Ibrahim Mahama Reveals Layers of Meaning with Post-Colonial Ghanian Material in New London Show

Installation view of “Lazarus”, Ibrahim Mahama’s solo exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey, London, 2021. © the artist. Photo © White Cube (Todd-White Art Photography). Image courtesy of White Cube.
Installation view of “Lazarus”, Ibrahim Mahama’s solo exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey, London, 2021. © the artist. Photo © White Cube (Todd-White Art Photography). Image courtesy of White Cube.
Installation view of “Lazarus”, Ibrahim Mahama’s solo exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey, London, 2021. © the artist. Photo © White Cube (Todd-White Art Photography). Image courtesy of White Cube.
Installation view of “Lazarus”, Ibrahim Mahama’s solo exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey, London, 2021. © the artist. Photo © White Cube (Todd-White Art Photography). Image courtesy of White Cube.
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CoBo Social Market News Reports

In an exhibition of new works at White Cube in London, Ghanian artist Ibrahim Mahama summons fruit bats and found objects to illuminate a post-colonial African history.

TEXT: Herbert Wright
IMAGES: Courtesy of White Cube

 

 

Installation view of “Lazarus”, Ibrahim Mahama’s solo exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey, London, 2021. © the artist. Photo © White Cube (Todd-White Art Photography). Image courtesy of White Cube.

 

The Bible tells the story of Lazarus, a man brought back to life by Jesus. For his new solo exhibition, “Lazarus”, at White Cube Bermondsey, London, Ghanian artist Ibrahim Mahama borrows this name, because in it, he too brings dead matter back to life. He does this at different levels, first of all quite literally in the case of found objects from Ghana’s post-colonial era. The relics of old sewing machines are a dominant thread in the show, and we see and hear them once again running with noisy industriousness. Mahama also brings to life an unexpected ecological narrative, especially in representations of fruit bats, which is another dominant thread running through the show. Not least, the whole exhibition, comprising installations, montages and film, resurrects Ghana’s post-colonial history, but with layers of new meanings. As if by miracle, it all comes together as a powerful artistic statement.

Central to the show’s narrative is an architectural structure in Tamale, a city in the savannahs of northern Ghana. Mahama was born there and it remains one of three places where he works out of. “The basis of my practice is collecting old things,” he tells CoBo Social. There’s an extraordinary range to the collected things—from the paperwork of commercial ledgers, which we see in the show, to whole planes, which have been repurposed as facilities for the Red Clay Studio art complex he opened in 2000 near Tamale. But the object from which “Lazarus” springs is a Tamale silo structure, a double line of suspended octagonal concrete storage shafts. It was built to bolster Ghana’s food security, but abandoned in 1966. As Mahama says, such “buildings became ghosts…a place of doom.”

Inside the structure, renamed Nkrumah Voli-ni in honour of Ghana’s first post-colonial leader Kwame Nkrumah, a whole ecosystem had developed. The bones of creatures lay in the accumulated mud and dirt, and fruit bats roost in the silos above. These bats appear as repeated motifs in various montages, and are also evoked in the new central work of the show, Lazarus (2021). It’s a striking, stand-out piece in which ominous, ragged black shapes hang above the visitor, their starkness emphasised by the whiteness of the room. Mahama is known for his trademark textile works with vast sheets made from jute sacks, which he has used Christo-like to drape walls and buildings, but in Lazarus, the material is scrap metal tarpaulin on suspended iron rebar elements.

 

Installation view of “Lazarus”, Ibrahim Mahama’s solo exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey, London, 2021. © the artist. Photo © White Cube (Todd-White Art Photography). Image courtesy of White Cube.
Installation view of “Lazarus”, Ibrahim Mahama’s solo exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey, London, 2021. © the artist. Photo © White Cube (Todd-White Art Photography). Image courtesy of White Cube.

 

In many of his montages on view, Mahama uses diverse elements, all with Ghana as their subject, including factory paperwork, railway logos, photographs, cross-sections of the silo structure, and the recurring motif of hanging bats. Apparent repetition often amplifies the power of a work, exemplified in the two Annual Report Series (2021) . Six montages on the wall seem identical at first glance, but close inspection reveals they incorporate different maps, while the second series comprise a suite of six old British colonial school desks facing the wall, which are open to reveal different pages of annual reports of Ghana’s ballooning national debt. The country was once the world’s largest cocoa producer and the trade had made it flush with funds when it became independent in 1957, but by the 1980s, military coup and corruption had precipitated a debt crisis, resulting in intervention by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) with its “rescue” remedy of privatisations and public spending squeezes.

One side of a split-screen film, Yesterday (2018–2021), takes us inside the silo structure as workers tackle the mud accumulated inside. The other half of the screen shows defunct sewing machines being restored, a process that led to what Mahama comments “was almost like the return of the living dead”. In their previous life, those machines once gave hope of retraining in new skill sets to countless Ghanaians struggling in the worsening economic climate.

 

Installation view of “Lazarus”, Ibrahim Mahama’s solo exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey, London, 2021. © the artist. Photo © White Cube (Todd-White Art Photography). Image courtesy of White Cube.

 

The presence of sewing machines, desks and numerous images of children bring the suggestion that the whole nation of Ghana was a pupil in the classroom of history learning the realities of neo-liberal economics the hard way. They were even subject to reports by its teachers, such as the IMF with their national debt analyses. That idea brings us to the show’s second stand-out work, a vast installation called CAPITAL CORPSES (2019–21) that fills White Cube Bermondsey’s largest space. One wall is covered with blackboards, some left with classroom writing in chalk. Facing them is an array of old school desks, 10 per row, 10 rows deep, each equip with a sewing machine which Mahama had acquired from places all over Ghana. While some remain as rusting relics, many have been resurrected, as the film revealed. Switched on, the mighty sound they make fills the gallery like the roar of heavy, relentless rain.

Mahama’s compulsive collecting instinct, and his interest in crises and failures, have shaped this show. Ghana lost much of its archives in the debt crisis, but Mahama’s found materials are also archives, restoring the record and revealing new meaning through incorporation into artistic composition. True, some background knowledge would help in engaging with his exploration of Ghanaian history, but one of Mahama’s strengths is how his works also have an aesthetic power that transcends their subject. For example, anyone can sense the dark haunting power in the black forms of the work Lazarus, even if they don’t interpret a message that history haunts the present. This show reminds us that Mahama’s work has the power to simultaneously embody place and time, and create a memorable impact through its ability to stun its viewers.

 

Ibrahim Mahama: Lazarus
15 September – 7 November 2021
White Cube Bermondsey, London

 

 
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