Institutional Memory: One Woman’s Path to Bringing the World to Africa—and Africa to the World
Oforiatta-Ayim says that he idea for ANO was born when she visited the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia where she studied Russian culture in the early 2000's. "I went to the museum as often as possible with my free student pass. The Hermitage is an encyclopedic museum covering the world’s cultures, past and present, though what struck me first that day—and then again and again—was the lack of context around displays of historical African masks and sculptures, as well as the exclusion of Africa among the Western and Eastern “masters” of modern art. There were obvious gaps and imbalances in the seemingly complete knowledge of the world.
ANO Institute of Contemporary Arts is a non-profit cultural organisation based in Osu, Accra. It was founded in 2002 by cultural historian, writer and film-maker, Nana Oforiatta Ayim and aims to uncover, discuss and collect traditional and modern Ghanaian community facets with the help of a mobile museum travelling through the country. Here’s everything you need to know.
Before opening formally as a cultural space in 2017 ANO had been functioning as a revolutionary art movement for years. Oforiatta-Ayim says that the new space comes as Accra’s arts scene is experiencing a renaissance: “The exhibition is going to help us look at who we are in this city, in this country, at this point in time. Our generation is out of the post-colonial phase and we’re now reacting to the colonial. I’m obsessed with the idea of revolution – be it cultural, social or political – and the idea of writers and artists sitting in a room and dreaming up what a new reality might look like. I really feel we’re in that moment.”
Mobile Museum by Latifah Iddriss, ANO, March 2017.
External funding is hard to secure and studio rents are expensive, so artists are adopting public spaces as an alternative outlet. However, ANO did not come magically from nowhere. Oforiatta-Ayim states plainly: ‘it’s been hard, but it comes out of a necessity. It comes out of the fact that I wanted to be in control of my own narrative, both as a woman and as an African." The institution surely comes about as a necessary element in matching the increased interest in the arts by enthusiasts, exhibitors and collectors around the world. As such, art practitioners in Ghana are thrilled about this addition to the few accessible traditional cultural spaces where they can shed light on their processes and products. Individuals and organizations looking to connect with creative forces building beyond the margins of art constructs currently in Ghana view ANO as a viable content hub.
As a writer and lover of the arts who gained interest in film with time growing up between Europe and Africa, Oforiatta-Ayim's idea was to create context as an artist, after she came to the realization that the context had always been created on behalf of Ghanaians. The curator and writer juggles management of the art institution with collaborations she is putting together with other Ghanaian artists, and has a novel with her dream publisher, Bloomsbury.
For Oforiatta-Ayim exhibitions are a form of storytelling. She looks back at her debut exhibition 15 years ago at Liverpool Biennial and is content with the results so far. She’s not perturbed by the adversities despite the challenges. Obstacles included insufficient sources of funding, difficulty in getting the ‘right people,’ and the fact that the highly patriarchal nature of the industry in Ghana undermines women spearheading such art functions. ‘Now that the foundation is laid, I will go into the creative aspect of things. Although the organization is capable of sustaining itself, the new government is showing some interest in the creative arts and that might be a good sign.’
An excerpt from Accra: Portraits of a City, (c) Felicia Abban / ANO
Oforiatta-Ayim's latest project is an attempt to decolonize the concept of an art gallery by facilitating the re/ordering of knowledge, narratives, and representations from and about the African continent; she calls it a Mobile Museum. From May 2018 until August 2019, ANO kickstarted the mobile museum that toured all ten regions of Ghana stopping in towns, collecting material culture from each area by asking for keepsakes, photos, jewelry, antiques, and heirlooms from locals, and then displaying them, along with their backstory, within the structure in the center of town and uploading it onto a pan-African Cultural Encyclopaedia.
Edward Biney discovered Obuasi gold. He brought this pot back from London almost a hundred years ago. | © ANO Institute of Contemporary Arts
Oforiatta-Ayim hopes that, through displaying personal objects in an egalitarian fashion, she and others in the community can engage together with their own living histories in open ways. We’re trying to upturn the idea of why we give certain objects value and not others. Y“our object, your letters, your stories have as much value as those of the conquerors,” she says. “We always have [in museums] this one golden object that is the most valuable. Well, who gets to say what’s valuable, if it’s valuable to this family? ” The Cultural Encyclopedia is represented as a digital platform and in published volumes, and is intended to provide a foundation for alternative narratives of development by generating, collecting and sharing knowledge. It is Oforiatta-Ayime's intent to document all significant cultural touchstones in the thousands of years of African history through an online resource that includes an A-to-Z index and vertices of clickable images for entries. Oforiatta-Ayime's is making the Cultural Encyclopedia an "open source" to prevent it from having a "top-down logic". She indicates that there are not the abundance of records she had been looking for as history a static thing to be written down—rather, it’s a living expression, told through festivals, celebrations, heirlooms, and music. As an example, she mentions her interest in Ghanaian drum poetry, an ancient language spoken through percussion instead of words, which, as she describes it, places “the past, present, and future into one dimension.” “The Western and Eastern systems have been quite clearly documented. But in terms of African systems of making sense of the world, there are so many, and they are so incredible—they just haven’t been translated,” she says. “It’s almost like there is a vacuum there, even though it’s so powerful.”
Kyebi or Kibi, the capital town of the East Akim Municipal District, in the Eastern region of southern Ghana, is one of ANO‘s mobile museum declared stops. ANO aims to reconnect the threads of rich traditions and versatile craftsmanship in the region during the two weeks they will be stationed there. The team is made up of artists, cultural historians and academicians running collaborative research with the locals, holding conversations with traditional rulers about the Eastern region’s historic and modern artistic contexts. Another stop is Cape Coast and its suburbs.
