Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama’s first outdoor US exhibition ‘blankets’ U-M Museum of Art
Over the last few weeks, staff at the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities have been stitching together hundreds of large jute sacks under the direction of artist-in-residence Ibrahim Mahama.
Installed last week, the resulting massive, quilt-like panels were used to cover 4,452 square feet of the exterior of the U-M Museum of Art to create one of the spectacular architectural interventions Mahama is known for.
It is an exhibition of firsts. It is the first time that the artist, who has been connecting with staff via Zoom appointments and phone calls from his home in Ghana, will not be on site to install his exhibition or see it in person. He has been performing his traditional artist-in-residence duties from afar as well, which includes teaching a virtual class and participating in virtual events.
The project also marks the first outdoor exhibition of Mahama’s work in the United States. It is part of a multivenue presentation in the region that also includes a related installation at U-M Institute for the Humanities Gallery that can be viewed (and heard) from a sidewalk window, as well as an installation inside the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit.
Amanda Krugliak, curator and director of the U-M Institute for the Humanities Gallery, started planning for an exhibition with Mahama during his recent trip to Ann Arbor as a 2019 Penny Stamps Speaker series presenter. They pivoted planning for the project after Michigan’s stay-at-home orders were announced earlier this year.
Due to COVID-19 persisting travel restrictions, Mahama couldn’t be in Ann Arbor for the installation as originally planned, but decided to move forward with the help of Krugliak and other collaborators at the institute.
“When plans shifted in March, we did not know if he’d be able to be here, so this entire project has involved a great deal of trust from the artist, and we’re grateful that he’s worked with all of us to make this happen,” Krugliak said. “It is really significant that we are doing this in this moment when everything seems impossible—and when we’re going through a series of crises.
“I believe that this piece in particular acknowledges this in a very public way that the institute, museum and university are committed to racial equity and the value of labor and what can be accomplished together, even with our challenges.”
Mahama creates public art by repurposing materials to explore themes of commodity, migration, globalization and economic exchange. “In-Between the World and Dreams,” the title of the exhibition that is spelled out in neon lights as part of the exterior installation, incorporates jute sacks—synonymous with the trade markets of Ghana where he lives and works—as a raw material.
For his U-M installations, which took six months to plan and dozens of hours of measuring and sewing on site, he incorporated materials from his prior seminal works over the last decade that will serve as a retrospective. They were shipped to Ann Arbor from Los Angeles, New York and Venice, Italy.
Mahama generally works collaboratively with his community to complete the extensive sewing of the sacks required in preparation for his projects—a process he entrusted to Krugliak and her small team at the U-M Institute for the Humanities who have been working in observance of COVID-19 protocols and social distancing guidelines.
Mahama’s artistic practice illustrates, as he explains, how art education, art and cultural opportunities “allow for people to find new ways to acquire knowledge, not only of themselves, but their histories and the places and spaces in which they find themselves.”
Enveloping the contours of a museum building or wall, the blankets of jute fibers are meant to contrast with the monumentality of the institutional buildings and spaces they cover, becoming remnants and traces that reference the hands of laborers, the imprints of colonialism and the interference of Britain and the U.S. in Ghanaian history.
According to Laura De Becker, interim chief curator at UMMA and collaborator on the project, the themes in Mahama’s work intersect with many initiatives already underway at the museum.
“The timing is significant—in the next year we are doubling the space dedicated to African art in our permanent galleries and engaging in a variety of projects that highlight contemporary artists from Africa and its diaspora,” she said. “Mahama’s installation, for UMMA, is both a prompt and a promise: We want to be transparent about histories of colonialist collecting practices and critical towards what stories we tell about our works of art and why.”
The installation is responsive to the present moment and offers students and the broader community the opportunity to engage with the arts in a public space at a time when gatherings inside buildings and museums are limited.
“In this pivotal year defined by COVID-19, worldwide protests in support of Black Lives Matter, climate change and our U.S. presidential election in the balance, Ibrahim Mahama’s work offers a visual opportunity to witness and reflect—it is both personal and universal, global and close to home,” Krugliak said.
“The work exemplifies our deep connections and responsibilities to one another, interwoven, and the potential for empowerment through the arts. It acknowledges troubling past histories while, at the same time, offering hopefulness towards building new futures together.”
“In-Between the World and Dreams” is led by the U-M Institute for the Humanities in collaboration with the U-M Museum of Art, with exhibitions of Mahama’s work at three locations:
- Oct. 1-23: U-M Museum of Art, 525 S. State St., Ann Arbor
- Oct. 1-23: Institute for the Humanities Gallery, 202 S. Thayer St., Ann Arbor (viewing from the gallery window only)
- Oct. 12-Dec. 5: Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, 315 E. Warren Ave., Detroit
Mahama will participate in a virtual conversation Oct. 23 with Krugliak; Ozi Uduma, assistant curator for global contemporary art at UMMA; and Neil Alan Barclay, president and CEO of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, as part of this year’s Penny Stamps Speaker Series lineup, being presented in partnership with Detroit Public TV and PBS Books.
“In-Between the World and Dreams” is made possible by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to further the Institute for the Humanities Gallery’s longtime mission in support of art as social practice.