Cultural Historian, Writer & Filmmaker

  • Interview By Korantemaa Larbi

  • August 23, 2013
  • |Makers

The work of Ghanaian writer, filmmaker and historian, Nana Oforiatta Ayim, explores ideas of narratives and identity through the different media of film, literature and exhibitions. In her documentaries and writings, her prose-like commentaries take you on a journey of self-discovery, revealing a side of the African continent previously undocumented, stories of Africans by Africans. For Nana, her motivation for moving from the world of curating art to writing about the African continent, her birth soil, comes from a deep-seated desire to empower people through education. Growing up in Ghana and abroad, she always noted a gap in the stories about Africa that comes from the undocumented histories of the continent her own people. Her interest is in unearthing untold stories and staging platforms of cultural exchange and theorizing about art from Africa within Africa.

I wouldn’t presume to be telling the stories of all Ghanaians, but I would like to tell some of the stories that I hear and see and feel that haven’t been told, and add to the kaleidoscope of representations

Nanan Oforiatta Ayim (August, 2013)

Nana Oforiatta Ayim has curated events and exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Royal Festival Hall and KNUST Museum and presented her work at lectures in the Universities of Oxford, London and Cambridge. Her writings have been published in National Geographic, The Dubliner, Arise and Kaleidoscope, and she has made contributions to books like David Adjaye’s African Metropolitan Architecture. Her documentaries and films have been shown widely. In 2012, Nana Oforiatta Ayim’s first fictional movie, made in collaboration with Wu Tsang, Tied and True, which was granted the 2012 Panavision Filmmaker’s Award, premiered at the Frieze London festival.

Design233: Where did you grow up?

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: I grew up with both parents in Germany. I was then sent to school by myself in England, and my mother moved to Ghana when I was a teenager, so that become home, even though I was still at school.

D233: Where did you have your education and what was your education like?

NOA: My education was mostly in Germany and England. It was constrictive and liberating at the same time. Constrictive, in that many of my teachers wanted us to learn by rote and, it seemed, tried to quash any true expression of ourselves, so that we might fit into society. On the other hand, I had one or two teachers, who inspired us to go beyond ourselves. And there was the incredible joy of learning and discovery itself, so much so that I kept extending the education process.

D233: How did the places you lived and grew up in impact your life and career choice?

NOA: Very much so, in that I grew up in between cultures. I never fully belonged to one culture, and so was interested in the gaps in between in which you were indefinable, but could see clearly the stories that cultures told themselves about themselves; and also the disjunctures between what people said about different places, and the realities of them. How even though places were each different in their own way that in many, in the most fundamental, ways, they were really very much the same.

D233: What is the most significant event in your life that inspired you to become a cultural historian?

NOA: I’m not sure there’s a single event, it’s been more of a journey.

D233: Who are your mentors?

NOA: I have mentors that I have met or have been part of my life, some only very briefly, my tutor for my History of Art MA, John Picton, who showed a dedication to his students’ minds, I’d never experienced before, and Professor J.H. Nketia, who shepherded me at Legon University when I was doing field research, and who in his eighties remains utterly engaged, passionate, and inspiring. Chris Marker, for whom I translated a film, and who is one of my filmic godfathers. John Berger, who I’m soon to send my finished book to, and who reminds me what it’s all about every time I pick up one of his books. Ayi Kwei Armah, whose wisdom and erudition I strive towards. Susan Sontag, who I met briefly, and who awed me into silence, but whose writing gives me voice. And mentors I’ve never met, that still guide me, Plato, Tolstoy, Dambudzo Marechera, Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Deren, and many others.

D233: How right would we be to classify you as a contemporary Ghanaian artist?

NOA: People are always asking me whether I’m an artist. I’m reluctant to take on another moniker, I already have a triple one, and I think I prefer to be described by what I do; write; make films; uncover cultures with their contexts, connections and trajectories; but I do shows in exhibition and museum spaces, and the word artist does encompass many different creative endeavors, so maybe it’s a shortcut?

D233: Is your thesis on contemporary Ghanaian art playing a role in your current productions?

NOA: Yes, I first learnt about some of the artists (like Owusu Ankomah, Ablade Glover, Kofi Setordji, Wiz, Nii Obodai Provencal) that I still hope to collaborate with in some way today whilst researching for my thesis, and also of the links and trajectories between historical and contemporary; so it gave it all a foundation and a starting point.

D233: Watching your films Crossover, Tied and True, Nowhere Else but Here, there is rich overlay of poetry in your scripts, blending artistically with you sounds and imagery. Your writings are similarly intertwined with poetry. How has this style of writing and filmmaking made your work distinctive as a contemporary art?

NOA: That’s for others to say, I think. There are a lot of elements I try and bring together in my work, in terms of rhythms and layers, which are informed by everything from the Ayan of Akyem Abuakwa, to Plato’s dialectics, to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films.

D233: Where does your work fall within contemporary Ghanaian art?

NOA: I think this is also for others to say, for someone looking from the outside in. There is definitely a generation, which is coming up now that is synthesizing many different elements into their work in particular ways, but I’m not sure how neatly my work falls in with others, though there are definitely synergies and conversations between our works.

D233: You use different media for your work- film, writings and exhibitions. How do you select your medium of narration and which medium has been the most successful for you?

NOA: I think the medium in a way selects itself. There are some stories that can only be told through film, and some only through the process of writing, others need the open and experimental space of the exhibition. I am happy I can work within all three. All three require very different processes, and I think success is defined by the process and by how well I journey from idea to execution.

D233: Who are the subjects of your work? I am using work to describe what you do because you explore different media in your productions.

NOA: The subjects differ with each work. I don’t know if I could describe them in one all-encompassing term, or even in a few words.

