the work of seminal Ghanaian modernist Galle Winston Kofi Dawson titled, “In Pursuit of something ‘Beautiful’, perhaps…”, curated by the artist Bernard Akoi-Jackson. And for one week, an extended group of artist colleagues from Kumasi and Accra relocated to Tamale to help complete the production.
Through all of these processes, micro-communities were forming. Future projects are unfolding, beyond the limits of Mahama’s space or control.
The material form of SCCA redraws the lines that dictate what a certain kind of space is for and how people can (inter)act within that space. Schoolchildren, art-goers, townspeople, railway engineers, ministry representatives, sculpted ants and living insects alike, all make up the character of the place. Global architectures of the European industrial revolution that came to Ghana through the project of colonization, are appropriated and remixed into a place for artistic experimentation. The difference between Mahama’s SCCA and many other art foundations around the world located in or modeled after former factories and warehouses, is the independence of the project from its inception. The greatest challenge the artist-founder may face going forward is how to sustain this.
In the spirit of blaxTARLINES KUMASI and the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi (where Mahama is a student), the project is completely self-funded by the artist and operated on a relatively low budget, with the help of congenial colleagues and through a strategy of improvization. SCCA is a place formed by the sheer will of an artistic community, and the vision and determination of an artist formed by that community. The aesthetics are political and they transform the traumas and disappointments of the 20th century into potentials for the 21st.
Like the American artist Theaster Gates, Mahama sees his institutional intervention as a kind of painting; the buildings and communities as an extension of the art objects or urban situations that ‘draw lines on the city.’ The setup of the project itself is a poetic gesture: both its architecture that references and reinvents the ghosts of modernity; and its administrative operations that aim to recode from within what an art institution can be. The structures are born out of crises of the last centuries (aesthetic, material, financial, social) and premised on the idea of belief itself, or what one may call blind faith. Mahama builds on the basis of speculation, the expectation of funds to come— and he is also saved by his own generosity, past loans and gifts carried into the future.
Even as Mahama operates “from deep within [the] bowels” of capitalism1—as artist and curator Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh has argued—navigating its contradictions in order to generate something new, Mahama’s methods of employment and production form an antithesis to capitalistic individualism: a system premised on responsibility, community, and in many ways, friendship and love. Trust and understanding can stand in for currency when working amongst friends, family members and dedicated colleagues. It is a speculation that flows in two directions to create a new form: an object/ process that the artist himself has called, “exchange-exchanger.” Just as he borrows from and makes advances into the future, he also lends and commits to the futures of others. It is this attitude that redeems him in moments of crisis, when resources are running low or projects are on the brink of collapse.
The Dutch artist Renzo Martens, who as part of his practice initiated the Institute for Human Activities (IHA) in the Democratic Republic of Congo, has said that what he searches for is reflexivity, regarding the parameters of the institution’s own functioning. In the past several decades, it has become an impetus for many artistic practices to consider not only the limits of the art object or space, but the parameters of production itself. Like Martens, Mahama shares an interest in the transformation of material conditions and not only symbolic forms. This commitment to the political technique of a work goes back to Walter Benjamin’s clarion call at the onset of interwar fascism, that the politically motivated author/artist must be committed to a revolutionary cause2.
While Martens maintains an ironic self-awareness of his social and economic distance from the Congolese plantation workers with whom he makes art (and in the process, expects that audiences will become more aware, too), Mahama’s project in Tamale is formed on the basis of a certain closeness. He works with those whom he already considers social and intellectual companions, who were born out of the same systems—whether that means colleagues from the College of Art in Kumasi and extended art communities, or fellow Dagomba people and others from the Northern Region of the country, who were born into the same crisis3 that formed Mahama’s personal conviction. It is not that Mahama’s insider-status guarantees authenticity, but rather that he cuts across cultural and class boundaries to create a space where producers are also thinkers and vice versa, where artists and audiences share equal positions, and where any one contribution is as important and creative as any other. There is artistry in the wooden windows as in the paintings.
The choice to begin with Galle Winston Kofi Dawson as the inaugural exhibiting artist emphasizes the project’s dedication to risk, experimentation, and humility. Kofi Dawson is one of the quiet legends of Ghanaian modernist art who has been both part and not part of ‘the scene.’ Over the years he has tirelessly attended and participated in workshops, exhibitions, community meetings, trade fairs, etc.; active within his generation and also supportive of the next; known widely but resting lightly on the fringes. Difficult to place amongst a generation of artists who tended to gain their reputation by developing a signature style, Dawson never stuck to a particular approach but kept experimenting with materials, forms, processes, and subjects, all the while vigilantly keeping notes, drawings, and diaries. He has been relatively quiet on the exhibition circuit in recent years, save for the occasional group show at the Artist’s Alliance run by Professor Ablade Glover, and blaxTARLINES’s ‘Orderly Disorderly’ (2017) at the Museum of Science and Technology, Accra, in which the work of artists who helped to birth Ghanaian modernism in the ’60s and ’70s was related to current experimentation by younger artists of KNUST.
