Critics’ Picks

Detail: Ibrahim Mahama, A Grain of Wheat, 1918–45, 2015–18, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Detail: Ibrahim Mahama, A Grain of Wheat, 1918–45, 2015–18, mixed media, dimensions variable.


Ibrahim Mahama

Oranienstraße 161
April 14–May 20, 2018

The fishy scent pervading Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama’s first exhibition in Berlin is all encompassing and, perhaps unavoidably, invites a piscine idiom or two. It is neither fish nor fowl, as the audacious materiality that has made a big fish of Mahama is here juxtaposed with works evidencing a cool archival focus. Produced during Mahama’s tenure as a fellow of the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program, this concise show of four works draws together found objects—including medical equipment, textbooks, photographs, maps, and bureaucratic documents—that speak to the artist’s interest in labor and collective enterprise. The defining olfactory note emanates from the show’s largest work, which is also its strongest.

The idiosyncratic dating of A Grain of Wheat, 1918–45, 2015–18, a display of rolled-up medical stretchers—they are made from wood and fabric, and propped cheek by jowl against two walls—owes to their provenance. The tattered burlap stretchers are vintage medical artifacts sourced from a scrapyard in Athens. The balances are new, their construction overseen by the artist: Czech wood turners machined the frames, while the heavily stained and odorous black fabric was sourced from West African fish smokehouses. A monument to labor and suffering, the project is closely aligned to Mahama’s earlier materialist investigations of Ghanaian working life in his jute sack installations.

Jacob Sam’s Archive, 2018, is composed of three wooden classroom cabinets, their doors ajar and contents—which include school notebooks, records of legislative debate, and annual reports from the Bank of Ghana—freely accessible. There are also ten cardboard boxes with colonial maps and photos of locomotives from the Gold Coast Railway, established in 1898. These objects of empire and extraction are critiqued by a strategic juxtaposition. The Republic, 1974, is a framed certificate honoring the paint division of the Ghana Industrial Holding Corporation for its output and “deep-rooted regard” for the country’s post-independence policy of self-reliance—still a galvanizing idea in Africa today.