D233: Who are your audience?

NOA: I don’t know. Hopefully people from all over the world and of all different backgrounds. Hopefully people of all ages.

D233: What role is your work playing in filling the ‘holes’ in our stories as Ghanaians, looking at how we have not taken full advantage of the ‘printing press, periodicals and encyclopedias’?

NOA: I wouldn’t presume to be telling the stories of all Ghanaians, but I would like to tell some of the stories that I hear and see and feel that haven’t been told, and add to the kaleidoscope of representations.

D233: Your PhD was in Ayan or drum poetics as an indigenous philosophical, aesthetic and analytical tool. Poetry as you know it is verbal so how is drumming, which is musical, poetic? What is the Ayan or drum poetry?

NOA: The Ayan is a language spoken on the drum. Twi is a tonal language, so two drums, one male, one female, follow the tone patterns of language, and thereby create a new language, told by the drum. The poetry told on the drums is different to that spoken by the tongue. It is mysterious, elliptical, philosophical.

D233: Drumming was used in the olden days in different forms of communication and entertainment. How relevant is drumming to the Ghanaian culture currently? Does it hold the same importance or it is just an accessory in contemporary Ghanaian music? Is drumming specific to certain cultures in Ghana?

NOA: I don’t think it is used in the same way. It was used as a form of communication and announcement before writing was introduced. It was used as a form of passing down history before more ‘formal’ education. Cultures change, and so has the significance of drumming, but I think what it brought to the cultures that it was, and continues to some degree to be, a part of, can be carried on in different forms and built on. It is what I try and do in my own work.


Jute, 2013
Nowhere Else But Here, 2012
The Tightrope Walker, 2012
A Shred of Identity, 2009
CrossOver, 2006

Selected Writings:

‘A Cultural Encyclopaedia’, Kaleidoscope Magazine, Milan, 2012
‘The Twilight Zone of Literature’, LIT Verlag, Berlin, 2012
‘The Drum Poetics of Saadane Afif’, Museum der Modernen Kunst, Frankfurt, 2012
‘The Tightrope Walker’, NGBK, Berlin, 2012
‘Here Be Lions’, Petunia, Paris, 2011
‘Speak Now’, Frieze Magazine, London, 2011
‘African Metropolitan Architecture’, Thames and Hudson, London, 2011
‘Visionary Africa, Art at Work’, Bozar Books, Brussels, 2011
‘James Barnor’, Dust Magazine, Accra, 2011
‘Geo-Graphics: A Map of Art Practices in Africa, Past and Present’, Silvana, Brussels, 2010
‘The Tightrope Walker’, ANO, London, 2010
‘Double Exposure’, Arise Magazine, Lagos, 2010
‘Revealing the Secrets of the Ayan’, CRASSH, Cambridge, 2009
‘Film in Accra’ and ‘The Arts in Accra’, Time Out, Accra, 2009
‘Opening Words: New Poems’, Spread The Word, London, 2008
‘African Mythologies’ National Geographic, 2008
‘African Philosophy – Does it Exist?’ The Dubliner, Dublin, 2007
‘Living History’, The Statesman, Accra, 2006
‘The Spirit of Creativity’, The Statesman, Accra, 2006
‘Some Of Us Look At The Stars’, The Statesman, Accra, 2006
‘Ghana, The Way Forward’, The Statesman, Accra, 2006
‘Les Statues Meurent Aussi’, Translation of Chris Marker and Alain Resnais’ film on African art, Institut Francais, London, 2005


My work: The Sea The Sea, LIAF, Lofoten Norway, 2013
This is (R)evolution, Stavanger Kunstforening, Stavanger, 2012
Nothing Is Forgotten, Some Things Considered, UKS, Oslo, 2012
Material Information, West Norway Museum, Bergen, 2012
The Ungovernables – New Museum Triennial, New Museum, New York, 2012
In Other Words: The Black Market of Translations – Negotiating Contemporary Cultures, NGBK, Berlin, 2012
Festivela, Vela Art Gallery, London, 2011
AFRICA.Dot.COM: From Drums to Digital, Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco, 2008

Curated Exhibitions and Events:
Ibrahim, KNUST Museum, Kumasi, 2013
Nigerians Behind the Lens, Bonhams, London, 2011
James Barnor, Independence Diaries, Black Cultural Archives, London, 2007
Living History, British Council, Accra, 2006
The Word and Afrofuturism, Royal Festival Hall, London, 2005
Fashion in Motion Africa, Victoria & Albert Museum, London,
The Healers, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London, 2005
Associate Coordinator of Africa 2005, The British Museum, London, 2003 – 2004
One, Liverpool Biennial, Liverpool, 2002

Awards and Residencies:
Writer’s Residency, Villa Karo, Grand Popo, Benin, 2013
Panavision Filmmaker’s Award, for Tied and True, with Wu Tsang, 2012
Writer’s Residency, Lukkeskåra/Rådlausjuvet, Suldal, Norway, 2012
Writer’s Residency, Hordaland Art Centre, Bergen, Norway, 2012
Writer’s Residency, Raw Material Company, Dakar, Senegal, 2012
Writer’s Residency, Zoma Contemporary Arts Centre, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2011
Choreodrome, The Place, London, 2011
Writer’s Residency, Triangle Arts, Marseille, 2010
Arts and Humanities Research Council Doctoral Award, 2004-2007
African Documentary and Non-fiction Prize, Festival Cinema Africano, Milan, In Competition, for CrossOver 2006
Music and Performance Prize at the RAI Ethnographic Film Festival, In Competition, for CrossOver, 2006

Image Credits

Portraits Of Nana By Mantse Aryeequaye,
Other Images B Courtesy Of Nana Oforiatta Ayim & ANO

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