How I Work: Ibrahim Mahama

The Ghanaian artist gives new life to discarded materials in his often monumental projects which evoke centuries of history. He takes us through the process behind his work, and the value of bringing in ordinary people to create extraordinary installations

Withering jute sacks falling apart at the seams; discarded school books that become redundant the moment term ends; colossal, disused aeroplanes. To many people, these are nothing more than waste. To Ibrahim Mahama, it’s the beginning of an artistic journey that examines everything from commodification to colonialism, creation and decay. 

Mahama was born in Tamale in Ghana’s Northern Region, where he founded the Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art (SCCA) – an institution conceived as a studio space and exhibition venue for artists. Aside from Tamale, he also works in the capital, Accra, and Kumasi, the home of the University of Science and Technology where he gained his Bachelor’s, MFA and PhD. 

He is by now a world-renowned artist. His work has been displayed everywhere from Athens to London, and he has regularly exhibited at Venice Biennale (including as part of Ghana’s debut national pavilion last year). However, to simply call him an artist would be a disservice. Mahama is just as focused on education and infrastructure, both of which are intertwined in much of his work.

Last year, a commission for the Manchester International Festival saw him create Parliament of Ghosts at the Whitworth Art Gallery, an installation using old train seats designed to evoke both Ghana’s parliament chamber as well as the Ghanaian train system built under British colonial rule. Meanwhile this January, citizens of Tamale watched on as six abandoned aeroplanes were carted through the streets, the final destination after a 700km journey across the country. The aeroplanes have since been reincarnated as art and education spaces, which also play host to local children – and hopefully a generation of new artists.

For Mahama, scale doesn’t appear to be a limitation but an ambition. One of his most memorable projects involved smothering the angular exterior of Ghana’s National Theatre in a patchwork of jute sacks – a material imported from South East Asia for bagging cocoa in Ghana, before enduring a secondary life as a container for less valuable local produce such as maize or rice. “Ghana was the largest producer of cocoa in the world in the mid-20th century, and a lot of the money that we made from cocoa was actually used in creating social infrastructure – roads, bridges, things like that,” Mahama explains. Even in materials as seemingly unremarkable as a sack, he sees the history woven into it, and uses it as a means to interrogate value, labour conditions, economic exchange and globalisation.

Here, Mahama reveals more about the how the context of a given space influences his work, what motivates him as an artist, and how he brings his staggering projects to life.