Working with a reference theme or subject, how are you able to retain the autonomy of the artwork so it can be independently perceived apart from the subject matter which undergirds it?
Above is a question i have paraphrased which was posed by a member of the audience during the panel discussion at the opening of the Du Bois In Our Time exhibition in Accra. It rang relevant since dealing with a subject as expansive and inexhaustive as the life and legacy of the African-American scholar and activist W.E.B Du Bois can consume and potentially over-saturate any [art] project — indeed this could run in a never-ending series.
I collaborated with fellow artist ato annan to merge perspectives on the historical figure and legacy of W.E.B Du Bois to make a commentary on what his ideals had to say about/in our time. To attempt any meaningful response to the above question would mean to take, first and foremost, the subject or theme for the work to be an entry point into a discussion (in this case, for a multi-media art installation). By treating the subject in this way, the work produced seeks not to present itself as a scholarly didactic or expert investigation into the essence and oeuvre of the canonical intellectual but offers an interpretation of the specific angles the artists intended to highlight of his life — a metaphor which allows itself to be extrapolated and applied onto other ideas and itself expanded and assessed in relation to other [un]related subjects/metaphors. Only in this way could the essence of the artwork be retained and achieve a meaningful juxtaposition with W.E.B Du Bois as a conceptual structure/order of existing knowledge.
The EXIT FRAME installation features a 73-second video, texts displayed on a table as well as in an open suitcase. A copy of American citizenship renunciation form (the same which Du Bois would have used to initiate his. This part of the installation invites audience participation) and the papers in the suitcase told of FBI files/tabs which had been kept on him.
In the video, a pensive character paces back and forth, then proceeds to journey down a corridor to an animated voice calling for a new being, a new spirit, a new identity much stronger and driven than its own former. When he arrives at the door, he leaves his luggage behind, walks through and shuts the door behind him. A passport is slammed abruptly after this.
The two issues we dealt with in the work had to do with Du Bois’ move to the continent — his decision to renounce his American citizenship for a Ghanaian identity — and in Du Bois himself as an individual. One might ask how this can be of any importance in an artist’s work. This is my personal angle from which i’d wanted to engage with the person of W.E.B Du Bois. My abstract interlocution with Du Bois — his body of work, ideals and theories— would have been meaningless had i not charted this route. Being a lover of words, i discovered he too wrote poetry and was actively involved in the discipline. I looked for relatable traits common to people. It may seem a bit simplistic the angle i chose to interrogate the person, but think about it, as a scholar, activist and poet who lived for 95 years — living through the deaths of both his children –, couldn’t his private moments of solitude, despair, frustration, fear, anger, anxiety, happiness, gloom and other subjectivities unseen been the definitive emotions which even enabled him to embark on his pursuit for equality (of race and gender)?. In the Foreword of the Ghana University Press publication of Selected Poems, Kwame Nkrumah describes him as a “sensitive Fighter Poet who for three-quarters of a century struggled against the waves of Oppression, Misery and Woe which engulfed his people.”1 Similarly, Shirley Graham (his wife), in her exposition in the same book, states of his style (of writing) that it “is always highly personal and is neither constant nor consistent.”2 Furthermore, Shirley states that “Du Bois wrote in awful isolation; an isolation at first imposed because of his color and later wholeheartedly embraced.”
It was a thrilling experience to have had access to the one place he called home while here in Ghana. I visited his library, his bedroom, his toilet (which one of my colleagues used as the site for his work), walked through his corridor, even explored his basement.
Our hope was to highlight the myriad connotations and implications of the politics of choice and being through our shared interests for the subject and the project. Heavily tying the narrative together is the symbolic use of luggage as a signifier for migration, displacement, sensitivity and the weight of the past being carried. Luggage here homed several meanings and references which relate to Irit Rogoff’s that the suitcase (luggage) references a “concrete past, a nostalgic trace.”3 She makes mention of several other connotations of luggage as a metaphor for “material belongings, travel, movement away from the naturalised anchorings of those belongings.”4And furthermore relating to memory, nostalgia, access to histories, tool of ideological constructions either of utopian new beginnings or of tragic doomed endings.
Du Bois’ life was an illustrious one dedicated, impassioned and vociferous for the rise to the “highest physical, intellectual and moral possibilities” of Black people — his belief in the intrinsic worth of human beings in general and not of one group biologically superior to another must have been the substructure based on which his activism on racial equality, women’s rights, pan-africanism and knowledge for all was formed.
This pursuit subsequently led him to wholly inhabit and link two different continents and assume, fully, the primary identities possible therein — one offered him by birth (animated with all of its complexities) and the other a conscious choice over the former. Perhaps his awareness of a “double consciousness” — both of being an American and a Negro— opened him up to exploring the nature of being and identity in more complex forms and was uninhibited in its expression.
The work is a multi media installation by Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh & ato annan for the Du Bois In Our Time exhibition in March 2014.
1. Selected Poems by WEB Du Bois, 1964, Ghana Universities Press, Accra, Ghana, Foreword
2. Selected Poem by WEB Du Bois, 1964, Ghana Universities Press, Accra, Ghana, Exposition, p.8
3. Rogoff, Irit. Terra Infirma: Geography’s Visual Culture (2000). Routledge p.36
4. Rogoff, Irit. Terra Infirma: Geography’s Visual Culture (2000). Routledge p.37