In Studio with Ibrahim Mahama

Sharon: I’m here with Ibrahim Mahama… what’s your nickname? Do you have a nickname?

Ibrahim: (laughs)

Sharon: Can I make one for you?

Ibrahim: (laughs) No!

Sharon: We’re here at White Cube before the opening of your solo exhibition. How are you?

Ibrahim: I’m fine, how are you?

Sharon: I’m also fine, thank you (laughs).

Yesterday, you had an enlightening conversation at Chelsea College with Dr. Paul Goodwin. You talked about how you began professionally as a student of painting from your BFA, to your MFA, to now your PhD in painting. I found this really interesting because it might have been hard to guess that, looking at the aesthetics of your work. How does your study of painting inform your choice of mediums with the jute sacks  and the use of other found materials?

Ibrahim: Studying in art school, we learned about the complex history of painting,  in terms of  the image, how things are constructed and how spaces can be perceived differently. If you can apply paint on a canvas why can’t you work with an already existing object that has paint applied upon on it? There is this idea of using my training as a painter in exploring materials that have a significant history and memory, which is very relevant to production systems especially within modern day history,sometimes at the stage of neglect. I’m also interested in these specific materials which are at this point of decay and possibilities that decay presents beyond itself. Most of the time, when objects are at a point of decay, there are a lot of characters and textures. This is quite painterly but also sculptural so there is this discussion about looking at this artwork which borrows ideas from paintings, but then translates into an holistic object which can function as anything be it a textile, or sculpture, or installation.

Sharon: We were also talking about the transference of material onto the jute sack installations, which is another dimension. You really don’t get a real appreciation of this until you see it in person, with the soil, wood splinters, the different elements that are stuck onto the works. Tell me more about this, and also you gave the example of the paper and the stick. How have you continued to experiment with that?

Ibrahim: One of the things that I’ve always been working on is this idea of exchange. The story of Exchange Exchanger, a project I worked on two years ago, talks about a story of one of my collaborators in his childhood, when a magician wrapped a paper around a stick. He took the stick out of the paper, and then asked the children to talk about the object of both things. The most important thing is the event that happened and the residues that were left on both objects.  I’ve always been interested in this idea of residue, post-independent societies, and working with materials in decay.

Recently, I’ve also borrowed from the Henschel trains that were used in Ghana during post-independent society. Most of these trains were used on railway tracks that were built by British in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The railway of course, contributed a lot to the independence of Ghana. It’s quite a bit dysfunctional these days. I borrow a lot from the aesthetics, one the physical objects themselves, the residues of the objects, and then also in relation to  other elements. The trains were responsible for the transportation of the beans and other goods to the ports for export.

Ibrahim Mahama,  Gemtun Boxe , 2016, Old interior leather of scraped Henschel train on charcoal sacks. 177 3/16 x 440 9/16 in. (450 x 1119 cm). Photo: White Cube (George Darrell)

Ibrahim Mahama, Gemtun Boxe, 2016, Old interior leather of scraped Henschel train on charcoal sacks. 177 3/16 x 440 9/16 in. (450 x 1119 cm).
Photo: White Cube (George Darrell)

This is a part of the train, which where the leather meets the metal of the skin. These were the luxury interiors of the train but when the train was destroyed they discarded those parts - only for the steel and other metals. The sack has a relationship with the idea of the train itself, although it represents modern life, there are certain contradictions embedded within it. The tarpaulins are used to cover vehicles that transport goods and commodities. Later on, when they are worn and patched, they are used in covering these dead engines.. So it  looks like something that has been treated but it’s actually very organic in terms of how it’s evolved over the years. It takes about a decade to get this kind of form. I thought it was interesting in this exhibition, to use it to revisit this idea of painting, or my training as a painter, and to use it to open the form and possibilities of the work in terms of the visual aesthetics of it, and what it actually looks like when you are very close to it. You can’t see it especially when it’s monumental, because there are lot of specific details within it. I thought it was somehow interesting to isolate specific details in it.

Sharon: Your process is also nomadic, in terms of where you go to produce the work, in site-specific locations. What are some of the parts of Ghana that you’ve looked that, which you’ve found really interesting as spaces for creating your work?

