Ghana: The power of art to safeguard history and change the future

By Dede Amanor-Wilks
Posted on Friday, 8 April 2022 16:49

John Akomfrah's triptych on WWI commemorates the millions of unremembered Africans who served in the war (photo: Dede Amanor-Wilks)

The role of artists in rewriting history and shaping economic development came to the fore at a recent ‘Global Ghana’ gathering organised by the Africa Institute in Sharjah, a city in the UAE.

The 8-10 March meeting brought together academics, filmmakers, architects, fine artists, art critics, archaeologists, writers, photographers and musicians, some of global repute.

The Sharjah meeting was the first part of this year’s Global Ghana season and was held under the theme ‘Sites of Departure/Sites of Return’. Part two of the conference, themed ‘Global Ghana: In Search of the Black Star’, will take place from 14-16 July in the capital, Accra.

Art for development: David Adjaye

Key among artists who were feted include celebrated Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye. His iconic projects, such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is located at the National Mall in Washington DC and at the Moscow School of Management Skolkovo in Russia, have boosted his reputation globally, earning him a knighthood in Britain.

In Ghana, some of his big projects have sparked controversy. One of them is the $1.2bn Marine Drive development, which is set to transform a 241-acre area of the central Accra coastline into a major tourist attraction, but has been criticised for displacing coastal communities and the downtown Art Centre – a vibrant hub for informal sector art traders from all over the country and it also houses a theatre used by performance artists.

In a panel discussion between creatives on how their experiences in negotiating diverse locales influence their work, performance artist Elisabeth Efua Sutherland lamented the imminent destruction of the Art Centre and the way the project would displace the communities living and working at the centre as well livelihoods that revolve around its market facilities and theatre.

When The Africa Report asked Adjaye whether he can use his influence as a global icon to humanise projects as controversial as this, he said a “precondition” of his involvement in the Marine Drive project was consultation – during the development phase – of stakeholders potentially at risk of displacement.

According to him, it is “not true that the government is kicking everyone out” and there has been “extraordinary input by stakeholders” who have been “hugely engaged in discussions”.

The project has “triggered massive discussion about Accra’s past history and the arts and the future,” Adjaye said, adding that “we’ve been instrumental in making sure Marine Drive is a microcosm of Accra as one centre and not a central business district money banking centre”.

Adjaye’s masterplan for the Marine Drive incorporates theatre spaces for performing artists. “This could be a model for how a city can use planning laws to evolve the development of African cities lacking infrastructure,” the architect said.

Still, the tension between the need for economic expansion and the desire to protect existing livelihoods is one of the more uncomfortable aspects of modernising economic development.

Art to revisit history: John Akomfrah

The Global Ghana conference offered spectacular examples of artists who are rewriting history, pushing the frontiers of their artistry, or changing perceptions of history and racial belonging.

One of them was John Akomfrah’s mesmerising 2018 film on World War I, Memesis: African Soldier. Not a word was spoken during the 75-minute film, yet it spoke volumes about the colonial subjects being forced into the war.

John Akomfrah’s triptych on WWI commemorates the millions of unremembered Africans who served in the war (photo: Dede Amanor-Wilks)

The film was projected onto three big screens that spoke to each other through differing perspectives of the same shot; sound innovations, such as the lapping of water juxtaposed with the boom of artillery shells; sparse subtitles; and use of sudden vibrant colour to break the monotony of black and white historical documentary footage embedded in the film. Akomfrah shot the film in different locations, including Ghana and Sharjah.

Through these devices, the film communicated stories within stories about the millions of unremembered African and colonial subjects drawn into WWI as foot soldiers, scouts, porters, labourers and cooks; the women left behind; and the babies born during long absences. It also delved into the conflicting feelings and existentialist detachment that the enlisted African soldiers endured.

The film was first installed at the Imperial War Museum in London as part of WWI centenary activities. It was co-commissioned by New Art Exchange, Nottingham, Smoking Dogs Films and 14-18 NOW, a UK arts programme, with additional production support from the Sharjah Art Foundation.

Art to remember past and future traumas: El Anatusui

Another artist is Ghanaian-born, Nigerian-based sculptor El Anatsui, known for his use of discarded material, such as bottle tops, milk tins, iron nails, cassava graters and printing plates.

In a keynote lecture titled ‘El Anatsui’s metamorphic and shape-shifting objects’, Princeton University art historian and critic Chika Okeke-Agulu highlighted the challenges to conventional art history posed by the globally acclaimed sculptor through his vibrant and fluid epic-scale metal sculptures that constantly shift their shape.

