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 wax print shorts, followed by two assistants and a cameraman. The installation is part of a project by the artist Ibrahim, the man in wax 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.
In past work, Ibrahim has explored bodily forms through the material of plaster. He uses the making of plaster sculpture, a long and uncomfortable process, as a device for interrogating physical, social, and aesthetic desires. Striking white and black sculptures of torsos and heads act as a symbol of his relationship with the models and his process of creating. The sculptures represent his gaining of their trust and their desire to perform the art. While aesthetically quite different from his coal sack series, these earlier works have led to the conceptual development of his current projects, an extension of his interest in material, meaning, process, and display.
The two coal installations this month are part of an ongoing series. Next up is Ibrahim’s solo exhibition at the Museum of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Kumasi, Ghana, where he is currently studying for his Master’s in Fine Arts. Ibrahim will cover the outside of the museum with a patchwork of coal sacks and wax print, and inside show images of his work through photography and film.
Ibrahim Says… (edited and selected)
“Normally when you interact with the charcoal sellers, they want a certain recognition. They wish the way people would relate to them and their culture would be quite different. In terms of how they project themselves, the material and cloth that they sew, the fashion they adapt, you realize that as any other human being, they also have desires. And that idea of that desire, it’s fascinating to me.
“When I take the wax fabric, wrap it against a panel, and resew it against the jute sacks, it’s just like the system that they have already created, the wooden structures that they live in, and the wax fabric they put on their skin. I’m presenting it in a certain utopian sense, stitching back to the cocoa sack, which is the charcoal bag that they use in selling the charcoal.”
“It’s been quite difficult actually collecting this material. You have to become one of the sellers for them to give you the material. And they determine how they will give it to you. They might give one to me for free, telling me that this one is damaged; and then the other, the same thing, I will have to pay two cedis for it. It’s not so much about the condition of the material, it’s about what I say. It’s about the power relationship and how they relate to the work within the space.”
“When I get the sacks, I sort them out, looking for the ones with the patches. The patches are one of the things that interest me about the material, because of the change of ownership. The women actually don’t own the sacks. The sacks belong to the people in the village who bring the sacks, who bring the charcoal itself.
“Any time there’s a new patch, that means it has gone through a different ownership. But its not an ownership you can track, and it goes through different cultures, different experiences. I’m very much interested in that passage. When I’m collecting the material, thats the first thing I look out for.”
“For me, the work itself is just a mere site. What the material has gone through, what I think about it, and what people make out of it, depending on the context of wherever I exhibit it, I think thats what makes the work.
“I don’t already have a pre-conceived idea in terms of what I want to do. I only look at the space, and then I bring the work in the space for just a few moments. It’s like a temporary performance. I’m not inviting people to come and see the work or documenting it because I want to make a great artwork out of it. I want the people in the environment to have a different look and feel of the work. If the work goes into the space, I’m sure it does something to the space that I as an artist see differently from the people around who also come into contact with the work.”
“I think it’s a new era right now. Maybe we can start a system, an alliance of young artists who are very much serious about contemporary art, who are serious about building careers for themselves as artists, and not just making money as artists. If we’re serious about it, some radical ideas, some new materials, could be explored. Maybe, we could have a certain generation of artists who could work or sacrifice to make sure that certain things are gotten very much right within our culture or our system or society, in terms of how we practice art, how we view art, how we relate to each other.”
This article has been edited to reflect the correct spelling of Mallam Atta Market.