In Studio with Elisabeth Sutherland

Sharon: So I’m here with Elisabeth Sutherland…

Elisabeth: Helloooo!

Sharon: How do I introduce you? (laughs)

Elisabeth: How do you introduce me? That’s a good question.

Sharon: So I think this interview will probably be one of the more interesting ones in the sense that I know you personally, and the other ones are with people I’ve met through work and built relationships with. But we actually grew up together, so it’s been interesting to see the developments over time in terms of your interest in the arts and how things have turned out up until now.

Elisabeth: Yea.

Sharon: So let’s start from the beginning. 

Elisabeth: From the absolute beginning..

Sharon: From the absolute beginning! So we’ll rewind to the start. When did you realize that you were interested in art? Because you grew up surrounded by art of different fields.

Elisabeth: Yes, my parents are both architects, my grandmother was a writer, playwright, children’s activist, and my aunts are involved in academics. I don’t even think there was a solid point when it was like, “I’m interested in art!” But I’ve just always been a scribbler, I’ve been a dreamer, I’ve been into using my hands and body to express myself. So I did dance, I used to draw all the time, in school. It was when I left secondary school at Faith Montessori School, that I realized, ‘I need to do something creative.’ because I’d been doing science. It was not very fun. I decided I was going to do theater and that was because it pulled so many different forms of art into itself. It had design in there, it had the directing side, it had the writing side, and I felt like it would really encompass a lot of the different things that I wanted to do. So I think if anything, for a clear beginning of something, that would have been it. That choice to go do theatre.

Elisabeth Sutherland at Google Cultural Institute. Copyright Elisabeth Sutherland.

Elisabeth Sutherland at Google Cultural Institute. Copyright Elisabeth Sutherland.

Sharon: We’re here in Accra, and you’ve recently just come back from a residency in Paris with the Google …

Elisabeth: ....Cultural Institute and 89 plus.

Sharon: How did that go? What was that about?

Elisabeth: So 89 plus is slightly random. It’s started by Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Simon Castets who’s the director of the Swiss Institute in London, it's a long-term research project. They said, ‘We don’t know any young people making things, that were born in this age of the internet. The year 1989 was when so many influential things happened in the world. "We want to know what they’re up to." So they reached out a couple years back, to make this directory of young makers, and I was one of the people who met them at the Nubuke Foundation. 

From there, I did a few things with them. But this come up really randomly, they emailed saying, ‘oh, we’re going to ask you to propose something, if you were to hypothetically go to Google and do something, what would you do?’ I’d been working on this project for almost three years called, ‘Ananse’s Wife// Akua’s Daughter’, retelling the Ananse stories which are a big part of Akan culture, from the viewpoint of the character’s wife as Okonore Yaa - just asking what happens when you redirect the trickster energy through a female imagination rather than a male one, which is a question I synthesised through reading a lady called Rickie Stefanie Tannen. 

So I was looking at that as a big thing, but then also about how to deal with a question I keep getting asked which is about documentation of my work. I hate videoing live performance, because that’s not the intention. Most of the time it’s not meant to be experienced like that, it’s not a film that’s shot specifically to be viewed on a flat screen. It’s made in a completely different way for a completely different purpose so I was looking at how to use something like augmented reality to capture moments in performance that still feel 3D, live, and have more depth than just recording and replaying something on flat screens. That was really cool, I should have brought the app to show you but I ..

Sharon: ... You’ll have to show me.

Elisabeth: ... I will show you.

Sharon: … So at the end of this project, is there going to be an exhibition of your work?

Elisabeth: Yes, I’m working with Nana Oforiatta-Ayim, who is a curating a show we’ll do in April. So we’re getting all that tied up. I’ve got this long performance piece which is going to be done, kind of repetitively in space, but it involves, a video installation -

Sharon: - where will that be?

Elisabeth: It’s going to be at the new ANO space in Osu.

Sharon: Oh, okay, great!

Elisabeth: It will be in April. It’s really exciting, and something that I’d actually originally envisioned to happen outdoors but it makes sense to do it indoors. The space has got a pool, and it is a really immersive environment. 

Sharon: You said that you don’t like to document your performances. What material would you use to show viewers who didn’t see the live performance? Tell me more about that concept.

Elisabeth: It’s something that I’ve always felt backwards about, because so many people say, ‘No, you’re an artist, you have to document your work. You have to show people who didn’t see it’, and then I heard about Tino Seghal, who makes these situations, and he doesn’t document or encourage others to document his work, and he passes it on entirely through the body and through the mouth. That’s crazy to me, because we have this oral history here in Ghana. This tradition of passing down culture and wisdom, and identity through speaking to each other. We lose so much, we interface with screens nowadays that it’s okay to miss out on some things, and it’s okay to let something that’s meant to be temporal and transitory slide into the past and not have a record of it. I’m totally fine with that. 

Sharon: And now back in Accra, you’ve been working with ATW. Tell me a bit more about your objectives in setting this up, and how participants have been responding to your program.

