Ibrahim Mahama cloaks U-M Museum of Art in monumental fabrics for first outdoor U.S. exhibition

Emilee Geist

After six-plus months of Zoom-based coordination and hours upon hours of hours on-site preparation, the inaugural outdoor U.S. exhibition from Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama has been installed on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Best known for his monumental installations that incorporate found objects to explore […]

After six-plus months of Zoom-based coordination and hours upon hours of hours on-site preparation, the inaugural outdoor U.S. exhibition from Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama has been installed on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Best known for his monumental installations that incorporate found objects to explore themes of commodity, migration, and economic exchange in his native Africa, Mahama is remotely serving as artist-in-residence at the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities this semester from his home in Tamale, Ghana. Mahama, who is 33, recently made international headlines as the youngest of six artists to present work at Ghana’s first-ever exhibition at the Venice Art Biennale in 2019.

As detailed by a news release published by the University of Michigan, the new multi-venue exhibition, In-Between the World and Dreams, marks the first time that Mahama has not been physically present to oversee the labor-intensive production and installation of his large-scale work. Unable to travel to Ann Arbor from Ghana due to the coronavirus pandemic, Mahama oversaw the creation of the installation virtually, with a small army of staffers from the U-M Institute for the Humanities tasked with assembling the centerpiece of the exhibition: A 4,452-square-foot fibrous sheath of “quilt-like panels” covering a section of the front exterior of Allied Works’ 2009 addition at the U-M Museum of Art, which is one of the largest art museums at an American university.

a building covered with jute sacks designed by Ibrahim Mahama
(Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography/Courtesy U-M Institute of Humanities)

The colossal “blanket” is made from jute sacks—a common material in Mahama’s work and a staple in Ghanaian markets—that have been salvaged and reused from previous exhibitions in Los Angeles, New York City, and Venice. Under normal circumstances, Mahama collaborates with members of his community in Ghana to piece together his sprawling jute sack installations. This time around, the process was undertaken by Amanda Krugliak, curator and director of the U-M Institute for the Humanities Gallery, who, along with staff and on-campus collaborators, measured and sewed under “observance of COVID-19 protocols and social distancing guidelines” with Mahama providing direction from afar according to the school.

a building covered with jute sacks
(Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography/Courtesy U-M Institute of Humanities)

“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 explained in the news release. “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.”

She added: “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.”

a building covered with jute sacks
(Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography/Courtesy U-M Institute of Humanities)

The U-M news release explains the significance of In-Between the World and Dreams:

“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.

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 addition to the highly conspicuous architectural intervention at the U-M Museum of Art, the exhibition also includes a light and sound installation located within the U-M Institute for the Humanities Gallery viewable to passerby from the sidewalk through a window from the sidewalk as well as an installation on display at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. Both of the U-M installations are on view through October 23 while the Detroit show opens October 12 and runs through December 5.

a building covered with jute sacks
(Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography/Courtesy U-M Institute of Humanities)

“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,” said Krugliak.

Despite being at a significant remove from Ann Arbor, Mahama is also teaching a class and participating in virtual events at U-M in addition to remotely overseeing his own, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-supported exhibition.

On October 23, Mahama will join 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 in virtual conservation as part of U-M’s Penny Stamps Speaker Series.

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