Entering the White Cube gallery in London, visitors can hear the whirr of busy machinery. It is not difficult to locate the source of the noise: 100 vintage sewing machines have been lovingly restored and mounted on wooden school desks. A mix of Singer and Butterfly models, they come to life in groups, with those that have needles stitching invisible cloth.
“Capital Corpses” (2019-21, pictured) is the work of Ibrahim Mahama, a Ghanaian artist best-known for large-scale patchworks of jute sacks. Made in south-east Asia, jute sacks are used in Ghana to transport cocoa beans. When the cocoa is emptied into containers for export, the sacks are used by maize and rice traders and, finally, for transporting charcoal. An earlier generation of Ghanaian artists used fresh, clean jute sacks as their canvas. Mr Mahama prefers old ones that hint at their past. “My interest was in the character, the history and the politics,” he says. Through these works he invites the viewer to ponder his country’s place in the world economy, both historically and today.
Mr Mahama, 34, has moved on from jute sacks, but as “Lazarus”, the title of his new show, suggests, he is no less interested in reviving ghosts and resurrecting the dead. Aside from the sewing machines (which allude to the way many women, having been failed by Ghana’s education system, earn a living), the focus is on Nkrumah Voli-ni, a derelict grain silo the artist acquired in his home city of Tamale, afterwards breathing new life into it as a cultural centre.
The silo is one of a number built in the heady optimism of the independence era and left to rot after Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, was deposed in a coup in 1966. Rumours suggested that Nkrumah had intended them as prisons or was building tunnels to link them to Accra, the capital. “My father’s generation grew up with the myth that these buildings were a place of doom,” Mr Mahama says.
A short film couples the laborious task of resurrecting Voli-ni with the patient craftsmanship of restoring the sewing machines. Along with bucket after bucket of sludge, out went snakes, frogs and their fossilised remains, but the resident bats remain: photographed and flipped from their hanging position to stand upright, they are comical equivalents of saints in a baroque frieze. The bats are pictured in beautiful collages made from colonial-era maps and bank records, and commercial invoices from the post-independence years.
Mr Mahama’s arrival at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology’s college of art in 2006 coincided with that of a group of radical young professors, most notably Kari’kacha Seid’ou, who was eager for his students to address the inequalities of both the art world and the world at large. He taught them to draw and paint, but texts by Walter Benjamin, Karl Marx and Jacques Rancière were the starting point of any discussion. “In most art schools, students are trained to produce for the market,” Mr Mahama says. “For us it was more about producing work that would somehow change the relationship between art and the market—and create new forms of the market in the future.”
Collaboration was encouraged and exhibitions could happen anywhere, from cemeteries to warehouses, factories to marketplaces, even buses. Mr Mahama stayed on to do a doctorate and today he is part of blaxTARLINES KUMASI, a staff-student collective. Wearing that hat, he will have a collage included in “Ubuntu, a lucid dream”, a joint show which opens at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris in November. “Ubuntu”, a Bantu term suggesting reciprocity and interdependence, was popularised by Nelson Mandela, but before that it was an idea that underpinned pan-Africanism at the time of independence. “Ibrahim is playing a huge part in decolonising the imagination,” says Marie-Ann Yemsi, the exhibition’s curator. “It was natural for me to invite him to be in a show that speaks about the notion of building the world together.”
The Design Museum in London has commissioned Mr Mahama, too. For “Waste Age: What can design do?”, which opens on October 23rd, he has produced a wall of 40 televisions, retrieved, like the sewing machines, from Agbogbloshie, a scrapyard in Accra where much of Europe’s electronic waste is dumped, then coaxed back to life. The TVs will run films of their own repair, while copper frames made from their wiring highlight the precious minerals e-waste contains. What caught the eye of the curator, Gemma Curtin, was Mr Mahama’s “interest in the process of making things, the labour that goes into it and the impact of that process on people and place”.
