Ibrahim Mahama and the art of resurrection

Entering the White Cube gallery in London, visitors can hear the whirr of busy machinery. It is not difficult to locate the source of the noise: 100 vintage sewing machines have been lovingly restored and mounted on wooden school desks. A mix of Singer and Butterfly models, they come to life in groups, with those that have needles stitching invisible cloth.“Capital Corpses” (2019-21, pictured) is the work of Ibrahim Mahama, a Ghanaian artist best-known for large-scale patchworks of jute sacks. Made in south-east Asia, jute sacks are used in Ghana to transport cocoa beans. When the cocoa is emptied into containers for export, the sacks are used by maize and rice traders and, finally, for transporting charcoal. An earlier generation of Ghanaian artists used fresh, clean jute sacks as their canvas. Mr Mahama prefers old ones that hint at their past. “My interest was in the character, the history and the politics,” he says. Through these works he invites the viewer to ponder his country’s place in the world economy, both historically and today.Mr Mahama, 34, has moved on from jute sacks, but as “Lazarus”, the title of his new show, suggests, he is no less interested in reviving ghosts and resurrecting the dead. Aside from the sewing machines (which allude to the way many women, having been failed by Ghana’s education system, earn a living), the focus is on Nkrumah Voli-ni, a derelict grain silo the artist acquired in his home city of Tamale, afterwards breathing new life into it as a cultural centre. The silo is one of a number built in the heady optimism of the independence era and left to rot after Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, was deposed in a coup in 1966. Rumours suggested that Nkrumah had intended them as prisons or was building tunnels to link them to Accra, the capital. “My father’s generation grew up with the myth that these buildings were a place of doom,” Mr Mahama says. A short film couples the laborious task of resurrecting Voli-ni with the patient craftsmanship of restoring the sewing machines. Along with bucket after bucket of sludge, out went snakes, frogs and their fossilised remains, but the resident bats remain: photographed and flipped from their hanging position to stand upright, they are comical equivalents of saints in a baroque frieze. The bats are pictured in beautiful collages made from colonial-era maps and bank records, and commercial invoices from the post-independence years. Mr Mahama’s arrival at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology’s college of art in 2006 coincided with that of a group of radical young professors, most notably Kari’kacha Seid’ou, who was eager for his students to address the inequalities of both the art world and the world at large. He taught them to draw and paint, but texts by Walter Benjamin, Karl Marx and Jacques Rancière were the starting point of any discussion. “In most art schools, students are trained to produce for the market,” Mr Mahama says. “For us it was more about producing work that would somehow change the relationship between art and the market—and create new forms of the market in the future.” Collaboration was encouraged and exhibitions could happen anywhere, from cemeteries to warehouses, factories to marketplaces, even buses. Mr Mahama stayed on to do a doctorate and today he is part of blaxTARLINES KUMASI, a staff-student collective. Wearing that hat, he will have a collage included in “Ubuntu, a lucid dream”, a joint show which opens at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris in November. “Ubuntu”, a Bantu term suggesting reciprocity and interdependence, was popularised by Nelson Mandela, but before that it was an idea that underpinned pan-Africanism at the time of independence. “Ibrahim is playing a huge part in decolonising the imagination,” says Marie-Ann Yemsi, the exhibition’s curator. “It was natural for me to invite him to be in a show that speaks about the notion of building the world together.” The Design Museum in London has commissioned Mr Mahama, too. For “Waste Age: What can design do?”, which opens on October 23rd, he has produced a wall of 40 televisions, retrieved, like the sewing machines, from Agbogbloshie, a scrapyard in Accra where much of Europe’s electronic waste is dumped, then coaxed back to life. The TVs will run films of their own repair, while copper frames made from their wiring highlight the precious minerals e-waste contains. What caught the eye of the curator, Gemma Curtin, was Mr Mahama’s “interest in the process of making things, the labour that goes into it and the impact of that process on people and place”. From October 24th the artist will also have work on show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. “Afro-Atlantic Histories”, an exhibition which will tour to Washington, Los Angeles and other American cities, will use a mix of fact and fable in the spirit of Portuguese historias to reclaim often buried stories of “the black Atlantic” and the nations involved in slavery. It will pair a jute

Ibrahim Mahama and the art of resurrection

Entering the White Cube gallery in London, visitors can hear the whirr of busy machinery. It is not difficult to locate the source of the noise: 100 vintage sewing machines have been lovingly restored and mounted on wooden school desks. A mix of Singer and Butterfly models, they come to life in groups, with those that have needles stitching invisible cloth.

