Contemporary art in Ghana is gradually becoming a platform for public statements. More artists are using their art to address issues complicating their social environments. The conventional technique of brush and acrylic paint is being redefined as a new school of artists are now challenging themselves by mixing paint with materials regularly found in their surroundings. Contemporary artists like Serge Attukwei Clottey, Fatric Bewong, Ibrahim Mahama, Adwoa Amoah, Bernard Akoi-Jackson and Kwesi Ohene-Ayeh are using local materials like Jerry cans, jute sacks, rubber, fishnets and multi-colored fabrics to make socio-economic and political critiques with their art. Another Ghanaian artist who follows this path is Baba Musah Swallah.
In 2012, Musah Swallah drew a lot of attention when he hosted a debut solo exhibition at the Goethe Institut. The exhibition presented a narrative on issues of migration encountered by young Ghanaians trekking to western countries. The exhibition highlighted the dangers African migrants face through the Sahara desert en route to Europe. According to Musah, the Migration project was important because it shed light on a very personal story – two friends who died in the desert in hopes of reaching greener pastures.
“The Migration problem is very serious for me,” details Musah. “In my area [Nima], young people are always taking these dangerous journeys. Some of them make it to Europe and others die in the desert. I once thought of joining some friends to also travel through the desert. But after two of my friends died trying to cross the desert, I changed my mind.”
The Sahara desert trek to better life recognizes few victors. Despite this haunting reality, thousands of Africans continue to make the journey each year. According to a 2014 Reuters report, nearly 34,800 Africans attempted to cross the desert from North Africa to Europe in 2014 and in 2013, 43,000 people took the long walk. Musa shares about the exhibition paintings, “With the Migration project, I tell young people about the dangers involved in embarking on these journeys.”
In the early days, Musah faced real resistance from his parents and Islamic community leaders in Nima. His parents didn’t support his artistry because they believed art was against the teachings of Islam. “My parents and even some Islamic scholars didn’t like the idea of me becoming an artist because they thought art was unsuitable to the doctrines of Islam,” say Musah.
But Musah didn’t let this get in the way of his desire to create art. A few years ago, he and a group of painters and graffiti artists from Nima formed a collective, Nima Muhinmanchi Art (NMA). The group provides youth in Nima with mentorship and skills workshops and the chance to create intricate mural projects across the city. “I and some other artists from Nima formed Nima Muhinmanchi Art to help train young talented artists who have no support. It’s also for kids who are not in school,” Musah explains. “The organization is our way of contributing to our community and making Nima a better place for kids with talent like us. We are the message that art is good for the development of the community.”
The youth who form part of NMA get a rare opportunity not afforded to many young folks in the country – regular events to showcase their artwork at various venues for different audiences around the city and country. Exhibitions also happen on the regular in Nima and NMA have been active participants in every edition of the CHALE WOTE Street Art Festival. Musah muses, “CHALE WOTE and Sabolai Radio [Music Festival] are some of the biggest exposures for NMA artistes.”
Nima, a community where some key leaders once exhibited an opposition against art is now one of the few places in Accra where walls are spread with colorful art murals. It’s a growing visual art hub with painters, photographers, graffiti artists and cinematographers seductively shifting how art is consumed in the country with works by Musah, Larry Otoo, Abass Ismail, Hamza, Ali and Moh Fsc Awudu carrying weight.
This development has been the motivation behind Musah’s ongoing exhibition. My Hood reintroduces Nima to the world. The residence has long battled a city reputation of being a tough place with vibrant criminal elements. As one of the largest Muslim communities outside of northern Ghana, Nima also straddles the north of the city, bustling with bright designs and cool energy, and smelling of spices, incense, and kelewele (spicy, sweet fried plantains). Here’s a place where you can find every thing you need. For instance, the Hausa koko (spicy millet porridge) and kosé (mashed beans, vegetables and spices fried in hot oil) is legendary. Musah says, “This is my way to tell the world what the real Nima is. To let people know that Nima is not what some people, who have never been there, say it is. Nima is a nice place and this art works tells it better.”
My Hood is a collection of memories and stories about childhood, faith, marriage, motherhood, migration experiences and everyday life in Nima. The carved wood pieces hang on the white walls of the hall. Musah developed these canvases after seeing how the fishermen in James Town design their boats with bright paint and fabric. Musah states, “I think the materials and the exhibition represent the aesthetics of modern African art. I say this because the materials I used are visible in our daily lives. The topics for the art works are relatable to every Ghanaian community.”
The artist exhibited similar works in Cote D’Ivoire in 2014 and he’s currently planning for an art show in Kenya among other East African countries. One of Musah’s next projects will examine the current challenges affecting most Ghanaians, namely the ongoing energy crisis, the rapid depreciation of the Ghanaian currency [cedi] and higher taxes.
With more African artists exhibiting across the continent, Europe and South America, Musah believes he’s on track for some solid moves this year.