Ibrahim: You know, in Kwame Nkrumah’s regime there were a lot of different projects that were embarked upon. One of these projects were these groups of silos that were built around the country. Most were abandoned after Nkrumah’s overthrow, and some of them were privatised over the years but a lot of the buildings still exist. I’m interested in the memory of these specific sites, so I’ve used some of these as production sites where we go and produce the work within that space. As a result, we have a dialogue or relationship between the physicality of the material and just the sheer history of the space itself. We’ve also worked a lot in the train stations in Kumasi, and  the locomotive station. We’ve worked in market spaces, we’ve worked in scrap metal yards, we’ve worked in churches which have been under construction. There’s a specific bridge in a town in Ghana - Beposo - which was built in 1934 by Germany between the two world wars.. There is an interesting connection between the bridge and how it relates to these material aesthetics of these works.

Sharon: You’ve also extended the idea of your works by adjusting the date in which the works are considered to have been made. I thought this was really original in the sense that in the case of something that you might consider made in 2016, you’re now dating as  1957 - 2057. Tell me more about this idea and what you’re considering when you extend the dates of a work.

Ibrahim Mahama,  Non-Orientable Nkansa , 2017, Mixed media, Dimensions variable, Photo: White Cube (George Darrell)

Ibrahim Mahama, Non-Orientable Nkansa, 2017, Mixed media, Dimensions variable, Photo: White Cube (George Darrell)

Ibrahim: I think it’s quite arrogant sometimes - as an artist interested in ideas of time and history - to spontaneously make a decision where an object’s life is reduced to the point when the artist came into contact with it. I thought it was interesting to extend, to backdate the object to its very origin of the objects, and then to somehow extend it into the future to its potential. So the work “Non-Orientable Nkansa”, dates back into the 1930s, and then also goes a lot into 2030. The idea is to look back into the history of materials, and production sites that have influenced the character of these objects.I thought that playing with the date could be  very materialistic as an example of how it can change as you reduce or increase the date. So the date becomes a material that you have to twist and pull.

Sharon: We’re standing in front of an installation of shoe shine boxes that have been placed on top of each other. Now anyone who has lived in Ghana for any amount of time will be familiar with the drumming of a shoe shine walking down the street. For you to repurpose it, and create something out of it, is mind-opening. How do you find the reactions, let’s say for a Ghanaian, looking at this, they will probably say, “Oh! This are just a shoe shine boxes.” But for someone who is foreign to the idea of what it might be, they might more drawn to the aesthetics of it, and not even  know the social contexts behind them. So how do you find locals responding to your work, versus people who might not be familiar with the meaning behind the jute sacks or the shoe shine boxes?

Ibrahim: Art is universal, and it speaks about conditions. Sometimes artists will work from specific sites or spaces, but the idea is that people might be able to look at it and be able to draw various interpretations from it. The objects themselves represent a system, or a certain period within modern architecture when  they were constructed, or the spaces that they occupy. This work also represents an important time in this current state we are living in, with what’s happening in America with regards to the ban on Muslims.

I come from the northern part of Ghana, so I’m dealing with the history of Ghana, Africa, and the rest of the world. It’s interesting to work with these specific objects and try as much as possible to present them in a way that people see it, and can relate to it in various ways. Of course, when I am in Ghana, collecting these objects, people always have funny interpretations.

One of the young guys who was helping us, who this work was named after, Nkansa, was talking to my studio assistant.  He said, ‘You this young person, you think you’re wise. You’re trying to collect these shoe shine boxes so that during the elections, you can give it to the Togolese people to come and vote for the incumbent government.’

(both burst into laughter)

.. and we said, ‘Oh no!’ Whatever we said, it didn’t matter. He had made up his mind.

It’s interesting to think ordinarily about how an object which is so much embedded with crisis, can suddenly become one that provokes or instigates a discussion. I think these discussions are very important, especially when  the memory of these objects are imprinted within our everyday lives.

Ibrahim Mahama,  Exchange Exchanger  (still), 2013-2016, Film, Duration: 10 minutes

Ibrahim Mahama, Exchange Exchanger (still), 2013-2016, Film, Duration: 10 minutes

Sharon: You’ve talked about how technology is expanding the scope of your work, and what you plan to do with it in terms of documentation and photography. How do you see your work evolving over the next few years, with the to use of photography and technology?

Ibrahim: Eventually, the work is going to take a much more expansive field with experience. Photography is going to play a very important role, and the drone is going to really help with looking at an expanded view of the city where the large works are installed.

Sharon Obuobi