The title of the exhibition Look at We maintains a subject pronoun when by the instruction of grammar, it should take an object pronoun us. Breaking the rule and pushing the boundary with artmaking is what the artists presented in this exhibition pursue through experimentation with materials and form.
Both graduates of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Lois Arde-Acquah and Theresah Ankomah’s arts are products of long, intense periods of labour giving. Or handiwork. The Department’s heritage is rooted in colonial education of art classification which in turn emerged in the Renaissance period. After recent revolutions and resurrections, students are encouraged to go to town, an assertion that Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, underscored in his The African Genius speech at the opening of the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, Legon in 1963. The speech framed Ghana as the centre of Internationalist Black/Africana Indigenous studies, a charge that was fiercely debated on the tenet of persuasion on the Encyclopaedia Africana project which was led by W.E.B. Dubois commenced two years prior to Nkrumah’s speech.
Going to town, literally and metaphorically, led Ankomah to the Anloga Onion market in Kumasi where kenaf baskets are used in the transportation of onions. The onions, together with the kenaf baskets, are imported mainly from Niger. In 2018, it was reported that Ghana consumed over 40% of Niger’s onion export. The trade route falls within the ancient trans-Saharan trade, the route that contributed immensely towards the wave of trans-Saharan enslavement, the rise of Islam in the south of the Sahara and the development of the Ajami language.
At the Angola market, the produce finds distribution networks in terms of both wholesaling and retailing. The kenaf baskets are discarded after the re-bagging and/or sale of the onions. Ankomah’s interaction with the material starts at this point when gatherers collect the materials for her.
Arde-Acquah, on the other hand, found her material, the imported synthetic leather, among shoemakers in Kumasi, a city that is a home to a failed government operated shoe factory. The leather became her practising medium after experimenting with ink markers on canvas.
In the 1960s, Feminist and Pop artists using craft and pop materials began challenging the hierarchy of art categorisation as low or high, art or craft and even, challenged the authorship. Craft such as basketry has sometimes been viewed as women’s work. Ankomah’s unnamed weaver collaborators are both men and women who live in the Sahel region. In the Sahel region, even when crop farming is viable, it is only seasonal. The Sahel region has an abundance of natural fibres including kenaf. Basketry becomes the other economic activity that sustains the Sahel dwellers in the off-farming season. The practice introduces basketry in the region as a non-gendered site.
When Arde-Acquah was younger, her angst drove her to jab pieces of papers. Later, she would connect the holes that were created to form patterns. In pursuit of those patterns, she in a hand-eye-body-mind coordination repeatedly cuts out the leather to a point of exhaustion. She complicates the sustenance of cutting as a domestic activity and in a woman's world. It is an interplay between routine tasks and emerging ritualised performance, and their interface with our day-to-day lives.
Ankomah employs different techniques including twisting, weaving, stitching, and knotting with jute rope to realise tapestries of the onion baskets. Some of the baskets are dyed into different colours like yellow and blue using local Sudine dye. For this exhibition, the two façades of Nubuke Foundation’s gallery are draped with tapestries. In this context, the artist is exposing her works directly to the harsh conditions of the weather even though the materials are biodegradable. The exhibition space then becomes a place of knowing. Of learning.
Under the partially raised reenforced concrete storey building structure, the artist hangs folded onion baskets like chandeliers. The contrast of shadows cast by the different refractive effect of colour light bulbs and the dyed onion basket add to the perception of the work. The basket retains carrier plastic bags that are used as personal identifiers in the market. When transporting the onion, traders tie the bags to the baskets for them to recognise their goods. But here is the paradox. Ankomah, to elevate her materials from craft, uses the element of functionality or the decorative to the point of art.
In the main gallery, Arde-Acquah drapes the interior with cut out synthetic leather. The draping is done in such a way to evoke an impression of the jungle. In that fashion, some of the draping falls off like a leaf in a forest. Complementing the draping is a performance in which the artist cuts the synthetic leather.
The performance makes use of a few theatrical elements: spotlight, platform, and the curtain (a draping of the leather cut-outs on the staircase). In theatre, the spotlight is used to track the movement of a mobile actor. In addition, it distinguishes the actor from everyone else. But this view is complicated by the positioning of the façade of a curtain. The curtain serves as a background and in the foreground, the artist and her audience immerse in each other’s presence.
The ability to draw audiences into theatrical performance through singing, clapping and responses mark Akan theatre differently from its Western counterpart. When Arde-Acquah and audience interact, there is a potential that the audience will contribute to the work even if they empathise with the artist’s self-affliction. Or when they urge the artist to stop working.
The artists presented in this exhibition show the viability of emergent practices emanating from faithfully experimenting. Practices that command our attention and ask to look…Look at We.