The power of art to save history and change the future

The March 8-10 gathering brought together scholars, filmmakers, architects, artists, art critics, archaeologists, writers, photographers and musicians, some of them world-renowned.

The Sharjah meeting was the first part of this year’s Ghana World Season and was held under the theme ‘Starting Sites/Returning Sites’. The second part of the conference, themed “Global Ghana: In Search of the Dark Star”, will take place from July 14-16 in the capital, Accra.

Art for development: David Adjaye

Among the main artists who have been celebrated are the famous Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye. His signature projects, such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture, located at the National Mall in Washington D.C. and the Moscow School of Management Skolkovo in Russia, have enhanced his reputation around the world, earning him the knighthood in Britain.

In Ghana, some of his major projects have sparked controversy. One is the $1.2 billion Marine Drive development, which is set to turn a 241-acre area of ​​Accra’s central coast into a major tourist attraction, but has been criticized for displacing communities Coastal and Downtown Art Center – a vibrant hub for informal sector art traders from across the country and also home to a theater used by performance artists.

During a roundtable among creatives on how their experiences of negotiating diverse places influence their work, performance artist Elisabeth Efua Sutherland lamented the impending destruction of the Art Center and how the project would displace the communities living and working at the center as well as the livelihoods that revolve around its market facilities and theatre.

When The Africa Report asked Adjaye if he could use his influence as a global icon to humanize such controversial projects as this, he said a “prerequisite” of his involvement in the Marine Drive project was consultation – during the development phase – stakeholders potentially at risk of displacement.

According to him, it is “not true that the government is evicting everyone” and there was “extraordinary input from stakeholders” who were “hugely engaged in the discussions”.

The project has “triggered a massive discussion about Accra’s past history, the arts and the future”, Adjaye said, adding that “we have helped ensure that Marine Drive is a microcosm of Accra as as a single center and not a central business district banking centre”.

Adjaye’s master plan for Marine Drive incorporates theater spaces for performers. “This could be a model on how a city can use planning laws to scale the development of African cities lacking infrastructure,” said the architect.

Yet the tension between the need for economic expansion and the desire to protect existing livelihoods is one of the most uncomfortable aspects of modernizing economic development.

The Art of Revisiting History: John Akomfrah

The Global Ghana conference offered spectacular examples of artists rewriting history, pushing the boundaries of their art, or changing perceptions of history and racial affiliation.

One of them was John Akomfrah’s fascinating 2018 World War I film, Memesis: African soldier. Not a word was said during the 75-minute film, but it spoke volumes about the colonial subjects forced into war.

John Akomfrah’s World War I triptych commemorates the millions of unremembered Africans who served in the war (photo: Dede Amanor-Wilks)

The film was screened on three large screens that spoke to each other through different perspectives at the same time; sound innovations, such as the lapping of water juxtaposed with the crash of artillery shells; sparse subtitles; and the use of sudden vibrant colors to break up the monotony of the historical black-and-white documentary footage embedded in the film. Akomfrah shot the film in different locations including Ghana and Sharjah.

Through these devices, the film communicated stories within stories about the millions of unremembered African and colonial subjects who were drawn into World War I as infantrymen, scouts, porters, laborers and cooks. ; women left behind; and babies born during long absences. It also delved into the conflicting feelings and existentialist detachment that enlisted African soldiers endured.

The film was first installed at the Imperial War Museum in London as part of First World War centenary activities. It was co-commissioned by New Art Exchange, Nottingham, Smoking Dogs Films and 14-18 NOW, a UK arts program, with additional production support from the Sharjah Art Foundation.

The Art of Remembering Past and Future Trauma: El Anatusui

Another artist is the Ghanaian-born Nigerian sculptor El Anatsui, known for his use of discarded materials, such as bottle caps, milk cans, iron nails, cassava graters and stone plates. impression.

In a keynote lecture titled “The Metamorphic and Changing Objects of El Anatsui,” Princeton University art historian and critic Chika Okeke-Agulu highlighted the challenges of art history conventional posed by the world-renowned sculptor through his vibrant, flowing metal sculptures on an epic scale that constantly change shape.

He called the objects “metamorphic” since they draw on African artistic traditions while evoking the traumas of slavery, colonialism, post-colonialism, climate change and globalization. El Anatsu’s carvings also give meaning to the popular African saying “No condition is permanent”.