From October 24th the artist will also have work on show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. “Afro-Atlantic Histories”, an exhibition which will tour to Washington, Los Angeles and other American cities, will use a mix of fact and fable in the spirit of Portuguese historias to reclaim often buried stories of “the black Atlantic” and the nations involved in slavery. It will pair a jute work by Mr Mahama with an 18th-century Gobelins tapestry presenting idyllic images of plantation life. “Ibrahim’s work is a very important corrective to that idealised colonialist vision,” says Alison de Lima Greene, one of the curators.
Mr Mahama ploughs the profits from sales of his art back into cultural infrastructure projects in Ghana (Voli-ni is his third). He is proud of the fact that young Ghanaians are saying: “If this artist can do it with scrap materials, how much can we achieve?” Soon the galleries that want a piece of him may have to form a queue. ■
Ibrahim Mahama’s work is on display at White Cube, London, until November 7th; the Design Museum, London, from October 23rd to February 20th; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, from October 24th to January 17th; and Palais de Tokyo, Paris, from November 26th to February 20th
Moose Jaw Art Guild meets to discuss its upcoming MJMAG exhibition – moosejawtoday.com
The Moose Jaw Art Guild is excited for their 54th Christmas exhibition at the Museum & Art Gallery
Led by President Karen Walpole, ten members of Moose Jaw’s Art Guild gathered for only the second time in 18 months to discuss their upcoming exhibition. The forms necessary for submission were distributed, and everyone chatted about how their works were progressing.
The theme for this year is “Looking Out My Window,” to be interpreted by the artist. A variety of mediums are encouraged, including drawings, pastels, watercolours, and sculptures.
Many of the works displayed in MJMAG’s lobby will be for sale. The exhibition will open on Nov. 12th, and continue until Jan. 9th of next year.
Karen Walpole noted that she is “always excited” to share some of the Art Guild’s venerable history, particularly in regards to its role in the founding of MJMAG. She says that, “Back in 1963, the City of Moose Jaw asked what was then the Moose Jaw Fine Arts Guild to comment on their plan to celebrate Canada’s 100th birthday.”
The Guild took that chance to strongly endorse and lobby for a “Cultural Centre” in Crescent Park near the Public Library. The Moose Jaw Art Museum opened in 1967, and the Art Guild has had an annual exhibition there ever since.
Jennifer McRorie, MJMAG’s current curator and director, confirms that the Art Guild was “instrumental in getting the art museum established.” She adds that, “In 2017 we celebrated our 50th anniversary, and so we actually presented an exhibition from our permanent collection that was the result of 50 years of collecting the work of Moose Jaw artists.”
The Guild itself was established on a cold February night in 1929, after a presentation by influential Saskatchewan artists Vaughan Grayson and Barbara Barber. That night, the Women’s Art Association of Saskatchewan was voted into existence. In 1957 it became the Moose Jaw Fine Art Guild, and in 1984 it achieved its current form as the Moose Jaw Art Guild.
This year’s exhibition comes on the heels, obviously, of the enormous disruption of the global pandemic. Nevertheless, the Guild endures, and is always open to new members. Walpole sincerely emphasizes that one purpose of their showings is to, “provide encouragement and an introduction to many of us that want to try our artistic hands, but don’t know where to start.”
Art is about expression, moving beyond the limitations of language to convey emotion in a subjective, yet direct way. Although it is not possible to control exactly how one’s art is perceived, this should not be a barrier. The main thing, Walpole says, is “to have the confidence to at least attempt an art form of some kind.”
More information about the Art Guild, its meetings, and how to join can be found on their Facebook page.
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A rare opportunity saw Andrew Hawley join the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) as a casual art handler after graduating from his BFA in Drawing at RMIT in 2003.
Eighteen years later, he is now the Collection and Exhibition Preparator at Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (Mona), known for their eccentric and challenging exhibitions, and undoubtedly, one of the most exciting environments in which to work in art installations, storage, and exhibition preparations.
He also holds a Masters in Cultural Materials Conservation from the University of Melbourne, and has worked across ACMI, the Victorian Arts Centre, ExhibitOne, POD Museum and Art services, and the Melbourne Immigration Museum.
