We interviewed Ibrahim Mahama (b. 1987, Tamale, Ghana) and curator Massimiliano Gioni at the opening of the site-specific installation “A Friend” presented by Fondazione Nicola Trussardi on the occasion of the Milanese Art Week, and the Milan Design Week. The installation was specially conceived for the two neoclassical tollgates of Porta Venezia in Milan.
Mara Sartore: My first question is about the Occupation series you started in 2012 and the difference between the spaces you’ve selected for this project. In a recent interview you defined the Venice Biennale’s space as a doorman space since it has never before been used for displaying artworks, it is quite different to the location of Syntagma Square in Athens for Documenta or this space you are using in Milan which is completely different…
Ibrahim Mahama: The Occupation series I would define as a moment between 2012 up until late 2015 and it was essentially a project which consisted of me going around the city and taking one specific site and dealing with it as it is. But after the Venice Biennale 2015 I became very much interested in this idea of technology, so I bought some drawn parts and assembled these and used them to navigate various parts of the city and different parts of the country in Ghana. So I began collecting all kind of objects such as archives, maps, chairs, part of trains. And I thought why not really think about this project I’m doing, putting into relation one site with the other. So there was a project I did in 2015 titled the Exchange, Exchange which involved working on 22 different sites at the same moment. It involved modernist structures built for student housing in the 50’s, the National Theatre of Ghana built in 1992, houses and buildings built in the 1960s, affordable housing that were built in the early 2000s and never completed…a lot of different sites, the idea was to draw an extensive relationship through the history of these sites, from a visual and philosophical point of view. At that time I was starting my phd so I was very much interested in the philosophy of painting through site specific interventions.
This project, “A Friend” is based on an invitation by Massimilano Gioni and Fondazione Trussardi and comes with its own negotiations. Differently the Occupation Series was based on independent research where I was investigating specific sites where I was trying to draw relationships to. When you are commissioned to make a work of art it is very much a different process.
Mara Sartore: In this case, in Milan, did you chose the location together?
Massimiliano Gioni: You know sometimes our projects start either from a place or from an artist. In this case it started with the place. At first we thought of working with the interiors then we went back to look at it in November, we were not convinced with the interior then later in December, we had this sort of epiphany and we realised that the interesting part was the exterior. It was immediately clear that if Ibrahim wanted to do it, it would be perfect. So in this case, it was the place that suggested the artist. The challenge was to see it the project was doable, the implications, permits and so on…
Mara Sartore: I think it was a very good choice! Your art is very linked to the idea of border.
How did you deal with this space? As for the Venice Biennale, how did you deal with the space in Venice?
Ibrahim Mahama: In Venice I was invited to respond to a specific place that the curator Okui had in mind. It was my first time in Venice so I requested to look around different spaces, so I made a lot of different proposals for various different spaces. We were both keen on the Corderie and we had this realisation that this could work for it because I wasn’t so keen to work inside so I was happy to using spaces which are not necessarily made to show art.
Mara Sartore: How did you feel about working with this space in Milan?
Ibrahim Mahama: It was great because in Documenta there were these two similar buildings, that were also gates to a castle, so I already had some bells ringing in my mind and architecturally in relation to how they work with the city, I never make work based on decisions based on just the aesthetics sometimes it is based purely on pragmatic reasons, how the site itself is in relation to how it is used. So I said let’s try although I knew it was going to be very difficult because it is not something that is easy to get up and get permits to do.
Massimiliano Gioni: All things considered it was ok, first we spoke to the office mayor cultural commissioner and they like the idea very much then we spoke to the historical landmark office and they were ok as long as we didn’t touch the structure – there is not one single nail in the entire structure which is pretty crazy as it is all temporary and removable without changing anything so that took a lot of work with engineers to figure out and they came with certain parameters that it shouldn’t move with the wind. The ownership of the building is funny because it belongs to the city but the city has given it to the association of commerce and they gave it the association of bread makers! So it’s a very typically Italian story – where there are so many different levels of ownership. By March we had put together all the pieces, then we had to get the permit for the occupation of public soil, and they said that there is another request from another commissioner for the same area! No one had told us anything, so we went to the other commissioner and said look we’ve been working on this for months. Fortunately the landmark organisation did not approve their commission and this was the last victory!
