Ibrahim Mahama: Preserving Material History Through Exchange

Radcliffe Bailey’s Storm at Sea installation at the 2014 Dak’Art Biennale spoke to me in a peculiar way1. It was both refreshing and liberating to have experienced the sea of charcoal bordered by pristine white panels that sharply contrasted the sprawling blackness. Camouflaged in the installation was a skull and a machete all covered in glittery black paint. The expressive use of charcoal is what made the installation a visually striking composition to behold.

Charcoal, to my experience, is a domestic necessity for cooking, burning and other household chores. For Bailey to elevate this material from mere domesticity struck me as a potent gesture of re-presenting everyday objects extra-ordinarily. Encountering Ibrahim Mahama’s jute sack installations similarly jarred my imagination. The jute sacks carry residues of soot and a myriad of filthy remnants that characterize the environment inhabited by charcoal sellers. The sacks are originally used to bag cocoa. After subsequent use in the same way for other farm/food produce they end up used in bagging charcoal. Through these transfers, the sacks are labeled mainly for ownership and identification purposes. The charcoal owners or sellers brand the sacks as they would their own bodies — marking them with initials or full names. The artist then negotiates with the owners of the sacks and exchanges newer ones for the filthy, torn and chaff-filled sacks. For him this is a way of preserving the material’s history of negotiation, migration and trajectory of use when brought into the context of an art installation.

I am particularly drawn to the sacks’ naturalness in color, accumulated from dirt, soot, and grease, bearing signs of heavy use evidenced by holes or ruptures in the material acquired over time. The work depicts an austere patchwork of jute sacks that allow its audience to freely complicate with their own baggage of prejudices, familiarities and experiences. These are merged with an alternative interpretation of a commonplace material presented by the artist. According to Mahama “When the paths of charcoal and cocoa cross, I am tempered to cautiously think there is a neutral cross for a common and closer conversation.”2 This intersection of class and commodity is what becomes inherent in the coal sacks when repurposed by the artist.

Trained in the Kumasi College of Art3, Mahama’s uninhibited installations and wrappings engage public spaces transforming ordinary places/sites/objects into sublime visual experiences. The artist takes landscapes, monuments and people as raw material for interventions – what Boris Groys terms the ‘artistic installation’. Groys defines the artistic installation as “a way to expand the domain of the sovereign rights of the artist from the individual art object to that of the exhibition space itself.” Furthermore he states, “The installation transforms the empty, neutral, public space into an individual artwork – and it invites the visitor to experience the space as the holistic, totalizing space of an artwork.”4 The exhibition space, in this context, would be the open markets, footbridges, fishing communities, old train stations and the many other derelict spaces Mahama activates by cladding, draping or hanging his work.

For example, the daunting aesthetic of his coal sacks installation activated an otherwise uninteresting space when in 2013, for his MFA exhibition, Mahama draped the interior and outer walls of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology Museum. The museum’s interior walls were further engaged with large format photographs of previous locations the coal sacks had been exhibited as well as a single channel video installation elucidating his process with voice-over narrations.5 The artist thinks of the sacks as archival documents embedded with [hi]stories of ownership, exchange, migration, appropriation or reuse through different cultures (bearing economic, social and cultural stains). In essence, the coal sacks and the museum were conceptually complementary elements the artist had juxtaposed: the latter as a place where objects are kept for recording time and events and the former as the embodiment of the record itself; the coal sacks abstractly expressing its history in an active voice and the museum as a containment for many such voices in collective nostalgia.

If painting (or sculpture) is thought of abstractly as a metaphor it can then be extrapolated and applied in relation to other ideas – much like any metaphor drawing conceptual similarities between ideas or narratives and enabling the artist to imagine new forms through which to express his/her ideas without ridding them of their original meaning. Mahama’s approach to critiquing the museum was a potent gesture in confronting an institution supposedly dedicated to the preservation of history for contemporary reflection and future production which is now bogged down with sterile bureaucratic structures.

kąrî’kạchä seid’ou, theorist and lecturer of the Kumasi College of Art, in conversation with Jelle Bouwhuis about new strategies to engage students of the College stated “…what we hope to advance in Kumasi 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.5 This, simple but subversive, idea is the profound background to Mahama’s radical approach to making art as one to have studied under seid’ou.

Mahama and his contemporaries are instigating a new mood in the Ghanaian art scene – one of critical reflection and a conviction that raises a much needed discussion on art and its meaning today. Critique has become necessary in responding to structures and institutions that are responsible for governance and policy-making. For example Bernard Akoi-Jackson’s ‘REDTAPEONBOTTLENECK’ performance (2006 – till date) examines bureaucracy (in the public sector) as a mundane colonial legacy that we have inherited and preoccupied ourselves with in a post-independence era.

Likewise, when contemporary artist Serge Attukwei Clottey and his GoLokal performance collective did the ‘Chinese Get Rich, The Locals Get Mad’ (2014) performance in Labadi, Accra, the subject matter was the illegal mining activities carried out by the Chinese in the regions of the country where gold is abundant. But beyond the economic and labor issues the performance was addressing, it was also (consciously) situated in close proximity to the Artists Alliance Gallery – established by the Ghanaian modernist painter Ablade Glover – to highlight the tensions (or otherwise) between what can exist within the white walls of exhibition spaces versus the commonly accessible public arenas.

Ibrahim Mahama’s ambitious art derives its forcefulness from ceaseless experimentation and unbridled conviction. He poses questions and seeks not merely to produce answers but more questions. Today’s wave of Ghanaian visual artists bring a refreshing vibrancy to the art scene. They interrogate history – firmly rooting their practice in social/self reflection – to enable coming to terms with one’s own cultural identity. Identity formation becomes a process understood through art practice.

Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh (2014)


  1. Upon speaking to Radcliffe Bailey he said that the Dak’Art installation was an altered version of the original work. “In Storm at Sea, a ghostly, dark ship covered with glittering black paint lies marooned atop a massive accumulation of piano keys. A kneeling female figure watches from afar, atop the handle of a dance staff used to honor Shango, the Yoruba deity of thunder and lightning and arbiter of divine justice.” Carol Thompson, Radcliffe Bailey: Memory As Medicine, exhibition catalogue, June 26 – September 11, 2011, High Museum of Art, DelMonico Books, Prestel, p22.
  1. Ibrahim Mahama said this in a conversation we had in his studio in Accra.
  1. Mahama received both BFA and MFA degrees from The College of Art, Faculty of Fine Art, Department of Painting & Sculpture, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana.
  1. Groys Boris, ‘Politics of Installation’, e-flux journal, #2 Jan, 2009
  1. The filmic and photographic media were intended by Mahama to exist complementarily to the physical (jute) material and not hierarchically with the jute as his primary material. Progressing from his experimentations with plaster cast sculptures of the human body – where he imposed his own imaginations on his models through the casts mounted on canvases – the coal sack is one of many forms Mahama intends to explore his ideas with.
  1. Project 1975 Contemporary Art And The Postcolonial Unconscious, SMBA, Black Dog Publishing, 2014, p. 115-6

*A version of this article was published in Out Of Bounds: Ibrahim Mahama (Artist book by Ibrahim Mahama, produced on the occasion of his installation “Out of Bounds” at the 56th Venice Biennale – All The Worlds Futures) published by CRANE Projects, London, in 2015.

Markings and body on coal sacks

Ibrahim Mahama, Markings and body on coal sacks, image courtesy artist.