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13.09.2016 INTERVIEW
Ibrahim Mahama, Nyhavn’s Kpalang, An Age of Our Own Making, Kunsthal Charlottenborg

Ibrahim Mahama in front of Nyhavn’s Kpalang Foto: Lotte Løvholm.

“I am a contributor” - interview with Ibrahim Mahama

The colourful touristy site Nyhavn in Copenhagen is getting a dusty neighbour these days: 12 x 120 meters of draped jute sacks covering the harbour facade of Charlottenborg. Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama is presenting his work Nyhavn’s Kpalang for the exhibition An Age of Our Own Making at Kunsthal Charlottenborg.

An Age of Our Own Making is a tripartite exhibition project featuring a total of 28 artists. The exhibition series, which takes place from May 2016 to January 2017 in Holbæk, Roskilde and Copenhagen, is part of Images 16, curated by Solvej Helweg Ovesen and Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung.
Lotte Løvholm is curatorial assistant for An Age of Our Own Making and has been collaborating with Ibrahim Mahama for the past two years.

AF Lotte Løvholm

Nyhavn 2, 1051 København K
An Age of Our Own Making - On Agency and Enacting Citizenship
Tita Salina, Irwan Ahmet, Kamal Aljafari, Moshekwa Langa, Ibrahim Mahama, Lorenzo Sandoval
15.09.2016 - 15.01.2017

Tell me about your work “Nyhavn’s Kpalang” on the facade of Charlottenborg?
I cannot talk about my work without mentioning my collaborators who are migrants from the Northern part of Ghana, and this time also men from the Eastern part of Ghana coming to the city to shine shoes. The work has been two years in the making and part of it is new, part of it is from my previous work in Holbæk for “An Age of Our Own Making” and part of it was shown in the Venice Biennale last year. In Venice I worked with students from the art academy and here I worked with students from Produktionsskolen Holbæk. “Kpalang" is a Dagbani word meaning sack, but it can also mean flesh or body. In my work 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.

Can you explain what kind of function the sacks have in Ghana?
They are jute sacks used for the transportation of food and commodities in Ghana, specifically cocoa. They are produced in Southeast Asia with an intense amount of labour. I was first of all drawn to this material in terms of “the common”: In Ghana almost every home has it. It has a lot of uses. When you take a bus on a rainy day and you need to clean the mud off your feet there is a jute sack there to do that work. If there is a fire you can quench it with a wet jute sack. I was drawn to its function and later on also for its aesthetics when being used for transporting charcoal. You find different points of aesthetics within the surface of the sacks’ fabric: some areas have turned white which means they have been outside for 6-7 months. The aesthetics of the sacks are acquired over time, from its various owners. 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.

Besides the different colours of the sacks there are also different writings on them. What do the writings signify?
Some of the writings are original text from the cooperation “Ghana Cocoa Board” who commissions the sacks. Other parts are much more significant, bold and spontaneous in the way it has been written. Those writings are from various invisible collaborators whom I inherit the materials from: I buy new sacks and trade them for old ones. Because of political and economic crisis that has existed for some time in Ghana, people have developed a culture of writing part of their history on their body, their name or their parents’ names. In case something happens to them, they can be traced back to their relatives. Some of them tend to transfer these writings onto the sacks and that is the writing you see. I became interested in how the condition of the body became inherent in this simple material.

Do people passing by Nyhavn ask you questions while you are installing?
It is the first time I am doing a mayor work outside of Ghana in public space, aside Holbæk. And it has been very interesting: Some people think we are creating a movie set for the next Mad Max… (big laughter). In Ghana people will ask me the same kinds of questions: are you going to make a movie? I thought it was peculiar to Ghana, in Venice no one ever asked that question because it was in the context of the Biennale. 

For your work in Holbæk you made sails out of the jute sack material, but also masts out of railway tracks. I was just told you are planning on collecting trains in Ghana. Why?
Most of the old trains in Ghana have been gotten rid of or recycled. In the northern part of Ghana there has never been a railway. I am interested in saving those machines, moving them to the North of Ghana and build some kind of railway system. I am not sure if the gesture will be functional or symbolic as my intervention within these functioning/dysfunctional institutions is the point of departure. My fascination with the trains comes from their deep sense of history: when the railway network was built in Ghana two centuries ago, the British had the aim of using it to transport raw material from the inner lands to the ports. They did not build the railway fare back into certain areas because they did not think there would be any resources to exploit. When we inherited the railway system after the independence (in 1957 ed.) there was never an expansion of them. With time the railway network became slower and slower, but it has a significant potential for the country. 

Do you ever see yourself as a philanthropist? 
No. I see myself as a contributor.

Thank you.

Ibrahim Mahama, Nyhavn's Kpalang 2012-2016, Kunsthal Charlottenborg

Ibrahim Mahama: Nyhavn's Kpalang, 2012-2016. Foto: Ibrahim Mahama.

Ibrahim Mahama, Nyhavn's Kpalang 2012-2016, Kunsthal Charlottenborg

Ibrahim Mahama: Nyhavn's Kpalang, 2012-2016. Foto: Ibrahim Mahama.

Ibrahim Mahama, Nyhavn’s Kpalang, An Age of Our Own Making, Kunsthal Charlottenborg

Ibrahim Mahama installing Nyhavn’s Kpalang Foto: Lotte Løvholm.

Ibrahim Mahama, Accra Ghana 2014

Ibrahim Mahama: Civil Aviation, Accra, Ghana, 2014. Foto: Ibrahim Mahama.

Ibrahim Mahama, 56th Venice Biennale 2015

Ibrahim Mahama: Out of Bounds, 56th Venice Biennale, 2015. Foto: Ibrahim Mahama.

Ibrahim Mahama, Open gates 2015-2016, Holbæk

Ibrahim Mahama: Open Gates, Holbæk, 2015-2016. Foto: Ibrahim Mahama.

Ibrahim Mahama, Nyhavn’s Kpalang, An Age of Our Own Making, Kunsthal Charlottenborg

Collaborators at ”Sekondi Loco shed” for intervention series, Sekondi Takoradi, Ghana Foto: Ibrahim Mahama.

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