Decaying and charred jute sack, disassembled wooden boxes and old flip-flops are items more likely to be found in a junk yard than the White Cube, one of London’s most prestigious commercial art galleries. But for renowned Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama, such materials allow him to find “ways of articulating the same idea in different forms”. The histories of production behind an object – the distance it has traveled and the economic transactions it has passed through – are encoded in the materials Mahama works with.
In the first two rooms of the exhibition, the jute sacks are sewn together to become components of vast and rippling canvases, monumental works that Mahama calls ‘paintings’ to draw attention to his practice as an artist. Produced in Southeast Asia, the sacks are used by the Ghana Cocoa Board for the transportation of cocoa beans, but they are also made for carrying food and commodities. In the polished space of the art gallery their decay is exaggerated – the rents in the fabric and battered metal tags that litter the surface of ‘Issaka Tob’ are visual reminders of what’s left of a product after it has entered the market.
The paintings are odorous and forlorn, the smell of charcoal and rotting tarpaulin signalling upheaval and hard labour, yet the ability of the materials to serve a new aesthetic function as art signals Mahama’s interest in the resurrection or rebirth of the object. This is reinforced by photo albums on the outskirts of the gallery walls which, crumbling themselves, contain pictures of industrial labour in Ghana. In a gallery context, they become aestheticised; we are given white gloves to gingerly handle photographs of workers manipulating heavy machinery, with the implication that we are now handling art.
The irony of these discarded remnants of economic transaction that bring little financial gain to farmers being sold for high prices in one of London’s most commercial galleries is not lost on Mahama; he intends to make the audience feel aware of their complicity in a capitalist system of give-and-take. This is most clear in ‘Non-Orientable Nkansa’, a floor-to-ceiling installation made from hundreds of ‘shoemaker’ boxes, used by Ghanaian shoeshine boys who make the boxes double as drums to earn a living.
Chopped up in a state-owned paint factory and reassembled, personal touches survive and integrate with the material of franchise; a postcard of two kittens, a magazine, the odd discarded flip-flop; all can be spotted among tins of shoe polish and work contracts. To a Western audience, it is unclear at first what the boxes could be, which is perhaps the point – Mahama is primarily interested with how far an object can be pushed beyond its production cycle to achieve an entirely different status. Mahama assembled this detritus of daily life with the help of a variety of different citizens, drawing attention to how behind every commercial transaction there is a human presence.
Such valorisation of the worker is a theme also explored in ‘9x9x9’, a floor-to-ceiling installation of civic maps superimposed with birth certificates and civilian information; maps that detail trade and transit routes are literally imprinted with the birth certificates of Ghanaian workers, an implicit comment on globalisation’s reliance on cheap manual labour.
In the rooms next to Ibrahim’s work, the sleek crystalline constructions of the Josiah McElheny exhibition, in which orbs glow in glassy atriums, seem to say little about anything at all compared to the way Ibrahim has given new life to expired, abandoned objects. It is the shock of the old in this exhibition that is so arresting; Ibrahim’s playful transformation of rags traces and interrogates the often hidden processes of capitalist transaction and exchange.
Words by Sadie Levy Gale
Ibrahim Mahama ‘Fragments' at White Cube, Bermondsey, SE1 3TQ, 1 March – 13 April 2017.