Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama on the optimism in our failure

"My work is a manifestation of the failures and contradictions of history, but it also explores potentialities."

Ibrahim Mahama’s jute sacks have draped the lavish walls of just about every significant building in the world of art and design from the toll booths in Port Venezia to the Accra National Theatre in Ghana. Mahama was also part of the Investec Cape Town Art Fair earlier this year.

These sacks have travelled across the world and have passed through many hands before reaching their prominent destinations. The jute sacks, made from hessian material, carry a deep and intricate history. 

Ibrahim Mahama: Port of Venezia

Ghana was once the lead producer and exporter of cocoa and these sacks, which were also manufactured in that country, were to transport these beans. Today, these sacks are manufactured in South East Asia and are imported by the Ghana Cocoa Boards.

However, to the people of Ghana, these versatile sacks can be used for pretty much anything. These sacks, with the character provided by their nicks and their loose ends, reflect the spectrum of life. “You find different points of aesthetics on the surface of the sacks’ fabric," says Mahama. 

The artist’s interest in these sacks stems from his interest in "how crisis and failure are absorbed into this material with a strong reference to global transaction, and how capitalist structures work.”

Ibrahim Mahama

Mahama was born in Ghana, not too long after the nation gained independence from Britain. At this point in the country’s history, many people were excited to witness the promised transformation of this newly liberated nation.

The sacks embody these promises made to the people of Ghana. “The hessian sacks are important, because of the history that they have and how it is translated into other contexts. They provide multiple perspectives on painting and the position of art in the 21st century. The decay of the hessian sacks speaks to the unrealised freedoms of the 21st century,” he explains.

Mahama’s hessian sacks have garnered great admiration and also sparked significant conversations on the topics of commodities and labour.

Ibrahim Mahama

Alongside prominent Ghanaian artists such as El Anatsui, John Akomfrah, Selasi Awusi Sosu and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Mahama will feature some of his latest work at this year’s Venice Art Biennale.

This will be the first Ghana Pavilion to ever feature at the biennale. The Ghanaian Pavilion will be designed by the famed Ghanaian architect and former Design Indaba speaker, Sir David Adjaye.

Speaking on the importance of the pavilion, Mahama says, “The Ghana Pavilion [in] Venice is one of great significance, not just to Ghanaian art and artists, but also to practices throughout the continent.”

“I also believe that it should inspire us to invest a lot more in the social infrastructure of Ghana, which will inspire artists not just of this generation, but also of generations yet to come”, he added.

Ibrahim Mahama

The title and theme for the nation’s pavilion is “Ghana Freedom,” which was inspired by E.T. Mensah’s independence song of the same name. “I think that I am more interested in the contradictions within my work and sometimes between my work and exhibition themes,” he comments on his plans to incorporate this theme into his piece.

“I find ‘Freedom’ to be expansive and I have been dealing with it in my work from the beginning. My work is a manifestation of the failures and contradictions of history, but it also explores potentialities. ‘Ghana Freedom’ is more of a question than a statement to me, and I am still thinking about it.”

For the Pavilion Mahama will deviate from his use of the hessian sack, and try something a little more experimental. “I am focusing on details and new sensibilities. The work in the Ghana Pavilion is experimental and addresses the role of architecture in the 21st century,” he says.

His exhibit is a continuation of his "a straight line through the carcass of history" installation. The exhibit includes some wooden crates, fish mesh, cloth and a variety of other materials. 

The 58th Venice Art Biennale starts on 11 May 2019 and runs until 24 November 2019 and will feature artists from around the world including South African artist, Mawande Ka Zenzile.

Ibrahim Mahama

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