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“The trip fostered new friendships and support structures”: A travelogue by Sascia Bailer

Travel Somewhere Nice

Exchange trip for East African artist in Ghana

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Researcher and curator Sascia Bailer was invited to join the “Travel Somewhere Nice” exchange programme that took place recently with East African arts professionals visiting exemplary art schools, art hubs and artists-led projects in three Ghanaian cities.  Jointly organised by Nantume Violet of UNDER GROUND Kampala and Adjo Daiki Apodey Kisser of blaxTARLINES Kumasi, in collaboration with Vodo Arts Society and hosted by the Fine Arts Department at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) and SCCA Tamale, “Travel Somewhere Nice” focuses on rethinking arts education and fostering collective practices rooted in local contexts. Sascia took part through her work in the Swiss cultural sector at the intersection of care, contemporary art and social transformation. She documented the 10-day trip in a travelogue on Instagram, sharing info and reflections about the many encounters and experiences along the way. We share her travelogue here. 

DAY 1 – Accra, Ghana

I’m absolutely thrilled and honoured to have been invited to this cultural exchange in Ghana between artists/cultural practitioners from East and West Africa, and Germany/Switzerland. We visited the National Museum of Ghana, which opened in March 1957 as part of Ghana’s independence celebrations. Elizabeth Asafo-Adjei took us around the archaeology and ethnography found in the National Museum building. 

While I think it’s safe to say that (realistic) painting is dead in Germany, it seems very much alive in Ghana. We went to see a range of artist studios (some in an under used luxury mall), some in Gallery 1957 in a hotel lobby, some with the off-space Compound House GalleryNana Afia Sarpong Prempeh‘s realistic paintings play with imaginative version of ourselves that appear as reflections in mirrors. Daniel Ametefe Kukubor captures everyday situations on neon coloured foundations, with self-made spatulas. Adiamah Emmanuel uses cloth and paint to depict everyday situations of public (and rather rural) life. Nuna Adisenu-Doe, the director of Compound House gallery, gave us a tour of Chris-sis: Feast of the Sacred Heart a solo show by Samuel Kortey Baah. Curated by Tracy Naa Koshie Thompson, the exhibition invites the audience into an installation that challenges dominant narratives of Christian religion in Ghanaian society.

DAY 2 – Accra, Ghana

We started off with a very early visit to the beach, which greeted us hazy but empty. We visited the pan-Africanist civil rights activist W.E.B Du Bois’ former house and final resting place, which now is a museum. We met Ato Annan, director of the Foundation for Contemporary Art in Ghana, who shared the organisation’s working processes with us. I was impressed how they stayed afloat for 20 years without public funding. Ato shared how they regard themselves as a “fluid organization” that has to adapt, and morph into other states in order to sustain itself.

At Nubuke Foundation we saw the work of Cecilia Lamptey Botchway in a solo exhibition called Make We Dance, and we had the pleasure to meet the founding director Odile Tevie. Last but not least, we were welcomed into the home of the photographer and visual artist Eric Gyamfi in Adenta Frafraha. I was intrigued by the poetics and tenderness of his works, and his willingness to keep on experimenting. I also really appreciated how he honoured the working process and makes it transparent to the audience.

DAY 3 – travel to Kumasi, Ghana

We got up at sunrise in Accra to take the local bus to Kumasi, approximately 4- 5 hours. First things first: a reverend blessed the driver, passengers and the entire trip through prayer and worship. Images are impressions from the road. Once in Kumasi we were shown around the campus of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) that has about 80 000 students.

DAY 4 – Kumasi, Ghana

We had a full day of presentations amongst a group of artists and curators from blaxTARLINES KUMASI at the KNUST university. Really inspiring practices were shown! The artists included Katesi Jacqueline Kalange, Jim Joel, Vodo Art Lab & Society Tristan Zitoni, Doddridge Busingye, Trevor Aloka, Kasangati Godelive Kabena, Piloya Irene, Jonathan Okoronkwo, Musah Yusif, Ato Jackson. We then continued to two studio visits; one with Lisa C Soto and her most recent installation that addressed often overlooked weeds that exist in different parts of the world and that infiltrate abandoned spaces…. The other artist was Rebecca De Marchi whose work was looking at the deconstruction of patterns, starting with traditional Asante weaving. Then we saw Hassan Issah‘s work which plays with palimpsest, different layered meanings of (religious) symbols, and (art) historic canons.

DAY 5 – Bonwire Kente weaving and Ntonso Adinkra villages, Ashanti, Ghana

Traditional weaving and printing are an integral part of Asante culture. We first learned about how kente cloths are made. Some of these woven fabrics take about 8 months to be made. It’s a male-only craft, that starts from early teenage years and is often practiced until old age, if eyesight allows. We then went to a different community that is dedicated to traditional printmaking. The colours that they use are made from tree bark, stamped, and cooked for up to a week until it distils into a dark and thick texture. The knowledge is passed down from the ancestors and is sustained as a family practice. The symbols that are used all have different spiritual meanings; we were able to choose a few symbols to also make our own prints. While crafts are often looked down upon within contemporary art I think it’s important to acknowledge these art forms, and also how they become fertile in borrowed or altered techniques and references within contemporary art practices.

