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Old Cloth, Bright Fabric and Community Arts Spaces: On Unusual Mediums and Rooted Materiality

Updated: Dec 3, 2022

I’ve long admired those artists who move beyond oil and canvas towards a medium that speaks more deeply to them, one that eventually becomes intertwined with their practice and an entry point to understanding their work. Three artists, all unintentionally but interestingly of African heritage, are explored here as examples who have made a material their own and bring it to the fore of their work. This culturally and historically rooted materiality is tied to their generous approach to art and ongoing efforts to make it more accessible and inclusive in local communities.

All three artists use their chosen medium as something that links them back to their cultural heritage and the complex historical legacies that play out in modern society.

Ibrahim Mahama (b.1987, Tamale) uses jute sacks found in the trade markets of Ghana to create his eye-catching installations. This rough, threadbare cloth (right: Ibrahim Mahama, Untitled, 2014) is produced from a plant fibre primarily produced in South Asia and largely used for transporting valuable commodities such as coffee, cocoa beans and natural fuel. For Mahama, this material is about working with “residues of the commodification the world has produced, the ghosts and traumas of it.” Born and educated in Ghana, Mahama uses a material that roots him to the place he grew up, whilst exposing its extant links to the global system of trade.

Yinka Shonibare (b.1962, London) incorporates batik fabric into his bright and playful sculptures (left: Yinka Shonibare MBE, Butterfly Kid (Boy), 2015). Originally produced in Indonesia, this colourful and highly patterned fabric was exported to West Africa by the Dutch East India Company where they are now ubiquitous. Shonibare’s examination of this fabric and personal discovery of their global past gave him a way to question what cultural authenticity means in an increasingly cross-cultural world. Born in London, Shonibare moved to Lagos aged three, before returning to the UK to study. The idea of what it means to be authentic is therefore both deeply personal and a pertinent issue for our increasingly multicultural world.

Michael Armitage (b.1984, Nairobi) paints on Lubugo bark cloth, a burial cloth made by the Baganda people of southern Uganda. An ancient craft, the material is made using an outer layer of tree bark which is soaked, lightly burnt, cleaned and repeatedly beaten (right: Michael Armitage, The Dumb Oracle, 2019). It is a complex process that holds both cultural and spiritual value, designated an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2008. As Armitage says, “I was looking for something that would locate my practice within the cultural context of East African history. I first came across the Lubugo in a tourist market, and then discovered that even though it was sold as this Kenyan tribal souvenir it was actually a Ugandan cloth.” By using a material heavily laden with cultural meaning, Armitage creates a firm connection between his art practice and the continent of his birth, imbuing his paintings with historical processes connected to the spiritual, to death and to ritual.

The medium becomes a catalyst that drives their work and opens it up to new possibilities.

On its literal surface, the holes and rough seams of Lubugo bark cloth appear as a hindrance to the painstaking process of painting. Far from an impediment, however, Armitage has discussed how these features are transformed into something productive: “because the surface itself is so irregular, it also shifted how I made the painting and opened up different ways of thinking around how I could use images. So it is something that continues to be really challenging but at the same time also very giving.” The physicality of the rust-coloured cloth is enhanced through the prominence of stitching, breaks and creases which are purposefully built into the artist’s vibrant compositions. These physical characteristics are so antithetical to the smooth surface of conventional canvas they both reward and attract a greater curiosity and openness on the part of the viewer. In work rich in art historical influences including Goya and Titian, addressing such themes as Kenyan politics and European folklore, the abundance of connections goes deep beyond the surface.

Shonibare uses the colourful patterns inherent to batik to give his mannequin sculptures a light and playful touch, something the artist leans into with his choice of mischievous poses and subjects. In the same way that the obscure history of batik provides a vehicle to question cultural authenticity, Shonibare’s sculptures reference ancient sculpture, canonical paintings and imagined historical moments to question race, class and identity. Donatello’s David is painted in batik patterns and given the Ife Head (right). Fragonard’s The Swing is remodelled into a headless sculpture with a lavish batik dress. By identifying and transforming recognisable figures from Western art history, the artist highlights the continual reconstructions of culture and class, posing questions to what is deemed permissible and valuable. Immediately recognisable, batik has become synonymous with Shonibare's artwork. His unique medium, although appearing whimsical, digs deep beneath the surface of our underlying assumptions.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the use of specific and unconventional materials is both fundamental to, and symbolic of, their investment back into local communities and grassroots art scenes.