The historian also called them “shape-shifting” because they are rarely exhibited in the same form and El Anatsui largely leaves the decision to hang his monumental structures to the discretion of his exhibitors.

Chika Okeke-Agulu gives a keynote address on El Anatsui’s shape-shifting objects. (photo: Dede Amanor-Wilks)

Art and discussion to address being African

Drawing on Ghana’s recent ‘Year of Return’ activities, the meaning of ‘return’ and who has the ‘right of return’ was probed, as was the issue of color shame in Africa .

Impressionist and portrait painter Kwesi Botchway seemed to explain part of the motivation for his artistic expression when he said that growing up in Ghana his friends would ask him, “Kwesi, why are you so black?” Botchway’s portraits typically feature people with ebony skin. The artist was speaking at the panel discussion titled “Ghana’s Global Dating Sites”, moderated by Joseph Oduro-Frimpong of Ashesi University.

Kwesi Botchway, impressionist and portrait painter. (photo: Dede Amanor-Wilks)

The art of creating music

Award-winning Ghanaian hip-hop artist and Afrobeat musician M.anifest along with his bandmates performed his latest 15 track album Medina to the universewhile Elisabeth Efua Sutherland gave an artistic performance titled again Aluta Continuea.

Photo of Aluta Continua performance by Elisabeth Efua Sutherland at Sharjah Art Foundation, Al Hamriya Studios, Al Hamriya, Sharjah, UAE

Sutherland’s performance borrows his name of a collection of six brochures published by Panaf, the publishing house founded by Pan-Africanist hero and architect of African independence Kwame Nkrumah. Six decades after independence, Ghana’s first president continues to inspire Africa’s youth.

Other conference participants included architect, academic and novelist Lesley Lokko, director of the Africa Futures Institute in Ghana and recently selected by the Venice Biennale as curator of the 18th International Architecture Exhibition to be held in 2023 .

M.anifest performing ‘Madina to the Universe’ at Africa Hall as part of the global season focused on the country of Ghana, 2022

The art of capturing photos: Gerald Annan-Forson

Some of the installations are accompanied by compelling stories that highlighted the important role the Africa Institute can play in bringing successful, monumental installations or photographic and film exhibitions to Africa.

While introducing photographer Gerald Annan-Forson’s exhibition tour, titled “Revolution and Image-Making in Post-Colonial Ghana (1979-1985)”, American curator Jesse Weaver Shipley of Dartmouth College recounted how he came to Annan-Forson in Accra. late 2021, just as the photographer had finished tearing up 500 photographs depicting the life and times of revolutionary and twice democratically elected President Jerry John Rawlings. shipley said the photographer was about to set fire to his entire collection of negatives.

Gerald Annan-Forson gestures to photographs of the destruction of Makola Market that have never been seen before. Curator Jesse WeaverShipley (photo: Dede Amanor-Wilks) watches

Annan-Forson went to school with Rawlings and covered it – through his lens – for 20 years. The exhibit included footage of highly controversial events during the June 4 uprising, including the razing of Makola Central Market, which had never been seen before.

Many of the photographs were burned in a fire that tore through the Rawlings residence in 2010 and would have been lost forever, the photographer said. The Africa Reportbefore deciding not to burn the negatives.

African art housing

The Sharjah Art Foundation is working with the Africa Institute to find exhibition space for Annan-Forson’s work. He is also looking for a place in Ghana to permanently house Akomfrah’s three-screen installation, while exploring ways to bring El Anatsui’s monumental vision back to Ghanaians.

Established in 2018 in Sharjah, the Africa Institute is an interdisciplinary academic research institute dedicated to the study and documentation of Africa and the African Diaspora. It is the only such institution in the Gulf and is headed by Sudanese scholar Salah M. Hassan, who is a distinguished professor of arts and sciences at Cornell University in the United States.

Africa Hall at the Africa Institute, Sharjah (photo: Dede Amanor-Wilks)

The institute is the brainchild of Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, the ruler of the emirate of Sharjah. Sheikh Al Qasimi lived in Egypt during his youth and developed a particular interest in the continent.

It is symbolically appropriate that the new complex of the Africa Institute, designed by none other than David Adjaye, is the forum where scholars meet artists, activated or deactivated by governments in the march towards progress, to test the limits of soft power in the face of some of the development challenges facing the continent.

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