Ibrahim Mahama’s practice began as a series of interventions centered on a politics of exchange and engagement. While he was still a graduate student in painting and sculpture at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (MFA degree, 2010), Mahama began to work with local traders and market sellers to realize a large-scale installation woven from the ubiquitous jute fiber sacks that are traded across Ghana. Collaborating with migrant workers from the north of the country, as well as other students, he developed a process that involved a broad network of agents who became active in the production of the installation. Since then, Mahama’s Occupation series (2012) has expanded, becoming more ambitious in its scale and experimentation, while continuing to engage in the notions of trade, labor, and export that connect Ghana and the rest of the world.
In his process of cladding, draping, and hanging, Mahama uses and reactivates open market spaces, footbridges, and old train stations in Ghana. The jute fiber sack, a symbolically loaded material, is manufactured in Southeast Asia and imported into Ghana by produce buyers. These sacks are used to bag cocoa and other commodities before being sold and redistributed to distributors and end-users around the globe. As they are marked with the names of their various owners, the sacks build up an accretion of personal and collective narratives. Less visible, however, is their historical value, because cocoa has been rooted in the wider trajectories of Ghana’s political and financial economies during periods of colonization and independence. Sadly, today’s marketplaces are as much the frontlines of social inequality, labor exploitation, and globalization as they are spaces for the exchange of commodities.
Developed for the Biennale di Venezia, Mahama’s latest installation activates a corridor within the Troncone section of the Arsenale, where the coarsely woven jute fiber sacks bring a sensory and tactile dimension to a public space. Imbedding itself within the central structure of the Biennale, Out of Bounds is an intermediary space for the contemplation of materiality within our contemporary reality. In the end, this project exists as a live component, becoming a living organism within the infrastructure of the exhibition. At first sight, the material’s deeper narrative may not be evident, but its very presence forces the spectator’s reorientation, perceiving this fabricated environment as a civic space.