African Art in White Cube Gallery

By Rali Chorbadzhiyska

London is an unparalleled cultural centre whose citizens (and visitors) benefit from free entry to numerous artistic galleries! White Cube is definitely a favorite of mine, located in between other smaller galleries and hipster cafes on Bermondsey Street. Despite the roadworks in the area, it is easily accessible with the closest tube station being London Bridge and a great historical and cultural centre nearby, called Hay’s Galleria.

The space inside is always different and tailored to the current exhibition(s). White Cube is famous for its characteristic minimalism. The walls are predominantly white (if an exhibition does not require their repainting) and the ceiling is freakishly tall. There is light coming in from above and one cannot but feel small when facing the grandness of the architecture and the art on display inside. Staff is always friendly and knowledgeable, but also dressed in black to fit in with the edgy minimalism of the place.

If you are planning to visit this artistic haven before the 13th of April (2017), you will be able to see two separate exhibitions by Josiah McElheny (modernist art) and Ibrahim Mahama (African art). I was, personally, struck by the latter upon my latest visit this weekend.

The exhibition called Fragments by the Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama occupies the South Galleries I and II, and 9x9x9. The first thing which greets you into the South gallery I of White Cube is a collection of three enormous fabric canvases hanging menacingly on all walls of the spacious room. They are all in a khaki hue of green, brown and black, patched up from various materials and with coins sewn to them. Jute Sacks.

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As the information sheet (that is distributed for free at the entrance to the gallery and usefully talks visitors through the important bits of every exhibition) suggests, Mahama is well-known for ‘large-scale installations incorporating jute sacks previously used to transport cocoa beans and charcoal, which are stitched together and draped over architectural structures’. To me, the impression was of enforcing awareness of commercialism. The sacks were supposed to carry goods but by putting them over other structures, or even these walls, Mahama implies the relentless coverage of commercialism. Commercialism that necessitates effort, trade, exploitation.

Moving on, there is a huge installation awaiting in the gallery space on the right. The name is ‘Non-Orientable Nkansa and was taken from the eponymous book by the Ghanaian author Ayi Kwei Armah.

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‘Non-Oriental Nkansa’ (2016), Photo property to candidmagazine

I could see flip-flops glued to the installation. When I came nearer, the structure of it became clearer – it was made of numerous small wooden boxes. The information sheet says:

‘Bearing the marks of the trade of ‘shoeshine boys’, the boxes also function as an improvised drum, and are pounded to solicit business. Gathered together here in a precariously balanced single unit, the containers are crammed with other repurposed items such as heels, hammers and needles’.

The word ‘repurposed’ struck me. Of course, all objects were taken from their everyday use to become art. They could even be called purposeless compared to what they are meant to do. A flip flop that is not worn but glued to an installation is useless as a flip flop but becomes a detail, an accent to an artistic expression. Simultaneously, there must be a less literal suggestion as well. I believe Mahama’s art to be pointing at repurposing items of exploitation of labour to serve as items of awareness. Even repurposing art which uses them to serve as a political statement, as a remainder and a warning against human cruelty.

The information sheet has Mahama’s statement on it as well: ‘Mahama intentionally refers to the jute and cloth works in this exhibitions as ‘paintings‘, nothing that ‘within the large interventions are moments of detail… paintings [that] act as extracts’.’ For the artist, the objects have accumulated strictly artistic value. Or not, but he persists they have to show their interchangeability. The absurdity of exploitation, whose former traces remain but it is still happening in the world economy nevertheless.

And the final piece to this politically-economic charged art exhibition is in 9x9x9 gallery, where there is another huge sack but also a wall, covered in ‘archival documents – … superimposed with imprints of civilian information, presented in a floor-to-ceiling installation‘. Mahama is evidently interested in the idea of surveillance, of keeping record of exploitation but only to reinforce it.

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This exhibition reminded me of a review by Svetlana Alpers on a book about Vermeer’s paintings by Timothy Brook. Apparently, Timothy’s analysis of the paintings was interested in the commercial signs in them. He explores objects’ presence on Vermeer’s canvas, their origins and the implication of their contemporaneous usage and subsequent depiction.

However, whereas Vermeer paints a hat made from beaver felt which points at the fashion trends of the time and their demands on nature and economics, Ibrahim Mahama uses the material itself to represent those not so abstract problems. I believe Mahama’s art is brave and authoritative. As it says on the information sheet, this is his first solo exhibition in London and I admire White Cube for putting it on display. It is absolutely worth seeing and promoting.  

*All photos in this article are taken from White Cube website if not otherwise stated

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