Over the past two years since Dawson agreed to the exhibition at SCCA, a group of students from KNUST—Ato Jackson, Bright Ahadzivia, Isaac Donkor, Ernest Sackitey, and Hassan Issah—under the guidance of artist and exhibition curator Dr. Bernard Akoi-Jackson (also a lecturer at the university), have been working with Mr. Dawson to assemble, archive, and make sense of his 60-year practice, and return to unfinished and unrealized dreams. He said it was through this experience of collaborating with young colleagues that new elements emerged. And so the artist who was among the first graduating class of KNUST (then UST)’s Bachelor program in Art in 1966 came to work together with some of the current students who follow in his wake.
One aspect of Dawson’s legacy that current artists of the Kumasi contemporary extend is an inquiry into the life of things. For instance, his mainly ’90s-era series of koose4 pastel drawings could be seen as a reflection of the urge not just to consume something, but to appreciate its vitality. In this project, the popular street food that sells for a few Ghana cedis a handful is conceived as living sculpture. The small, shadowy sketches, titled after colors, questions, symbols and smells, appear in grid and line arrangements in two interstices of the exhibition. They might be walked past or overlooked for some of the brighter paintings and installations, but like Dawson’s practice itself, their resilient presence opens up to a world of possibilities.
Dawson had been eating koose from down the road in Nima one day when the thought struck him, “Ah! You eat a piece of sculpture?” he recounted in a recent studio visit5. So he began to draw them, feverishly, and developed a technique to preserve them in turpentine. “Have you bought koose?” he asked. “The way they fry it, the way it boils… I used to enjoy the shapes,” he mused. “I’ve not even done it to full scale. But I stopped. I don’t know why.” Though the project may have halted prematurely, young artists from KNUST and elsewhere rekindle its potential.
At SCCA, the exhibition space is filled with work that invites young and old alike to draw and play and invent their own. But the space itself is also a work, a frame or container much like the jute sacks, wooden shoemaker boxes, and various other vessel-like forms that comprise Mahama’s practice. Sharing the spirit of Dawson’s inquiry into sociopolitical transformations, Mahama takes interest as much in the object as in the conditions that form the object. As his work turns increasingly toward architecture—vessels or frames on a larger scale—lands and communities and bricks and concrete become elements of his mediums.
Akoi-Jackson has noted that Mahama’s apparent white cube structure is a decoy meant to undermine the more commercially oriented white cube system. It may appear like the thing but it is structurally and materially different. The dusty traces of children’s hands on the walls are signs that this is a space of different rules. And even though the walls will soon be repainted with a solution that makes the dirt washable, residues will remain underneath, like the smelly streaks of oil on Ghana Railway cabinets that Mahama has collected, and streams of urine in the cocoa sacks he repurposes. (“Silence is not absence,” in the words of Mahama’s teacher kąrî’kạchä seid’ou6.)
Residues of the last centuries are rife with potential for artistic re-composting. The German artist Anselm Kiefer, for instance, transforms the sprawling site of former silk factory in southern France into a Gestamkunstwerke, a living monument or open canvas to his practice. When he felt his work there had finished, he began to invite other artists to create their visions there too. Mahama’s projects in Tamale (SCCA and others to come) are conceived from the start as monuments to the possibilities of an artistic community. In a private studio space Mahama is in the process of building about 20 km away from SCCA, he has recently purchased more land to include seedbed studios and residency space for other artists. There will also be plots for agricultural and industrial projects wherein art can take shape as an intervention into economic production relations. Thus art can be an inquiry into structure itself—not only the objects but the lines that connect them, and on what bases they might be connected.
Notably, the Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art is named not for the artist, but as a tribute to his father, whose ‘Savana Construction Company’ oversaw construction of the building, and whose life’s project was to use his modest wealth (accumulated mainly from government contracts in the ’80s and ’90s) to support younger generations through school and work. ‘Savannah’ can also be seen as a reference to the continent and to the climate—political and ecological sites of crisis and also of hope. Mahama becomes increasingly interested in land itself as a site of transformation. If the project of European Enlightenment and the basis of modern civilization was to convert natural resources into property, Mahama attempts to reroute the globalized products of these conditions toward communal ends. Not unlike Kiefer’s greenhouses and silos, Mahama turns the excrements of failed histories into fertilizer out of which new seeds can sprout and take lives of their own.