We were introduced to Samuel Cophie, a master weaver in Bonwire by kąrî’kạchä seidou. We went on to tour a solo exhibition by Frederick Ebenezer Okai titled Earthy Structures and Contingent Breakthroughs curated by Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh at Gyamadudu Museum Ashanti Region. The exhibition draws from the aesthetics, processes and materiality of indigenous pottery to create works that expound on pottery use and its significance in Ghana.

Kumasi, Ghana

In the evening we visited several studio exhibitions on the campus of KNUST. The first impressions are from Congolese artist Kasangati Godelive Kabena whose work takes a post humanist approach to art production, asking what the experience or possible contribution of non-human agents are: e.g. what does the onion experience as part of the exhibition and how does its smell influence the viewer? She also uses her menstrual blood, captured in resin, to address questions of identity, bloodlines, and belonging. Piloya Irene uses materials from her home country Uganda, such as bark cloth. She plays with the fragility of the material, how it alters when exposed to different chemicals… while reflecting on a sense of belonging, absences, and discomfort. Ghanaian artist Halimatu Iddrisu invited us into her installation made out of hijab cloths, and print collages out of henna paint. Wishing these three beautiful souls all the best for their artistic endeavours.

DAY 6 – Kumasi and Bosomtwe, Ghana

We did a morning studio visit to the Ghanaian artist and professor Dorothy Akpene Amenuke who teaches at KNUST. She showed us examples of one of her large fabric works. In these works she tells stories, and works through topics that surface in her everyday life. The work in the images was recently shown at Alpha Nova Galerie Futura in an exhibition curated by Nantume Violet and Julia Gyemant. We continued to visit the lake of Bosomtwe. It was one of the few hours since this journey began that were unscheduled. We spent time with strolls at the lake, shared meals, card and board games.

We want to give a warm warm thank you the community of blaxTARLINES that hosted us during our stay in Kumasi – we are particularly grateful to kąrî’kạchä seid’ou, Kwaku Boafo Kissiedu (Castro), Adjo Daiki Apodey Kisser, Bernard Akoi Jackson, and Hassan Issah, Halimatu Iddrisu,Piloya Irene, Edward Prah and Kasangati Godelive Kabena for their hospitality, generosity, and time. May our paths cross again soon.

DAY 8 – Tamale, Ghana

We were warmly welcomed by Serlom Kudji, director of Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art, and taken to our hostel with a trotro. In the morning Kudji and Ibrahim Mahama introduced us to Red Clay Studio, which can be described as an experimental space in art and education that aims to build infrastructures that serve the local community. The sale of Ibrahim’s work on the global art market is what enables him to build an institution from scratch that counters many logics of Western art institutions, and that is dedicated to transforming different forms of capital (e.g. aesthetic capital into financial capital) that returns to the community. Over the years Red Clay Studios has evolved and now hosts educational spaces in upcycled airplanes, archival material that speak to the history of Ghana, a library, a studio space, and an archaeological museum and a greenhouse which are both still under construction. Additionally the space provides a platform for other artists to showcase their work, while establishing a permanent collection of African contemporary art that remains on the continent.

This intention is extended to the two other spaces founded by Kudji and Ibrahim, Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art and Nkrumah Voli-ni; both serve as exhibition and laboratory spaces for contemporary art. These buildings form part of the larger infrastructure that Ibrahim aims to build, that goes beyond physical structures and rather seek to establish counter-systems that return various forms of capital to the African continent. Thank you Kudji and Ibrahim for taking the time and for making your working processes transparent to us.

DAY 9 – return from Tamale to Accra

Despite the distance being only roughly 600km, the bus ride took us more than 14 hours. I’m sharing snapshots of road signs with you to give a feel for the long journey. In the evening we were welcomed by a lovely dinner and drinks with the traditional and contemporary African art collector Amadu Baba — knowing this would be our last night as a group, we were trying to soak in the last moments of togetherness.

DAY 10 – last day, return to Basel and Kampala

Admittedly I had to chuckle when I first received the invitation by the Ugandan curator Nantume Violet of UNDER GROUND Contemporary Art to join the cultural exchange program with the title “Travel somewhere nice”. However, upon accepting the invitation and joining the 10 day travel with 7 artists from Uganda to Ghana, it was when the political dimension of the title unfolded its meaning: the African continent has historically not only been a site of departure for artists but also for political and economic migration, where the Global North served as a site of desired arrival. Increasing hostile migration politics in the West feed the same narrative in which the African continent is portrayed as an earthly inferno, as exemplified by the UK who deports asylum seekers to Rwanda, framing it as a punishment and deterrence method. In this light, it appears as urgently political to reverse the narrative, to situate the African continent as a desired destination, as “somewhere nice” — not only for artists and researchers from Europe but also from other African countries, in search for cross-African inspiration. Nantume Violet, who has initiated these yearly research trips for the second time already (in collaboration with Adjo Kisser), stresses the importance for African artists to encounter and learn through other Africa-based practitioners who are equally young in age, and who have demonstrated the ability to realize ambitious artistic projects; rather than turning to the Global North as the only site of reference.

In the feedback round it became clear: this trip was of immense value for everyone; one participant said that it fundamentally changed his way of looking at art and at his own practice. We are beyond grateful to Nantume, Adjo, and everyone from blaxTARLINES, and all the artists who opened their homes and studios for us! Thank you! Last but not least, the trip fostered new friendships and support structures amongst all of us — and I have a feeling that this won’t be the last time that we will meet. Kampala 2023?