Tracing its origin to Chale Wote
ANO opened up the novelty of a non-stationary art exhibition structure at Chale Wote Street Arts Festival, and has developed the form and reach to a broader audience and purpose. The ideology goes hand in hand with the digital and print Cultural Encyclopaedia for Africa that Nana Oforiatta Ayim is working on. In an interview wih Akinyi Ochieng, she states “I realised that the arts were for me a more potent tool for transformation than politics. I got more and more into the idea of changing narratives through art.”
Making an exhibition along the way
The mobile museum poses the question about how local Ghanaians would like culture to be expressed, and in what forms, institutions and contexts. ANO looks at the potential of collecting artefacts or making 3D prints for exhibitions at each stop, and in the mobile museum trip’s second and final week, to exhibit free of charge to the general public. The structure is folded up and kept on a truck to be remounted in subsequent townships.
An alternative presentation of culture
ANO’s mobile museum challenges the mainstream portrayal of art via white cube representation and proposes an inherent structure and medium that unpacks original African content and talents. Nana’s work involves the impressive dialogue that defies stale narratives by bridging the gap between contemporary urban voices and rural genius. “Coming from the African continent, being a creative, and having a kind of vision of how things can be better, is what you hold on to and what gives you the energy to continue despite all the obstacles day-in, day-out. You’re born in this certain context, so you have to do the best that you can to make it a better place. That’s what drives me.”
Oforiatta-Ayim was born to a Ghanaian family whose parents raised her between Germany and England but she recounts how the childhood trips back to Ghana opened her eyes to something magic. “It was almost like flying into a different world. I would go back to my hometown, which is up in the mountains, and it was always mythological,” she says. “My gran would tell me how my grandfather would turn himself into a cat at night.” And her grandfather was king of the Akyem Abuakwa region who fathered 110 children from 42 wives, including her mother, the last one born. “My great-grandmother became a king because there was no one better. There are stories of her—with twins by her side—breastfeeding as she is riding into battle.”
Oforiatta-AyimIn the British museum, you have the African galleries, and it’s like, ‘This drum is from 1500 Ashanti,’ but there is nothing else about it. You don’t know what it is used for, what context it’s from, how it was brought here, who stole it. The museum as it exists today is so much an imperialist project and is so much about power,” she says. “At the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, in one room there would be some random masks and in another room some amazing Picassos, with so much more about the Picassos than the neglected masks. I remember being young and thinking, I want there to be more.”
Akan Drum at the British Museum
Drum (Apentemma) goblet shaped open drum with a hollow pedestal, the main body made of wood (Cordia africana), with six wood pegs (Baphia nitida), a skin head (deer or antelope?) and cord made of two main vegetable fibres (Clappertonia ficfolia and Raphia) - among others - which is around the head of the drum and attached to the pegs; there is a coating on the wood of proteinacious glue and ochre-containing iron oxide pigment. The top half of the drum has the pegs and no decoration, there is a raised ring with vertical lines carved around the middle of the circumference of the drum, and decoration below this raised ring consisting of carved notches, which divides the drum into three vertical sections and within those sections designs with rectangle or squares that are alternately blank or with carved vertical lines. The foot of the drum has no design.
Her dedication to Ghanaian culture stems in many ways from her own search for identity. “I grew up speaking Twi and English and German. I was never fully Ghanaian; I was never fully German; I was never fully English. When I was growing up in Germany, people would speak to me here first in English even though I speak fluent German—you have brown skin and therefore you don’t really belong,” she says. “Ghana is where I most obviously belong, and yet there is this amnesia of knowledge in that I can’t just go to the library and pick up a novel about Ghana in the same way I can pick up a novel of Russian 19th-century life with Tolstoy.” It is in and of itself a legacy of colonial oppression that so many of our cultural institutions do wrong by and in some cases ignore African history, and when pressed on the satisfaction she feels in devoting her own life in real time to Ghanaian culture, she gets sweetly misty. “All of us are longing to belong in some way, to someone else, to a group of people, to a story. It’s like there's a door, and I can’t get into whatever the room is. But if I get the key—my history, my past—and I can open that door, it won’t just be a room on the other side, but the whole world.”
Next year, Oforiatta Ayim will publish a novel, The God Child, with Bloomsbury that will fictionalize her own perspective on her country. After all, Oforiatta Ayim’s attempt to educate the world about African heritage has, in so many respects, schooled her even more. “When I go to the villages, there is such wisdom,” she says. “When I sit next to a grandmother in a village in Ghana somewhere, and she might be 100 years old, I’ll just feel that she has this incredible serenity. She’ll ask me my name, and I’ll tell her, and she’ll start telling me this poem about it, that my name means ‘a cool stone in a forest.’ As she tells me these stories, that sense of belonging, that sense of timelessness—it’s about being grounded and rooted, but also being totally free.”
The Mobile Museum team embarked on a “listening and learning tour" across the regions of Ghana exploring with participants from communities, and across generations how culture impacts their lives, and what kinds of access to, and infrastructure is needed in the country, which will be archived on the Cultural Encyclopedia website and ANO social media platforms.
A Nigerian family in Accra in the late 30s, (c) Deo Gratias / ANO
The Mobile Museum structure toured each region for two weeks. Each first week was dedicated to collecting and documenting materials, including objects, documents, photographs, oral histories, political histories, living spaces, typologies of space etc. Each second week was spent exhibiting those objects in the Mobile Museum with the discourse around certain issues in each area underpinned by engagement with artists from each area.