Elisabeth: ATW is going on four years now, which is incredible to me. We’re going to be five next year, and we’re on a bit of a break now, but it’s been amazing generally, in terms of the support from audience members and other artists, but also in terms of the actors and all these really amazing people we met, and worked with. 

We (myself and Emelia, who’s my co-director) started it because there was a lack of space for the kind of work we both wanted to do. In this country a lot of people do this traditional theatre - it’s comedy, it’s funny, people want to laugh, they don’t want to think too hard. We like funny too, but sometimes you do want a bit more texture. In the material that you’re dealing with, you want the nuance, because if you laugh too much about something without being critical, it’s not helpful. You don’t have to be critical all the time, but just to fill that space with something other than mindless entertainment, with other viewpoints and other opinions. 

ATW has been working with other groups so this year, we’re working a lot with a group called 'Drama Queens' which was started by another friend Nana Akosua Hanson - a feminist theatre group. We’re really trying to listen more to what other people feel is missing in this space, and provide whatever we can to help them also get their voices out there.

Sharon: When we were kids, I remember we would read those Enid Blyton books..

Elisabeth: oh dear! (laughs)

Sharon: ...and those were my favourite books. And we used to share, borrow, and sometimes fight over these books. (laughs) We’ve both been very avid readers. What do you read about now? What peaks your curiosity?

Elisabeth: I have been trying to get through Teju Cole, his short collection of essays. I think it was a bad first book for me (laughs) to start with. But I’m reading everything still. I used to read the encyclopaedia when I was little, I still do. I have been reading a lot of Neil Gaiman, a lot of fantasy nowadays as well. I’m going back to Shakespeare, and also a lot more African women writers, as well, which is really nice, because you need those voices. I was reading The Caine Anthology,  Nana Nyarko Boateng, and other amazing Ghanaian writers as well. 

Sharon: Just thinking as we’re talking, I’m remembering Sokari Douglas Camp, who is a Nigerian artist. We had a conversation as well, and she was telling me how when she was younger, she had these moments when she would watch performances on stage that were put together by Peggy Harper. For her it was interesting how these directors would take performances from the village and put it on stage. As she was watching this outside, a hen or a chicken would walk by. It was not as fabricated as let’s say, going to a theatre building, and that for her was very compelling. Is that something you also find interesting in terms of how you present you work at ATW?

Elisabeth: So really, to be honest, I’m so into stylization, and again, that’s why I’m into sci-fi and all these makings of a world. There’s something very magical about how Africans in general, but also West Africans in particular, how performative we are. We are all performers, we’re naturally performers. There’s a guy - we’re sitting in the car right now - there’s a guy riding down the street on his bicycle. The way he angles himself side to side, the way a market woman will just like hoist her baby on her hip, we get that kind of attitude. We are stars, we are superstars, through and through. That’s so magic for me. Something I’m interested in is that gestural social swag, really interested in our physical and vocal expression.. it’s part of ourselves, and part of the stories we should be telling. ATW is meant to be telling Ghanaian stories specifically, not even just general things. So that’s important to be able to capture that spirit and that energy.

Elisabeth Sutherland at Google Cultural Institute. Copyright Elisabeth Sutherland.

Elisabeth Sutherland at Google Cultural Institute. Copyright Elisabeth Sutherland.

Sharon: What’s coming up, what are you up to?

Elisabeth: What’s coming up? A new space, working on a studio which is really nice, it’s something called The Interstice Project, which is a small intervening space basically my whole frustration with not having - being able to develop certain projects that I wanted to, because I didn’t have space, where I had space where people were giving me but because it’s someone else’s space, there’s a limit to how crazy or experimental you can really be, and to kind of alleviate that a little bit. 

Sharon: Where is this space going to be?

Elisabeth: This is in Dzorwulu, so it’s on my grandmother’s property, it’s in town. It’s in a good easy to find location, we’ve had a few programs there as well. We’re trying not to go too crazy with the program, because I do want it to be very much like a supportive environment, very chill zone where you can just go and experience what other people are working on.

Sharon: Wait! Are you talking about the children’s park?

Elisabeth: It’s up from there. Not the Mmofra park, up from the park.

Sharon: Okay, I see. Thank you for doing this with me. 

(both laugh)

Sharon: Good job! I’m really proud of you.

Elisabeth: I’m proud of you.

Sharon: Because you know, working in the arts in Ghana, is not an easy thing to do.

Elisabeth: No it’s not.

Sharon: Traditionally, parents would want you to do the conventional things.

Elisabeth: Oh, they still want me to do the conventional things.

(both burst into laughter)

Sharon: Yes, so going against the grain to make your own way requires courage, I remember Hans Ulrich was telling me how he admires artists because he believes they have tremendous courage to be able do what they do, and I think it’s remarkable to see… it’s different and it’s special. So good job, I’m proud of you.

Elisabeth: Thank you, thank you.

Feature Image: At Eric Gyamfi exhibition, Nubuke Foundation, Accra.

Sharon Obuobi