Ibrahim Mahama is an artist for whom the collectivist potentialities of art production, recall the progressivism of political action. Mahama’s practice acts within the historical intersection of society and its commodities, placing an emphasis on processes in which art becomes the residual product of civic movement. His ambitious installations (”Occupation” 2011 – on-going) form a series of interventions in which symbolically loaded materials often associated with trade and export are utilized to question the role of the object within processes of daily transaction and exchange. Mahama’s epic installations encompass various sites, buildings, landscapes and people of his everyday existence. As totalizing artworks, they transform various contexts to reveal new spatial realities. They perform within the chasm of contemporary postindustrial society, among the clamorous high roads and crane-filled slums, skirted by open gutters of travelling debris.
Cladding, draping or hanging materials, the site of exhibition becomes an entry point into a discussion of trade, labour and capital. The exhibition space, in this context, would be the open markets, footbridges, fishing communities, old train stations and the many other morphing spaces of urban Ghana. His work exercises an expansion of the sovereign rights of the artists from the muchfetishized art object to the site of the exhibition itself i.e. the civic realm. Staged as interventions into public space, the collaborative process of such work implicates art in a set of complex economic and political networks, drawing attention to the urban and social paradigms inherent within so-called developing countries.
Mahama’s specific engagement with the conditions of Ghanaian trade, has led him into an intensive dialogue with the historical reality of its raw minerals and materials. For example, the exogenous factors underlining the transnational and global histories of cocoa to reveal the specificity of trade routes. Smuggled from an offshore island at the closing of the nineteenth century, cocoas’ subsequent cultivation as the nations foremost commodity engendered the growth of local capitalism in South-eastern Ghana. Mahama spends time observing the way in which today’s markets, absorbent of increasingly manufactured industrial and agricultural product, become sites for the entanglement of colonial legacies. Jute sacks matted with the residue of past produce, old Dutch wax fabric (or its cheaper Chinese equivalent), fishing nets, and other materials are woven into large-scale textiles composed through a collaborative process with urban migrant communities.
Manufactured initially in South-East Asia, the ubiquitous jute-fibre sacks, branded with the tagline “GHANA COCOA BOARD, PRODUCE OF GHANA”, are imported into the country by produce buying companies.After being used to bag and measure the cocoa seeds from local farmers, the sacks are transported to the harbors in order to be shipped abroad in large quantities. The residual sacks are transferred to middlemen who sell the material to various tradesmen and market sellers. They later find new uses in different areas of the commodity market, most commonly to bag farm produce and charcoal. The transitions involved are embodied in the meanings such material acquires over time, thus evidencing their innately human conditions. Furthermore, they bring attention to how society takes ownership of the material both as an industrial product and a personalized object of subjective value.
Mahama is largely concerned with the way in which these materials are given meaning as commodities, as well as literally, as products of a given environment. The economic circulation of the jute sack is informed both by various transferences of value (from the container of commodities to a unique commodity by appropriation) and processes of exchange (from the official Cocoa Board to the quotidian lives of traders and consumers). The process is initiated in the market, where Mahama engages in specific transactions in order to secure jute sacks from the charcoal sellers—with whom the artist must negotiate and exchange either new jute sacks or another interchangeable equivalent. The sellers, made up largely of women from the North, are employed by the artist to tear the sacks and resew them manually to form a larger bricolage of material.
Torn, patched, and stamped, the flayed sacks are branded with the names of their countless owners. It is by this process the material assimilates a sense of universality, as its physical transformation is marked by the traces of its trajectory. Mahama’s practice is aimed at transgressing an ideological dimension that allows the material to be re- purposed beyond its conventional use—as containers of a rootless commodity. The material is draped over and wrapped around various architectural sites and urban spaces. Often his work engulfs market places, abandoned railway bridges and other normalized environments frequented and yet rarely activated by inhabitants (who are themselves an unwitting component of the installation itself). Upon encounter, the material’s long narrative may not be evident nor does the artists wish to make it available; because its very presence forces ones reorientation of the environment as a civic space. The materials are re-purposed as an archival document expressing an accretion of historical narratives relating to ownership and appropriation through different constellations. They bear the economic and personal stains of their primary author: civilisation.
This article was originally published by Mousse Magazine in December 2014 © Osei Bonsu, 2014.