‘Details Matter’ – Ibrahim Mahama Presents Fragments at the White Cube

For the second time, I am meeting with Ibrahim Mahama in London for his new project at the White Cube. This time Mahama is having his debut at the White Cube which is also his first solo exhibition in the UK.  The Ghanaian, in recent times, is among the most exciting and prominent artists non-arguably. Mahama has had a busy exhibition cycle in the past five years and recently became the youngest Ghanaian artist to exhibit at the Venice Biennale in 2015 where he covered two walls with 300-metre-long jute sack hangings.

In a conversation, I ask Mahama if he was going to be in London to oversee the installation of his works. A resounding yes, was his response. He indicated to me that “details matter and hence he had to be there to make sure all was done right.” Perhaps it is the norm for most artists to supervise their exhibition’s installation yet this is quite different with Ibrahim Mahama. It is fascinating to discover the enormous concern and attentiveness Mahama gives to each project from its inception through to its installation. Mahama seems gripped with his art and this was obvious in every conversation I had with him. The issues shrouding his work which include civic trade, exchanges, time and capitalism occupy a stronghold on his mind and possibly inseparable from his personal outlook on many other subjects.

In conversation with the artist, whilst overseeing his White Cube installation, he walks me through new materials, objects and archival documents – some found, others created. He discusses with me the continuous evolution within his jute sack works and newer projects he is working on. A new element to the jute sack works are residues of tarpaulin, which like the juke sacks travel through various exchanges being used to cover food cargo and trucks in Ghana and later used by mechanics and domestically for covering various things. Additionally, found objects from an abolished rail station like leather seats have been reused on some jute sack works by Mahama. He exposes the failures of global politics and how that has shaped human experience in the last century. 

In dating his works, Mahama explains to me how controversial it is to tag his tapestries with a particular year because the process the work and materials have travelled through goes beyond years. This is a key topic worth discourse. Arguably, most artists put less emphasis on the process and strong focus on the finale work. Mahama attempts to raise this issue of time as he presents photographs and video documentaries of the processes of his projects in this exhibition. This is distinctive and fascinating. Another captivating project Mahama presents in this White Cube show is an installation from ‘shoemakers/repairers boxes’; wooden carrier boxes for cobbler related tools distinctive within the Ghanaian society. Mahama tells me that he has been collecting these boxes for more than three years. A part of this collection has been shipped to the UK for this installation. Scale is essential for Mahama and like the jute sack works, these boxes have been installed in a huge confronting wall which utilises space in an exciting way. He calls this work Non-Oriental Nkansa, named after one of his collaborators.   

The artist explains that “the boxes represent the failure of a system, a failure we haven’t yet acknowledged. The structures of global capitalism shift things such as the cosmopolitan life of the city and the structures that are built around it. The potential of these structures when you look at them beyond the chaos and the crisis is also interesting.”  Furthermore, these boxes represent residues of lives that have been lived and transformed as the boxes reflect the continuous exchanges between its owners and sections of the Ghanaian society.

The focus on detail presented in diverse ways within this project is worth acknowledging with serious contemplation. The works presented in this exhibition represent a thrilling evolution of an artist who is self-conscious of his economic and social realities alongside the political nitty-gritty of art. Ibrahim Mahama’s exhibition Fragments opened on 1st March and stays until 13th April 2017 at the White Cube, Bermondsey, London.

by Mike Sarkodie