Mara Sartore: Tell me about the title ‘A Friend’?
Ibrahim Mahama: I took it from a novel because in the last few years I have titled my works after novels and also albums of people who have made music in the twentieth century. There was a book, So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ’ about a woman’s struggle, the writer only wrote two novels, it was something I had been looking at before, so when the project came along I thought it would be interesting to title the project in honour of her and when I sent it to Massimiliano he told me that when translated into Italian it means simply ‘a Friend’. I think that at this point in time we really need that.
Massimiliano Gioni: It is translated as ‘So Long a Letter’ in French and English, but for some reason in Italian it translates as ‘A Friend’. So Ibrahim said let’s just call it that, it is more simple and general. I didn’t know about this until this morning, but I over heard him to talking to someone, the first time he started thinking about the sacks was when he was going to meet a friend in Burkina Faso and he was at the border waiting to get the permits and visas and so on and he noticed the trucks with the sacks on top. I don’t know if it has anything to do with that but it struck me that you said you were going to meet a friend and the experience of that visit was very much connected to the experience of the border. Typically you think of borders and as a place where you define the enemy, so it is a beautiful contradiction by calling it the friend, and because there are two of them so maybe, in a strange way, maybe one is the friend of the other.
Mara Sartore: Your work explores themes like migration, labour, globalisation and social inequalities. How important do you think is it for an artist to be politically and socially-committed and why?
Ibrahim Mahama: I think it is important yes, I don’t know anything else an artist can do, even if they make very beautiful work I think there is always some kind of political slant within the work and the way it is produced, because when I studied in art school I never made art for the sake of making art, there was always the incentive to change any underlying assumption of the history of art itself or any production system so as an artist I think it is always important for us to aim to change the underlining conditions of the systems of productions themselves or the way we look at the world so I involve myself with a number of projects working with the university back home, I decided to establish my practice by deciding to my phd there because it is very important to give the future generations a sense of belief in locally based artists who work on an international scale, building social spaces, studios and contemporary art institutions, science museums that brings back archaeology in relation to a modern history, so I am very much interested about making work in the longer run which changes the very nature of how we deal with our culture in this day and age and generation. I don’t think of myself as a political artist I think of the processes I use as politically motivated and most of the time I like people to read my work from that point of view. It disturbs me when artists don’t make gestures but they want to prove how political it is, I think we have to put more into the decisions and choices that we make, how works meet with the world, I think thats when we can start to really think about the political aspect of it.
Mara Sartore: Has the Ghanan art scene changed in the last 10 years since you have decided and live and there?
Ibrahim Mahama: Yes, it has changed significantly, the art we knew was very traditional mostly just painting and sculpture and the spaces art was shown in were all very limited. I wanted to always make work that would stretch the boundaries, even in regards to spaces we were presenting our works in, so in the last years there have been many artists because we have professors who are more open minded. The older generation inherited a British Model taught by colonial teachers so they never really liked British art. In Ghana it wasn’t until early 2000s that we had professors of a younger generation who encouraged students to be a lot more experimental and try things for the sake of things and has led to certain radical forms and new ideas within an arts context.
Mara Sartore: Can you give us some heads up regarding the piece that you will present next month at the first Pavilion of Ghana, at the Biennale Arte in Venice?
Ibrahim Mahama: It’s a piece I have been working on in the last 3 and half years using wooden objects that are used along the coast of Ghana to smoke fish, so it has a lot of sensory elements to it, there are layers of fish skin on metal wire, it creates barriers yet somehow they are ver transparent. I first tested the work in Malta last year and also in Berlin, when I did a residency there, the title of the piece ‘A Straight Line Through the Carcass of History 1649’. I know that all the artists are presenting very different work and mostly work that has never been shown before, so we’re really looking forward to that.