Ibrahim Mahama uses the transformation of materials to explore themes of commodity, migration, globalisation and economic exchange. Often made in collaboration, his large-scale installations employ materials gathered from urban environments such as remnants of wood and textiles or jute sacks, which are sewn together and draped over architectural structures.
Mahama’s interest in material, process and audience has led him to focus on jute sacks in particular since they are synonymous with the trade markets of Ghana where he lives and works. Fabricated in Southeast Asia, the sacks are imported by the Ghana Cocoa Boards to transport cocoa beans but end up as multi-functional objects, used for both the transportation of food and commodities and for many daily chores around the home. ‘You find different points of aesthetics within the surface of the sacks’ fabric' Mahama has said. ‘I am interested in how crisis and failure are absorbed into this material with a strong reference to global transaction and how capitalist structures work.’
The artist first used these sacks in 2012 in a temporary installation at the Mallam Atta Market in Accra where he placed a large patchwork of them over the ever-present piles of charcoal. A striking intervention in this commercial environment, they created an impromptu sculpture which was both a continuation and disruption of the very fabric of the market itself. Conceived as a kind of temporary performance, it was not just aimed at an art audience but also the people that inhabited this social space: the ordinary traders and passers-by. In subsequent site-specific inventions in Ghana, including the Malam Dodoo National Theatre in Accra in 2016, sacks were stitched and collaged together with the assistance of dozens of ‘collaborators’, many of whom were migrants who had travelled from rural to urban areas to find work. When brought together on such a large scale, visible variations, hues and textures in the bags come to the fore, exposing the traces of each bag’s individual journey and history. Some bear official writing such as ‘Product of Ghana' while others display more spontaneous words including the locations and family names of the collaborators. In this way, Mahama’s installations expose how ‘the condition of the body’ becomes inherent in the work and how the precarious methods of their production – whereby each collaborator can influence the aesthetic of the work in different, unexpected ways – brings this material artefact to life.
An equally critical feature of the artist’s practice is the process by which he obtains the sacks, which usually involves negotiation and exchange. Moreover, the particular location of the work’s production site, such as a redundant, former state-run factory or station, lends added resonance since it is through the political exigencies of space and the evolution of materials from one context to another that the work’s final meaning resides.
In Out of Bounds (2014-15) for example, which was made for the 56th Venice Biennale and is one of Mahama’s largest installations to date, an external corridor flanking the Corderie and the Arsenale was draped with a 300 metre-long collage of sacks. Although monumental in size, this epic patchwork was nonetheless embedded with arresting moments of detail such as clusters of small metal authentication tags, woven rope or braided hessian. Continually exposed to the elements, the installation’s colour and form faded and mutated over time − a slow metamorphosis that further highlighted its themes of labour, inequality and commerce.
In Nyhavn’s Kpalang (2016) at Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Mahama covered the entire façade and entrance to the museum building with collaged sacks, some of which were new and some reused from previous installations in Venice and Holbæk. Created over a period of two years with the collaboration of Northern and Eastern Ghanaian migrants resident in Copenhagen, it didn’t simply reflect the skills of each of these individuals, but rather the results of a collective effort. Similarly to Out of Bounds, Nyhavn’s Kpalang was the product of a collaborative relationship that developed over time, something that was tangibly visible in its variegated surface which was imbued with the labour of many different makers. The installation’s title contains the Dagbani word ‘kpalang’ which means ‘sack’, but can also mean ‘flesh’ or ‘body’. Mahama has said: ‘I am interested in the dialogue of the site’s architecture and ‘the skin’ of the sacks and how the different sites of productions expand upon that language.’
Ibrahim Mahama was born in 1987 in Tamale, Ghana. He lives and works in Accra, Kumasi and Tamale, Ghana. His work has appeared in international exhibitions including Documenta 14, Athens and Kassel, Germany (2017); 56th Venice Biennale (2015); Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, K21, Düsseldorf, Germany (2015); The Broad Art Museum, Michigan (2015); Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen and Holbæk city (2016); and Tel Aviv Art Museum, Israel (2016).