Curating Cultures:
Nana Oforiatta Ayim

Interview by Korantemaa Larbi
August 26, 2013 |Makers

Nana Oforiatta Ayim's current work within Ghana and Africa is pushing the boundaries that traditionally walled institutions in the form of museums represent. In a setting like Ghana where museums are not totally successful, the exhibition of art needs to take on a different form in a culture that is not museum-going. Most frequently what is classified as art in the western world are functional pieces within the Ghanaian culture. Nana identifies that in contemporary Ghana, art needs to go to the people and not the other way round. The transition to Ghana in 2012 for Nana is marked with a change of approach in exhibiting art. She is not against museums, being a person who once worked at the British Museum, but recognizes the important role of place and the need adapt to a context where 'art' is the lifestyle of the people. No one will every speak of you the way you want to be spoken of, or show you in the way that you want to be seen...That is not to say Africans can only represent Africans, or Europeans can only represent Europeans, but there needs to be a balance, and not the kind of cultural imperialism there was, which is now slowly dwindling.
In 2002, Nana set up ANO as a platform for creating synergies between different cultures and a medium for education and development. Since its formation, ANO has held exhibitions, events, workshops, films and publications across the world.

2012 was a big year for Nana Oforiatta Ayim. ANO moved from London to Accra, where its priorities have been to document, archive and connect, through Artists Residencies in which young artists are mentored through the early stages of their careers, film series and other large-scale projects such as the Cultural Encyclopedia (a 54-volume encyclopedia on the cultural productions of the continent). Ibrahim Mohammed became ANO's first Artist-in-Residence and his debut exhibition was held at the KNUST museum.
In the mid 1940's to the 1950's Ghana was in transition, heading into independence. James Barnor, a pioneering Ghanaian photographer, through street and studio photography, captured the period marked by tension and excitement in images. In 2007, Nana curated an exhibition of his works at the Black Cultural Archives in London. Nana's energy and passion for her work makes her always wanting to push the boundaries; following that exhibition, she is writing a book on the photographer as she felt the exhibitions would not suffice in documenting his works.



Design233: In Issue 15 of Kaleidoscope you mention the importance of moving exhibits out of the usual cultural institutions in the west to the heart of the underrepresented and misrepresented cultures where they are born (Please correct me if I have gotten this wrong). Should the dissemination of our culture be more for us as Ghanaians or Africans to help us establish our identity ourselves or is it more for the international community to change the misrepresentation?


Nana Oforiatta Ayim: Definitely our own work. Nobody will ever represent you the way you want to be represented. No one will every speak of you the way you want to be spoken of, or show you in the way that you want to be seen. Things go missing. Interpretations. Information. That is not to say Africans can only represent Africans, or Europeans can only represent Europeans, but there needs to be a balance, and not the kind of cultural imperialism there was, which is now slowly dwindling.


D233: You are increasingly doing more work on the African continent and currently part of the group putting together the Cultural Encyclopedia. What methods are you using to gather your data? Who are the sources of your information, regular people, children or authorities in these countries?


NOA: I am still in the process of setting up the team for the Cultural Encyclopedia. We try and gather what already exists from each country, mainly written material. There is a lot of informative, beautifully written material that exists, but has not been put together in a cohesive way that gives you an overview of cultural trajectories from past to present, so that is what we are aiming to do.


D233: How accessible is the information you are looking for?


NOA: We are at the beginning of the process, and are still finding what is accessible first, and subsequently digging deeper for things that might be harder to find.


D233: ANO was set up specifically for Ghana and recently held an exhibition at the KNUST museum featuring Ibrahim. In a culture that 'museum -going' is not part of the larger lifestyle, how are you infiltrating the Ghanaian and African consciousness with values of art and cultural appreciation?


NOA: ANO was set up not just for Ghana, though that is where it now has its home, and works out of. I think culture and society were very much entwined here in the past, then a separation happened, and now the challenge is how to let them inform each other again. With the artist Ibrahim, for example, he is doing installations or exhibitions in museums, but also in market places, under railway bridges. I am making a film on his work, whose outcome will be the engagement of a whole community. I am making short films on artists and their process that will be played like adverts on television, so that creativity and innovation become just as subliminal as materialism (hopefully more so). All the projects I am working on are dealing with this challenge of how to take culture out of the 'closed space' into the open. I am very excited about rethinking some of the methods of dissemination and interaction that already exist, as well the new possibilities, conversations and forms that are being created.


D233: Language plays an important role in culture. With a growing loss of our local dialects how do we adequately capture our culture?


NOA: I am not sure we really are losing our dialects. It is definitely much easier for me to get around here in Twi, than it is in English; and in Senegal, it was the same with Wolof, rather than French. Maybe it is that many of our books are written in English or French, or our films? I used to be more of a cultural purist, but I also believe in the relativity of language, and in the notion of working with what you have, rather than looking nostalgically backwards. There are people creating beautiful songs in Twi, as well as English. There are people mixing both languages into a kind of hyperlanguage. There is pidgin, and the opportunities that affords. I think it's good to look at where we are now, as a gain, a widening of options, and an opportunity to draw on all of these, rather than as a loss.


D233: How do we repackage our culture in a way that is accessible to every Ghanaian and helps us create an identity for ourselves?


NOA: I don't think there is one identity that we can have as Ghanaians. Of course there are generalizations that can be helpful (as well as limiting), but I think the richness will come in creating many stories and narratives, some of which we already have. Some of our forms of expression were silenced or muffled through the colonial project, but I think we're well out of that. The challenge now is to give as much weight, to our creative impulses, to the spaces within us, as to our material growth, to work on how we can use those spaces to grow from within, to benefit all those around us.


D233: Elaborate on your work on James Barnor and the book you are writing on him following the exhibition on his works in London?


NOA: I first came into contact with James Barnor in 2007, when the Black Cultural Archives wanted to interview an elderly Ghanaian and a younger Ghanaian as part of the 50th Independence celebrations. He had some images photocopied on sheets of paper and I was struck by their strength. I told him I would come and see his works and do an exhibition of his work. Not long after, I went to the old people's home where he stayed, and found boxes and boxes of photos and negatives that held in them the history of Ghana. I did an exhibition of his work in 2007 at the BCA, and then introduced him to Autograph so they could archive and digitalize his work. There were some complications with Autograph subsequently along the lines of cultural appropriation, as there sometimes still are when Europe and Africa meet, but the book is still in progress.


D233: What are you currently working on?

NOA: I am finishing a novel I have been working on for many years. I am making the film about Ibrahim; and a film about oil, culture and development in Ghana, Norway and Nigeria. And I am building ANO as a cultural platform, with all its different projects, as a place for synergies and growth.

D233: Where do you hope to be in the next five years?


NOA: Writing more books, making more films, building bridges; with a family, living in Ghana, ideally in the mountains, but also with a foot somewhere in the world outside.



Image Credits

Portraits of Nana by Mantse Aryeequaye,
Other Images by courtesy of Nana Oforiatta Ayim & ANO