“Capital Corpses” (2019-21, pictured) is the work of Ibrahim Mahama, a Ghanaian artist best-known for large-scale patchworks of jute sacks. Made in south-east Asia, jute sacks are used in Ghana to transport cocoa beans. When the cocoa is emptied into containers for export, the sacks are used by maize and rice traders and, finally, for transporting charcoal. An earlier generation of Ghanaian artists used fresh, clean jute sacks as their canvas. Mr Mahama prefers old ones that hint at their past. “My interest was in the character, the history and the politics,” he says. Through these works he invites the viewer to ponder his country’s place in the world economy, both historically and today.

Mr Mahama, 34, has moved on from jute sacks, but as “Lazarus”, the title of his new show, suggests, he is no less interested in reviving ghosts and resurrecting the dead. Aside from the sewing machines (which allude to the way many women, having been failed by Ghana’s education system, earn a living), the focus is on Nkrumah Voli-ni, a derelict grain silo the artist acquired in his home city of Tamale, afterwards breathing new life into it as a cultural centre.

The silo is one of a number built in the heady optimism of the independence era and left to rot after Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, was deposed in a coup in 1966. Rumours suggested that Nkrumah had intended them as prisons or was building tunnels to link them to Accra, the capital. “My father’s generation grew up with the myth that these buildings were a place of doom,” Mr Mahama says.

A short film couples the laborious task of resurrecting Voli-ni with the patient craftsmanship of restoring the sewing machines. Along with bucket after bucket of sludge, out went snakes, frogs and their fossilised remains, but the resident bats remain: photographed and flipped from their hanging position to stand upright, they are comical equivalents of saints in a baroque frieze. The bats are pictured in beautiful collages made from colonial-era maps and bank records, and commercial invoices from the post-independence years.

Mr Mahama’s arrival at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology’s college of art in 2006 coincided with that of a group of radical young professors, most notably Kari’kacha Seid’ou, who was eager for his students to address the inequalities of both the art world and the world at large. He taught them to draw and paint, but texts by Walter Benjamin, Karl Marx and Jacques Rancière were the starting point of any discussion. “In most art schools, students are trained to produce for the market,” Mr Mahama says. “For us it was more about producing work that would somehow change the relationship between art and the market—and create new forms of the market in the future.”

Collaboration was encouraged and exhibitions could happen anywhere, from cemeteries to warehouses, factories to marketplaces, even buses. Mr Mahama stayed on to do a doctorate and today he is part of blaxTARLINES KUMASI, a staff-student collective. Wearing that hat, he will have a collage included in “Ubuntu, a lucid dream”, a joint show which opens at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris in November. “Ubuntu”, a Bantu term suggesting reciprocity and interdependence, was popularised by Nelson Mandela, but before that it was an idea that underpinned pan-Africanism at the time of independence. “Ibrahim is playing a huge part in decolonising the imagination,” says Marie-Ann Yemsi, the exhibition’s curator. “It was natural for me to invite him to be in a show that speaks about the notion of building the world together.”

The Design Museum in London has commissioned Mr Mahama, too. For “Waste Age: What can design do?”, which opens on October 23rd, he has produced a wall of 40 televisions, retrieved, like the sewing machines, from Agbogbloshie, a scrapyard in Accra where much of Europe’s electronic waste is dumped, then coaxed back to life. The TVs will run films of their own repair, while copper frames made from their wiring highlight the precious minerals e-waste contains. What caught the eye of the curator, Gemma Curtin, was Mr Mahama’s “interest in the process of making things, the labour that goes into it and the impact of that process on people and place”.

From October 24th the artist will also have work on show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. “Afro-Atlantic Histories”, an exhibition which will tour to Washington, Los Angeles and other American cities, will use a mix of fact and fable in the spirit of Portuguese historias to reclaim often buried stories of “the black Atlantic” and the nations involved in slavery. It will pair a jute work by Mr Mahama with an 18th-century Gobelins tapestry presenting idyllic images of plantation life. “Ibrahim’s work is a very important corrective to that idealised colonialist vision,” says Alison de Lima Greene, one of the curators.

Mr Mahama ploughs the profits from sales of his art back into cultural infrastructure projects in Ghana (Voli-ni is his third). He is proud of the fact that young Ghanaians are saying: “If this artist can do it with scrap materials, how much can we achieve?” Soon the galleries that want a piece of him may have to form a queue.

Ibrahim Mahama’s work is on display at White Cube, London, until November 7th; the Design Museum, London, from October 23rd to February 20th; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, from October 24th to January 17th; and Palais de Tokyo, Paris, from November 26th to February 20th