Ghanian artist Ibrahim Mahama is known for using discarded common-place items from his home country as materials for his sculptures and outdoor installations. These items have embedded within them, a certain history of both the passage of time from their previous owner’s usage and of the historical relevance, the marking of a certain epoch in the history of a place, which has cultural significance.
In what’s known as the ‘Occupation’ series of works, he has taken thousands of used jute sacks, bartered from migrant workers in Ghana, sewn them together and draped them over the facades of institutional buildings and museums in Ghana and Europe. These sacks have a certain history embedded within them; made from labourers in South Asia, they have been imported to Ghana initially to carry cocoa, but often find subsequent uses in carrying other commodities such as coal and ultimately might end up being a domestic door mat or a fire extinguisher, due to their strength and water retentive abilities.
But they are more than just containers to transport stuff around, for they also retain some evidence within the fabric, of the people that handled them. Partly from the various economic crises that the country has seen, the people who handle these sacks have developed a habit where they would write some personal information on their own bodies, as Mahama describes it, as a way of letting rescuers find who they are, ‘should anything happen to them’. This has lead some to further ‘decorate’ their sacks while they’re at it, lending a touch of humanity to an otherwise purely utilitarian object and human endeavour.
For the installation at Jamestown, the old port town of Ghana, where historically the international trade started, the sacks were covered with patches which produce a colourful mosaic and is also a testament to the connectivity and the globalized trade, as the patches come from China.
The effects of gravity produces a sagging in the stitched lines which lends to somewhat of a dystopian look, as if the facade was melting, as these worn and tattered sacks are draped over it, accentuated in the tight space of the ‘corridor’ leading to the Arsenale at the Venice Biennale 2015.
Seen collectively these dirty, torn and dangling sacks speaks to the unseen conditions in which globalized trade for these commodities is conducted that powers our ‘economies’, which is perhaps what Mahama was referring to when he described ‘the crisis and failure absorbed within this material’.
Somewhat different from other social art interventions, these sacks are seen, perhaps metaphorically, as the bodies of the labourers, as in Nyhavn’s Kpalang (2016) where ‘Kpalang’ means ‘body’ in his native Ghanese tongue. But could it be literal as well, which would mean their bodies are torn, crumpled, punctured and have their names written on them?
In each of the places where these installations are held, local volunteers, presumably art students and some Ghanians, were arranged to help with sewing the sacks together. In Ghana, the migrant workers supplied the raw material and the labour, bartering away their old sacks and time to produce this work.
Falling, fallen the cedi over a bronze sky. Sardines packed into metal cans, silence. Move quick, light the wick, who knows what tomorrow brings? Of the same flesh, speak the same tongue, yet no one knows no one. In dark shadows, heavy noisy machines, a word seals the fate. The strong will survive, but just in case, my body is a birth certificate.
Young man, enchanted. Wants old sacks, for what matters? Spread the floor, we all make. A giant quilt to drape a museum; no dead, no lines, no directive, no zombie automaton, is this for real? Such ordinary material, used to cover a building, tastes are a changin’, who would have known?
A breeze, a glimmer, snipping scissors, a commotion of souls, vested convivance. A disruption of darkness and loneliness, where the weak are dispensed, but here there’s nothing to compete. Friends around, the oil of gladness, away from the crowd, the din of madness. This is what would make the museum proud, aside the old, torn and tattered quilt of sacks.