By Robin Riskin
On an apparently ordinary Monday in the black-sooted Mallam Atta Market of Accra, Ghana, kayaayoo sellers balance fabrics and fruits on their head, while stacks of coal rest by a metal shed. At right, a large spread of sacks stitched together covers a row of coal piles. Anyone familiar with the market would instantly recognize a disruption.
A patchwork of sacks has been stretched over the everyday coal piles by a young man dressed in Afro-print shorts, followed by two assistants and a cameraman. The installation is part of a project by the artist Ibrahim, the man in Afro-print, carried out on the last day of 2012, Dec. 31.
Ibrahim uses the coal sacks as a device to explore process, material, value, and meaning. Torn, patched, stamped with “PRODUCT OF GHANA,” and written over with owners’ names, the bags are variously marred, marked, and transformed. Ibrahim traces their passage from India to the Ghana Cocoa Boards, to the cocoa warehouses and out to the harbors, to their transformation into coal sacks used by the sisala (coal burners), and finally to the coal-sellers themselves.
The coal sack becomes a symbol of the way materials are given meaning as a commodity in relation to community and context. Ibrahim re-presents the work in the same kinds of market spaces where he acquires the materials. The object most often unseen, seamlessly integrated into daily transactions, becomes the focus of the scene, made visible through its undoing.
To obtain the sacks, Ibrahim disguises himself as a coal seller, enters the markets, and negotiates with the women selling. Sometimes the prices are high, sometimes they are given freely. It all depends on the interaction and value of the sack to that individual seller. Once collected, Ibrahim re-stitches the sacks, then mounts the patchwork over coal stacks in markets and coal-selling spaces. His audience is passers-by and the sellers themselves. His work is the process.
The first installation in Mallam Atta Market was followed by a second in the neighborhood of Nima, Accra on Jan. 15, at two coal-selling locations near the gutter at Kawukudi Junction. This time, the middle segment of the cloth was covered with colorful rectangles of Chinese-imported African wax print, and strips of bright pink rope sewn in loops. The Chinese fabric, of cheaper price than the Dutch but comparable appearance, is the type most coal sellers themselves would wear. The rope is the same the sellers use to tie up the bags. Set against the canvas sacks, the collage of textiles creates a system that channels the realities and desires of the sellers, through the imported materials of their everyday existence.
Ibrahim’s work builds off post-colonial themes engaged in El Anatsui’s expansive bottle-cap patchworks, and Yinka Shonibare’s Dutch wax print installations, and calls to mind Christo’s impressive monument-wrappings. Yet his work stands out in its relevance to the communities where the material is found in Ghana. From his methods of obtaining the sacks to the completion and exhibition of them in the market selling space, he constantly negotiates the item’s social and economic context.