He described the objects as “metamorphic” since they draw on African artistic traditions while evoking the traumas of slavery, colonialism, post-colonialism, climate change, and globalisation. El Anatsu’s sculptures also give meaning to the popular African saying ‘No condition is permanent’.

The historian also termed them as “shape-shifting” because they are rarely displayed in the same form and El Anatsui largely leaves the decision on how to hang his monumental structures to the discretion of his exhibitors.

Chika Okeke-Agulu gives a keynote address on El Anatsui’s shape-shifting objects. (photo: Dede Amanor-Wilks)

Art and discussion to address being African

Drawing on Ghana’s recent ‘Year of Return’ activities, the meaning of ‘return’ and who has the ‘right of return’ was probed as was the issue of colour-shaming in Africa.

Impressionist and portrait artist Kwesi Botchway appeared to explain some of the motivation for his artistic expression when he said that growing up in Ghana, his friends would ask him: “Kwesi, why are you so black?” Botchway’s portraits typically showcase people with ebony skin. The artist was speaking in the panel conversation titled ‘Global Ghana’s Sites of Encounter’, which was moderated by Ashesi University’s Joseph Oduro-Frimpong.

Kwesi Botchway, impressionist and portrait artist. (photo: Dede Amanor-Wilks)

Art to create music

Award-winning Ghanaian hip hop artist and Afrobeat musician M.anifest, together with his bandmates, performed his newest 15-track album Madina to the Universe, while Elisabeth Efua Sutherland gave an artistic performance titled still Aluta Continua.

Photo still of Aluta Continua performance by Elisabeth Efua Sutherland at Sharjah Art Foundation, Al Hamriya Studios, Al Hamriya, Sharjah, UAE

Sutherland’s performance borrows its name from a collection of six pamphlets put out by Panaf, the publishing house established by pan-Africanist hero and architect of African independence Kwame Nkrumah. Six decades after independence, Ghana’s first president continues to be a fountain of inspiration for the African youth.

Other conference participants included architect, academic and novelist Lesley Lokko, who is the director of the Africa Futures Institute in Ghana and was recently selected by the Venice Biennale as curator of the 18th International Architecture Exhibition to be held in 2023.

M.anifest performing ‘Madina to the Universe’ at Africa Hall as part of the Global Ghana Country-Focused Season, 2022

Art to capture photos: Gerald Annan-Forson

Some of the installations came with compelling stories that highlighted the important role the Africa Institute can play in bringing blockbuster, monumental installations, or photographic and film exhibitions to Africa.

While introducing photographer Gerald Annan-Forson’s exhibition tour, which is titled ‘Revolution and Image-Making in Post-Colonial Ghana (1979-1985)’, American curator Jesse Weaver Shipley of Dartmouth College recounted how he arrived at Annan-Forson’s house in Accra in late 2021 just as the photographer had finished tearing up 500 photographs depicting the life and times of revolutionary and twice democratically elected president Jerry John Rawlings. Shipley said the photographer was just about to torch his entire collection of negatives.

Gerald Annan-Forson gestures towards photographs of the razing of Makola market that have never been previously viewed. Looking on is curator Jesse WeaverShipley (photo: Dede Amanor-Wilks)

Annan-Forson went to school with Rawlings and covered him – through his lens – for 20 years. The exhibition included images of much-debated events in the 4 June uprising, notably the razing of the central Makola market, that have never previously been viewed.

Many of the photographs were burnt during a fire that gutted the Rawlings residence in 2010 and would have been lost forever, the photographer told The Africa Report, before he decided to not torch the negatives.

Housing African art

The Sharjah Art Foundation is working with the Africa Institute to find an exhibition space for Annan-Forson’s work. It is also looking for a venue in Ghana to permanently house Akomfrah’s three-screen installation, while also exploring the means to bring El Anatsui’s monumental vision home to Ghanaians.

Established in 2018 in Sharjah, the Africa Institute is an interdisciplinary academic research institute dedicated to the study and documentation of Africa and the African diaspora. It is the only institution of its kind in the Gulf and is run by Sudanese academic Salah M. Hassan, who is a distinguished professor of Arts and Sciences at Cornell University in the US.

The Africa Institute’s Africa Hall, Sharjah (photo: Dede Amanor-Wilks)

The institute is the brainchild of Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, the ruler of the Emirate of Sharjah. Sheikh Al Qasimi lived in Egypt during his youth and developed a special interest in the continent.

It is symbolically fitting that the new Africa Institute complex, designed by none other than David Adjaye, should be the forum where academics meet artists, enabled or disabled by governments in the march to progress, to test the limits of soft power in confronting some of the challenges of development facing the continent.

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