Ibrahim Mahama, Africa I, 2020–21, photo cutouts and archival materials on paper, 37 3⁄4 × 29 1⁄8".

Ibrahim Mahama, Africa I, 2020–21, photo cutouts and archival materials on paper, 37 3⁄4 × 29 1⁄8".

Ibrahim Mahama

Anything can happen in an empty space. For his exhibition “As the void, vali and voli,” artist Ibrahim Mahama has confronted the history and the structures of Ghana’s Brutalist architecture, built in the 1960s under President Kwame Nkrumah’s postcolonial government and subsequently abandoned. Symbols of a new era of independence, many of these buildings remained unfinished, over time becoming emblems of conflict—and, for some, shelters for ghosts and demons.

In fifteen notebooks as well as drawings, large collages, and a video, Mahama explores how the failure of this architecture has been translated into a rebirth, thanks to the artist’s idea of converting of such buildings into cultural spaces. The video, Memories from the void, 2020–21, documents the repurposing of one such structure, a former grain silo acquired by the artist that is now a venue for exhibitions and cultural events and known as Nkrumah Voli-ni.

In a number of celebrated earlier works, the artist covered buildings with jute sacks. Here, again acting by way of the international exchange of goods and following the trail of a circular economy, Mahama reveals an approach to architecture based on a long-term and regenerative stance that is intimate and therapeutic. It is not coincidental that the exhibition’s title invokes not only the “void” but also includes the words vali, which means “to swallow” in Dabgani, and voli, which means “the hole”; both words also contain the positive connotations of “to pull out” and “to collect from the earth” in the initial syllables vo and va.

On the other hand, Mahama’s immersion into the emptiness of this postcolonial architecture has nurtured his fascination with encounters with the unexpected—for instance, a colony of bats that the artist found inside the Nkrumah Voli-ni building. These incidents have generated his interest, previously never explicit, in ecological themes (Mahama let these animals continue living in the building, in the name of a renewed coexistence between man and nature).

The bats, sometimes frightening, sometimes funny, are the true protagonists of the works in this show. In Siiko, 2020–21, for example, the background is entirely composed of original receipts for orders for goods coming from a Ghanaian factory, to which the artist has clipped and glued photos of bats, hanging upside down, wings folded, clinging to an octagonal motif generated by the repetition of a photo of abandoned silos located in the city of Ho, in southeastern Ghana. In Leno, 2020–21, by contrast, the winged creatures appear “humanized,” eliciting our empathy. The lower portion of the work is composed of an architectural pattern created by a detail of the roof of Nkrumah Voli-ni, above which is a succession of bats, this time not hanging but appearing to stand on their feet. All of them have distinct poses as well as features reflecting individual personalities. One, moreover, has a halo and stands alone at the center of the composition, staring at us with languid eyes, while others fly above, wings spread, heading in the same direction. Is this a representation of a secret sect, or a metaphor for our society or for the sanctification, also ironic, of this animal, accused of being the origin for the transmission of Covid-19?

Mahama finds in bats a pretext that allows him to expand his gaze and artistic practice toward relationships that are not exclusively human. Onto the black bodies of these creatures we then project all the fragility of the human condition, as well as the power of a possible means of transforming and redeeming our way of inhabiting this world.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.