From Ron Meuck’s 10 metre infant sculpture to Ai Weiwei’s White House (2015) in Mona’s Siloam, Hawley and his colleagues are the answer to your question: ‘But how did they manage to get it there?’
Here, Hawley shares the excitement of working on high-profile exhibitions and discusses the skills you would need to pursue this challenging but rewarding profession.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE WHAT YOU DO?
In a nutshell; I prepare artwork and other culturally significant material for storage, exhibition and loan, and assist with exhibition/display installation. My role is quite varied but I spend most of my time at our off-site collection store where I design, construct and fit out custom packing units for artworks. These vary from timber crates and travel frames to archival board boxes, archival tubes for rolled works and the occasional solander box. I also ensure artwork is clean and display ready.
I organise and maintain the off-site collection storage area which involves a lot of 3D Tetris. I work closely with colleagues including registrars, a conservator, a mount maker and several other very highly skilled art handler/technicians as well as a wider team of kinetic artwork and time based media technicians.
I assist with exhibition installation/deinstallation and collection changeover at the museum and some external locations during festivals.
I’m also a qualified paper conservator so I undertake some conservation assessments and treatments when required.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED IN YOUR CAREER?
I finished a fine art degree in 2003 and was looking for something outside the hospitality industry and inside the museum/gallery industry. Luckily, a regular customer at one of the venues I worked in (as a chef/cook), let word slip that the National Gallery of Victoria were hiring casual art handlers to prepare to move into the refurbished premises at St Kilda Road. I got the boss’ details, wrote an application letter, attended a job interview and somehow was successful, despite no prior experience.
WHAT DO YOU LOOK FORWARD TO THE MOST IN YOUR JOB?
Unique challenges and a reliance on lateral thinking for solutions – something I experience almost every day. I also have great colleagues with whom I liaise about all aspects of the job. We learn from each others’ creative perspectives.
I love the excitement of a large or high profile exhibition, including engagement with external or international artists and curators, trying to help realise a vision that may or may not be clear in everybody’s mind. I equally love the calm and solitude of a collection store and the fact that I work so closely with museum objects on a daily basis. If I have a bad day, looking at an ancient Egyptian mummified cat or some 2,000 year old bronze knife coins is very soothing.
IN AN INTERVIEW FOR YOUR JOB, WHAT SKILLS AND QUALITIES WOULD YOU LOOK FOR?
Similar institutional experience in a similar capacity (eg. art handling, art packing) would be a must. It takes many years to attune yourself to the level of care required around culturally significant objects and irreplaceable artworks.
Other qualifiers would include:
- A strong work ethic
- An ability to handle multiple projects with strict deadlines
- The ability to delegate fun jobs
- The ability to undertake monotonous or tedious jobs
- Strong, clear communication
- Physically fit and able
The ability to look outside oneself and one’s own experience for solutions. It’s a bit of a ‘jack of all trades’ kind of position and a good Jack should know when they need to call on a master of something.
Someone who prefers order and neatness in their professional life. I’m in no way the neatest person in my private life but organising a storage area that keeps artwork safe and secure requires a high degree of attention to detail.
WHAT IS ONE OF THE MOST MEMORABLE INSTALLATION EXPERIENCES/PROJECTS THAT YOU’VE WORKED ON?
There’s been a lot over the years – I’ve done everything from helping carry and install a 10 metre silicon sculpture of an infant (Ron Mueck) to hanging iconic works from Picasso, Munch or Tom Roberts. From installing 100 tiny neolithic arrow/spear heads in one showcase to helping build a large, imperial Chinese house framework on glass balls (Ai Weiwei), and from installing famous AFL players’ jerseys in a sports museum (MCG/Australian Sports Museum) to hanging stills from Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey (ACMI).
It’s hard to pick one moment from one project. In recent times, it’s probably been the preparatory work and final install of big MONA shows like On the Origins of Art, The Museum of Everything and our recent Monanisms 2021 collection based exhibition.
WHAT’S THE BEST THING HAPPENING IN YOUR SECTOR AT THE MOMENT?
We’re still operating and I still enjoy my job.
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