Of course, it can be easier to begin a dream than to maintain it. The 20th century projects of communism, for instance, were launched with visions and slogans of equality, and ended in violent disaster. Similarly the ideology of American freedom and democracy hits crisis, though this crisis is merely a return of the murder and exploitation the country was founded upon. In Mahama’s own Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah led the nation into independence in the mid-20th century, and developed plans for industrialization and modernization. His socialist-leaning strategies for economic emancipation and unity, however, were to be toppled less than a decade later by a series of military coups known to be supported by former colonial masters.
Perhaps we can take caution from Mahama’s compatriot artists in institutional intervention, who set their works into motion with ideas of communality, cultural reinvention, and economic reconditioning. However, the more they open themselves out to the world, the more they fall prey to the devouring mouth of global capitalization. Cocktail bars and corporate-funded kitchens become the solution to a project made to be free and open to all, and so culture is packaged as a product to literally consume. Conversely, the narrative of poverty that poverty-stakeholders were intended to take ownership of, may become another tasty commodity for the international art world to chew.
Though in the case of Martens’s IHA, profits are said to be reinjected into a self-owned and regulated production, how much control do ‘collaborators’ really maintain in the dissemination of the fruits of their labors and intellect? The question of ownership and voice becomes increasingly contested in the context of Mahama’s own practice, who equally deals with blue-chip galleries, and whose work with kayayei head porters, street hawkers, construction workers, and other members of the globally disenfranchised, is framed as collaboration but economically and socially leads back, for the most part, to the artist-individual.
Thus is the paradox—how to be in and open to the world when the world from which we operate demands that we cater to its contradictions if we want to survive? Is it possible to develop different methods for thinking and working wherein freedom and equality might be not just a vision but a means of sustenance?
Mahama has started to structure his private studio on a kind of vegetal model, creating space for other artists’ practices to shoot off and take life. The question he must deal with now is how to continue to operate his public projects, while maintaining independent ownership and direction. Perhaps inspiration will come from the plants themselves, from the trees, grasses and insects around the space, or the ants that populate Dawson’s exhibition. These intelligent creatures form systems wherein community is valued above the self, where sacrifice and commitment are coded into the genetics, and where the future is not something to steal from but something to contribute to.
Robin Riskin is an independent curator based in Kumasi, Ghana and born in Brooklyn, New York. Her emerging practice takes inspiration from organic and ecological relations as possible models for art-making. She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Curating practice at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi. Her practice has developed through the school and its affiliated project space blaxTARLINES KUMASI, with whom she has co-curated exhibitions including ‘the Gown must go to Town…’ (2015) and ‘Silence between the Lines’ (2015). She has written texts for documenta 14, White Cube Gallery, and other independent projects in collaborative contexts. Her MFA exhibition ‘if you love me…’ (2016), co-curated with Selom Kudjie and Patrick Nii Okanta Ankrah, presented work by 30 artists and engineers engaging the transforming environment of the colonial-era Kumasi Railway Locomotive Shed.
1. Ohene-Ayeh, Kwasi (2018). “Exchanging Values: On Ibrahim Mahama’s Praxis” [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-Addo]. <iubeezy.wordpress.com/2018/09/14/exchanging-values-on-ibrahim-mahamas-praxis>, Sept. 14, 2018, accessed Mar. 21, 2019.
2. Benjamin, Walter (1934). “Author as Producer.” Understanding Brecht. Trans. Anna Bostock. Verso: London, New York, 1998.
3. The crisis of global financial capitalism and the failures of social and political revolutions of the past centuries form the backdrop to Mahama’s practice and the conditions shared, in different ways, by all people living in the world today. In the Northern Region of Ghana, for instance, people find themselves peculiarly positioned as part but not part of the larger nation, in ways cultural, ideological, economic, etc. Ghana’s first President, Kwame Nkrumah, had initiated a campaign for unity in response to contrived ethnic divisions fueled by colonial agendas, but such efforts were short-lived before they could take root. Meanwhile the College of Art in Kumasi faces a different but related set of crises, wherein lecturers struggle to overcome asynchronous curricula leftover from colonial administrations, and to birth independently practicing artists out of a system that favors technically proficient followers over critical thinkers, questioners and creators.
4. Koose [kooh-say] is a popular street food of fried and spicy mashed bean cakes. Common to Muslim and Hausa communities in Ghana and around West Africa, by various names, it is found every day in the market and streets of Mr. Dawson’s neighborhood of Nima, Accra.
5. Dawson, Kofi (2019). Studio visit. Nima, Accra. Apr. 8, 2019.
6. seid’ou, kąrî’kạchä (2015). “Silence between the Lines: Anagrams of emancipated Futures.” Silence be- tween the Lines [Curatorial Statement]. Kumasi: blaxTARLINES KUMASI.