Nana Oforiatta Ayim, cultural historian, writer and filmmaker talks to C& about the permeability of spaces and her cultural platform ANO, based in Ghana.
C&: Through your polyphonic work as a cultural historian, writer, filmmaker and cultural producer and the activities you’ve undertaken in different places in the world, you seem to transgress any kind of borders. How would you define the notion of ‘border/s’?
Nana Oforiatta Ayim: Borders, or rather those that create or guard them, seem to give us the illusion that without them, we would sink into chaos and disorder, when really I think their beauty is that they are amorphous, fluid, shifting. I say that from the vantage point, with the privilege, of having grown up as a nowhere person, an in-betweener, which when I was younger I took as a disadvantage. If you grow up understanding that how others define you is not necessarily the truth, or that national belonging has nothing to do with how you feel, or how you express yourself, you begin to also understand, that the things, the definitions, that separate you from others are as thin or illusory as the definitions that others give you, and that ultimately separate you from yourself.
C&: Your short film Nowhere Else but Here shows a carnet de voyage carrying your personal reflections. In which way does this deal with the permeability of spaces, of here and there, of time etc?
NOA: I like that description of it, carnet de voyage. The film’s content is an impressionistic journey by road from West to East Africa. I was running away from Europe at the time, from its constrictions and complications, and had no real conception of what I would find on the road, or where it would end for me. I think the format of the film, the fragmentary unformed associations and impressions, somehow mirrors the breathlessness of execution. Even though that particular journey had ended, I was still on the road, in Senegal, when the film was needed for exhibition at the New Museum in New York. I did not know how to edit myself then, had very little time to find an editor, and found only a young student, who had no conception of the kind of essayistic film I wanted to make, so that it was like constantly pushing at a closed door. I flew to New York about 24 hours later with a very rough edit, wrote and recorded a voiceover at 2 a.m. in the studio of an editor I had met at a gallery that evening, and to whom I am eternally grateful, and screened it the next day. In a way, the precariousness of the journey and of the process, reflects the permeability, or transience, you speak of. In Europe, I had been writing, working on a book for years, and like my life there, it had been an exercise in perfection, or at least in not allowing anyone to see through the cracks. The journey, and hence the film, was a liberation of the notion that everything had to be perfectly contained, an allowing of things to flow out of and into each other whatever the outcome.
C&: Since 2002 you have created the mobile cultural platform ANO. You’ve just recently launched this platform in a physical space in Accra und Kyebi. Tell us more about this project and its new base in Ghana. What are your aims?
NOA: It is hard to describe ANO as one thing, but I think primarily it is an exercise in storytelling, in challenging dominant narratives – through culture, through publications, films, collaborations, exhibitions, performances, workshops. Its most major project at the moment is the Cultural Encyclopaedia, a 54-volume Encyclopaedia of the continent, charting cultural trajectories from past to present, with the first one looking at Ghana, which will be out next summer. The place up in the mountains is almost a utopian venture, for the editors and contributors to the Encyclopaedia from across the continent, to come together to meet and discuss and materialise ideas for pushing things forward, as well as for other creators, intellectuals and collaborators.
C&: With ANO, you also want to promote and empower young artists in Ghana. In which capacities and forms? Could you name 2-3 of them and describe their work?
NOA: I’ve been working most closely with a young artist called Ibrahim Mahama, who is incredibly talented. He goes into marketplaces and buys up jute sacks initially used as cocoa sacks, but repurposed by charcoal sellers, transforms them into installations and goes back to the marketplaces to install them in the places he bought them. His work is very much about the transfer of value (of goods, but also in the art world) and about looking again, defamiliarising your environment. When I first came across him, and also through conversations with lecturers at the art school there, I found out that many talented artists were going into things like banking or advertising, as there were no channels for artists to be sustainable within. I have worked in the art world for a while now, so it came about very organically when Ibrahim wanted to do an exhibition covering the art school museum in jute cloth, but could not raise the funding to do it, and also wanted help with the conceptualisation or curation of the show, that I agreed to collaborate with him, connected him with collectors, wrote about him to institutions like the Tate and the Saatchi, to provide him a bridge at that early stage of his career. The art world, like so many others, is so full of corridors and gatekeepers that an artist, especially one working and living in Ghana, could go their whole lives without ever being able to sustain themselves through their work. I am a little weary of institutionalising this kind of ‘residency’ as I’m not keen on that particular play of power and never have been, the thought of myself as a purveyor whose word ‘makes or breaks’ an artist is a little sickening, as I don’t adhere to that notion of privilege. And yet, there is no denying that an email here, a phone call there, from someone who has already built a reputation through their work, can enable an artist like Ibrahim to have his art seen in galleries and museums internationally, enable him to have a residency in London, to sell and provide himself an income, to stay living in Ghana rather than moving abroad, to not compromise on his vision. My impulse is a creative one, rather than a curatorial one, but in the absence of curators, or galleries, and with what I have at hand, how can I not do what I can to help, at least until infrastructures are established. It is a tricky line to walk – by engaging, you perpetuate the mechanisms of false privileging you abhor, by not engaging, these mechanisms continue to exist, but you and those like you are excluded by virtue of your non-participation, and therefore are not part of the conversation. A project that is perhaps more exciting in this sense is The Portraits project, which are short films of artists and their process. Many artists are doing installations and exhibitions on the streets, in warehouses, but if you are not there on the day that they are up, you miss them – and the lie of an absence of creativity is born. So far, the portraits have been of Ibrahim; Serge Attukwei Clottey, who works mainly as a sculptor and with the collective GoLokal, engaging in satirical and critical performances; and Zohra Opoku, who works with textures, installations and video. All of these artists are looking at new ways of seeing what is at hand, both in form and content. The project is an attempt at capturing, of looking into, some of these moments, certain currents, the space before an infrastructure is put in place; the possibilities for creating a new language, will they be grasped, and if so, how?
C&: There are an ever growing number of intracontinental networks between African and diasporic artists, cultural producers and spaces. How would you locate your initiative ANO within this?
NOA: I am not sure, maybe this is for others to say as it grows? I like what Ibraaz, the critical forum on visual culture in North Africa and the Middle East is doing. I like what the Cinémathèque de Tanger is doing as a cinematic cultural centre in Morocco. One of the things ANO does is screenings of avant-garde films from Senegal, Ethiopia, Thailand, Japan, Iran etc., as well as film workshops. I think the interesting thing about what is happening now is that things are still forming and are as yet quite open and undefined. It’s a struggle, because there is no infrastructure, no support, but also quite freeing, as there are no structures within which you can find yourself confined.
C&: Finally: What do you think about the current interest of formulating a kind of “hype” around Contemporary African Art?
NOA: Not much. I live in Ghana now, so am not that affected by what you call the ‘hype’. Africa seems quite fashionable now all around. Does it matter? I think it might give some people opportunities they would not have otherwise had, but all in all, those working on the narratives, the integrities of what they believe in, will continue doing it, whether it is fashionable or not, and it is this work that I think is most interesting, and probably most enduring.
Interview by Aïcha Diallo