A Method of Exchange

A conversation with artist Ibrahim Mahama for 'New African', October 2014

Ibrahim Mahama, Untitled (K.N.U.S.T.), 2014, Jute Coal Sacks, Dimensions Variable. Courtesy the artist.

Ibrahim Mahama is an artist concerned with labour, negotiation, and networks of exchange and despite his lack of attachment to the final object, he has also presided over the creation of a number beautifully constructed, large scale fabric installations as a result. Mahama’s work was selected for inclusion in Pangaea: New Art from Africa and Latin America at the Saatchi Gallery and his installation of sodden, draped jute sacks, Untitled 2014, hung ceiling to floor was by far the most engaging work in the exhibition. Evocatively lit to cast shadows across rugged folds and fixings, a myriad of stories were offered up by the numerous duty stamps and markings, recording journeys through global trade routes from India to Ghana. I first began a dialogue with Mahama when we met during in his residency as Gasworks in December 2013, what follows is a continuation of that discussion about the significance of materials, process and display context to his art practice.

Hansi Momodu-Gordon: Your recent body of work in which you utilise disused coal sacks and Chinese import printed textiles has made your work instantly recognisable. Can you tell me more about the importance of material in your work?

Ibraim Mahama: For me as an artist it is more about the ideas that I work with. For instance working with the idea of the common, or the exploitation of labour, or work in itself. Textiles are important in my early works. It is something that I relate to very strongly because people tend to use textiles a lot in Ghana and the sub-region. The coal sack material that I have used to build my recent installations is a common place material that is designed to carry a commodity which transforms over time and moves from one space to the other, occupies certain spaces, takes on different forms in addition to the original labels or symbols that are imprinted on it. It accumulates a sense of universality; you can have a different view of the world by looking at the physical transformation of the material. I am interested in how we use the everyday materials to connect to or subvert pre-existing structures and create new interpretations. The intentions of using such materials is political and deals with the idea of circulation, transfer of value, things moving from one space to the other. Methods of exchange become political within the social framework.

HMG: Commodity, networks of exchange and alternative currency also seem to be embedded into your work can you talk more about this?

IM: The ideas of exchange and dialogue with people in order to produce or have access to something are very important to my practice. I am very interested in having a dialogue, and that allows for money not to be the main form of transaction. It has always been one of the predominant ideas in my work that the artist can resort to using other means of production. The people whom I engage in dialogue are often at the bottom of the ladder in terms of the social class structure. The materials that I collect from them embody their condition. My work tends to take those materials as a form of exchange, I negotiate and give them new materials and take the old ones, because the old ones are charged with their day-to-day activities. The material becomes witness to a series of events and goes through certain transformations.

HMG: Your work has been linked to sculptors El Anatsui and Yinka Shonibare for its use of textiles. Are there any other artists of an older generation who have influenced you or of a younger generation whom you feel an affinity with?

IM: I think my work has certain physical and conceptual relations to the work of El Anatsui and Yinka Shonibare in terms of the use of cloth. But, personally I have been much more interested in artists that work around the similar conceptual ideas. The form of the work is not my main concern. An artist such as Santiago Sierra has been very influential in terms of the methods that I use in making my work. For me the process of making work and the condition of making the work are very important. My work is concerned with having the conversations we are afraid of having because it might reveal an uncomfortable reality within society. I think it is very important that we ask these questions. All these questions are directly linked to the choices that I make in terms of what material and whom I work with, who comes into my studio to build what art works and what position they find themselves in. 


‘A Method of Exchange: Ibrahim Mahama in conversation’, New African, October 2014, no.543, pp94-96.