Mahama’s sacks are acquired at the end of their working life, stained by the sweat of labour. The artist purchases new ones as replacements for the workers, using the dirt smeared sacks in his own works and installations which are sold to wealthy art collectors and prominent museums. With the money created from selling his work, Mahama reinvests into local communities by funding the construction of cultural hubs in Ghana, creating a remarkably unique circular economy. As Mahama tellingly says, “When artists live from their work it becomes a kind of reward. I want the residues to translate into something else, to affect the very conditions in which the work was produced.” Two of these have already been established, the Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art (SCCA) and Nkrumah Volini. Both in Tamale they function as project and exhibition spaces, research hubs, education centres, cultural repositories and hosts of artist residencies, film screenings, lectures and workshops. Meaning ‘inside the hole’, or a place of doom and emptiness, Nkrumah Volini was previously an abandoned food silo built during the 1960s optimism of newly independent Ghana. Following Mahama’s investment, it has been completely revitalised for the benefit of the local community whilst simultaneously providing new impetus for his more recent bodies of work which document the transformation - as well as the bats which roosted in the abandoned silo (above left: Ibrahim Mahama, Parad(W/M)E III, 2021).

Likewise, Shonibare has established two new artist residency spaces in Lagos and Ijebu, Nigeria, that opened in 2019 and 2022 respectively. The Guest Artists Space (G.A.S.) Foundation in Lagos is a non-profit dedicated to facilitating cultural exchange and developing artists through residencies and collaborations. Along with a studio and gallery, there is also accommodation for up to three artists-in-residence. Shonibare’s inspiration for the centre is to “create a platform for creative development and knowledge exchange between established and emerging practitioners” as well as to create learning opportunities for participants and local communities in Lagos and Ijebu. This emphasis on widening participation in the arts is crucial, providing a way to break down barriers of privilege, wealth, lack of infrastructure and limited opportunities.

This emphasis on expanding the arts community, can also be seen in Armitage’s initiation of the non-profit space, the Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute (NCAI) in the Kenyan capital. Dedicated to the promotion and preservation of contemporary art in East Africa, it was established in 2020 and opened to the public in January 2022. As Armitage says, “we hope that NCAI will serve, support, and expand the arts community, under which people familiar with and new to the arts can encounter a vibrant exhibitions program, study in our resource centre, and meet and connect through our programming.” With a plan to develop a three-year post-graduate fine arts programme, there is a long-term commitment that is both rare and exciting.

My experience so far of working within the contemporary art world has highlighted how it is both fast-moving and dynamic yet simultaneously ephemeral and hollow. Exhibitions come and go and are quickly forgotten; the eye is never satisfied with seeing. Part of what attracts me to these three artists and their approach to art is their long-term commitment to investing in younger generations and the wider public in concrete, financially costly ways. They have established a new infrastructure outside of the glitzy art fairs and private views, one that engages with local communities in areas with a significant lack of arts spaces and opportunities, if they even exist at all. It runs counter to the self-obsessed, egomaniacal artists that regularly grab the headlines and generate eye-rolling platitudes about the state of the art world. They show a way of working sustainably with the art market, which is necessarily dominated by the financial elite (for an artist to survive solely on their work, it will be unaffordable to the majority of people), through a dynamic and sustainable circular economy. It is an economy that ties them to their cultural heritage; a rooted materiality visible both beneath and on the very surface of their work.

Ibrahim Mahama’s Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art (SCCA), Tamale, Ghana

The Guest Artists Space (G. A. S.) Foundation Lagos, Nigeria, supported by the Yinka Shonibare Foundation

The Nairobi Contemporary Art Institute, Kenya, founded by Michael Armitage

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