Ghana makes a star-studded debut at the Venice Biennale

Published 14th May 2019
John Akomfrah. The Ghana Pavilion, curated by Nana Oforiatta Ayim and designed by David Adjaye, at the 58th Biennale di Venezia. Venice Biennale. Venice, Italy. Photograph by David Levene 6/5/19
Credit: Courtesy David Levene
Ghana makes a star-studded debut at the Venice Biennale
Written by Jareh Das, CNNVenice, Italy
After months of anticipation, Ghana has made its debut at the art world's most important international event, bringing an all-star roster of intergenerational artists to its first pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Curated by Accra-based Nana Oforiatta Ayim and housed in a structure designed by British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, the exhibition -- titled "Ghana Freedom" -- showcases the beauty and experimentation that has been thriving within the country's borders for decades.
"Just Amongst Ourselves" series of paintings (2019) by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye
"Just Amongst Ourselves" series of paintings (2019) by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye Credit: Courtesy Lynette Yiadom-Boakye/David Levene/Corvi-Mora, London/Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
Taking its name from a song of the same name composed by highlife musician E.T. Mensah on the eve of the country's independence, "Ghana Freedom" provides an array of entry points into Ghana's post-colonial history, while also exploring how this moment of independence has influenced the works of Ghanaian and diaspora artists.
"The idea of having artists across generations -- from Selasi Awusi Sosu to Ibrahim Mahama and right up to Felicia Abban, who is in her 80s -- really provides a range of voices to this conversation," Oforiatta Ayim said in a phone interview. "I chose to show half male, half female, half rooted in Ghana and half in the diaspora, which is a small selection of our country's artists but presents as pluralistic an idea as possible."
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The pavilion structure, which opened to the public on Saturday, consists of interlocking spaces with red-rusty walls made from soil transported from Ghana to Venice -- a reference to the traditional earthen houses and cylindrical structures common in West African villages.
"The pavilion's design," said architect Adjaye, "is influenced by historic Ghanaian architecture and it creates a cyclical space that connects different generations of artists as a labyrinth ... Architecture here is a form rooted in tradition, but it is also something that expands and grows."
At both pavilion entrances, monumental sculptures by El Anatsui and Ibrahim Mahama act as stunning facades, referencing the connections between consumption, waste and the environment, and movements of people, goods and services.
Anatsui said his "Earth Shedding Its Skin" (2019), made from numerous flattened yellow bottle caps assembled with copper wires, speaks "to the need for renewing the world we live in and of individual acts of self-renewal;" while Mahama's "A Straight Line Through the Carcass of History 1649" (2016-19) uses an array of smells and objects -- including smoked fish mesh, wood, cloth and archival material -- to explore the relationship between tradition and advancing modernity.
"Earth Shedding Its Skin" (2019) by El Anatsui
"Earth Shedding Its Skin" (2019) by El Anatsui Credit: Courtesy El Anatsui/David Levene
Inside, new portraits by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye are in conversation with studio photographs and self-portraits by Felica Abban from the 1960s to 1970s; and John Akomfrah's three-channel installation, "The Elephant in the Room -- Four Nocturnes" (2019) and Selasi Awusi Sosu's "Glass Factory II" (2019) offer moving, fragmented accounts of post-colonial histories through poetic visuals that survey the African cultural landscape in all its complexities.
In her exhibition catalog essay "Who's Afraid of a National Pavilion?" British-American writer Taiye Selasi, who is of Nigerian and Ghanaian descent, remarks that "gathered in the Ghana National Pavilion, this art invites us to engage with the individual expressions, the interior opacity and the material specificity of work produced by six Ghanaian artists about Ghana, Africa." She continues: "It does so without requiring that we arrive at any conclusions about Ghana but rather by insisting that we challenge assumptions about Ghana, about Africa, about 'African art.'"
"Glass Factory II" (2019) by Selasi Awusi Sosu
"Glass Factory II" (2019) by Selasi Awusi Sosu Credit: Courtesy Selasi Awusi Sosu/David Levene
But the exhibition is much more than just a primer on Ghana's artistic achievements for uninitiated foreigners. Throughout the Venice run, a series of related events -- including pop-up exhibitions, talks and workshops -- will take place across Ghana, and after the Biennale finishes in November, "Ghana Freedom" will travel to Accra.
This speaks to the ethos at the heart of the Ghanaian art scene, which has long been led and nurtured by artists, scholars and gallerists who prioritize a healthy local art ecosystem that enables artists to flourish both at home and internationally.
You can witness that mission at Ablade Glover's Artists Alliance Gallery, established in 1993; at ANO, the non-profit founded by Oforiatta Ayim on her return from the UK to Accra in 2011; and at the recently opened Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art, Ibrahim Mahama's project space and artist-residency hub in Tamale.
"A Straight Line Through the Carcass of History
1649" (2016-19) by Ibrahim Mahama
"A Straight Line Through the Carcass of History 1649" (2016-19) by Ibrahim Mahama Credit: Courtesy Ibrahim Mahama/David Levene/White Cube
Such focus on the local may theme outmoded in the present day, when the national pavilion model of the Venice Biennale is increasingly being called into question considering shifting discourses about nation states, borders and migration. However, as John Akomfrah remarked at a preview of the Ghana pavilion, the "inconvenient label of the national pavilion" can be a useful lure when trying to engage audiences in "the broader post-national conversation about the importance of not fixing too rigidly the borders between (countries) on the (African) continent." (Ghana is one of just eight African countries with a presence at this year's Biennale.)
"The whole project of independence was not just about political autonomy, but it was also about the ability to fashion a language of cultural practice and identity, and that also involves conversations with the outside -- however one defines the outside," he said. "I want us to be part of the conversation first and foremost."
Top image: "The Elephant in the Room -- Four Nocturnes" (2019) by John Akomfrah