Ibrahim Mahama Photo credit: Whiteworth Art Gallery
THE GROWING CANKER OF PLAGIARISM IN CONTEMPORARY AFRICAN ART – NO. 4
ARTIST OF FOCUS: IBRAHIM MAHAMA
BY RIKKI WEMEGA-KWAWU
It is the dream of every young African artist resident on the African continent to be discovered by the Mainstream Global Art World and have a major gallery representation in any of the art capitals of the world, London, Paris, New York, etc., just like the young, internationally renowned, maverick Ghanaian conceptual artist, Ibrahim Mahama. He has had a meteoric rise to fame and success since Okwui Enwezor (1963 – 2019), the venerable mega-curator of blessed memory, featured him in the 2015 Venice Biennale, dubbed, “All the Worlds Futures.” He was 27 at the time and was the youngest artist to have ever participated in the over-120 years of the Venice Biennale’s history. There has been no turning back for Ibrahim Mahama since. He has gone on to participate in Documenta 14 and had a successful reappearance at this year’s Venice Biennale, in Ghana’s first-ever pavilion, showing side-by-side with other global stalwarts and compatriots in the persons of El Anatsui, Lynette Yiadom Boakye and John Akomfrah. Ibrahim Mahama is currently represented by the White Cube Gallery in London.
I am proud that I was one of the first to have spotted Mahama’s fledgeling talent so early, and immediately confirmed the accolade, “Enfant Terrible of Ghanaian Contemporary Art,” on him. I used my Social Media wall to promote extensively his work, long before the global art spotlight picked him up. I instinctively knew right from the beginning that his work was destined for the world stage.
Just as I had so much faith in the potential of Mahama’s large-scale jute sheets fabricated from recycled cocoa bags he was draping on the façade of buildings, I knew right from the moment my eyes beheld another young Ghanaian artist, Peter Amoako’s old, discarded sewing machine installation at a solo exhibition he held in Takoradi in early 2017, that it was a masterpiece of an installation work and was certainly destined for the world stage.
Perhaps, I have the natural knack for spotting talents, or, should I say, good art. I personally took tons of photos of that installation (I will share some of the photos of this mesmerizing installation with you here). Amoako went on to have a couple of other shows, including performances with these sewing machines in other venues in Takoradi, outside the Takoradi Technical University campus, where the first exhibition was held. He always liberally splashed photos of his exhibitions on Facebook and other Social Media platforms to the admiration of his many fans.
In private conversations with Amoako whenever he visited me, he would outline his lofty vision for his sewing machine installation and other work projects yet to be unveiled, describe the many things he wanted to do with them. They were fascinating and laudable, and I always gave him all the thumbs-up to go ahead with them. Stressing to him that those ideas did not have to remain calcified in the head, but had to be vented out, I always urged him on to create.
My attention has recently been drawn to the latest exhibition by Ibrahim Mahama, “Living Grains,” which just opened a few weeks ago, specifically, on Friday, October 25, 2019, at the Guiliani Foundation in Rome, Italy. In this exhibition, among other items on display, Mahama has an installation of old sewing machines. I was shocked and appalled to see this. It is significant to note that Amoako and Mahama are Facebook friends. Certainly, Mahama was privy to the work Amoako was doing with the sewing machines. Mahama is active on Social Media and cannot pretend not to have ever seen or encountered images of Amoako’s work online. It would be disingenuous for him to decline knowledge of Amoako’s old, discarded sewing machines
It is utterly disgusting and disorienting, therefore, for Ibrahim Mahama, leveraging on the global clout he has, to hijack – Yes, HIJACK, I can’t think of any more appropriate a word for Mahama’s despicable action – Peter Amoako’s work with old sewing machines mid-stream and run to the bigger market with it, creating the impression it is an original work from him. It is absolutely not. It is clearly a plagiarized work of art and Mahama must be ashamed of himself. He did not have to stoop so low to take a relatively unknown artist’s work and go show it in Europe, proudly as his work. It is clearly not his work. This is unfair and smacks of a lack of integrity as an artist, utter greed and bankruptcy of ideas on the part of Mahama, I am afraid. It is unethical and immoral, what he has done.
Why did Mahama not allow Amoako’s work to fester, hopefully, to also be discovered by the mainstream art world, but greedily nipping it in the bud? Such dastardly, despicable acts of gross injustice of a privileged artist of global renown exploiting the work of a growing artist should not be countenanced one-bit by the art world, but be confronted squarely and condemned outright, irrespective of who is perpetrating the offence. A wrong is a wrong.
I do not care when Mahama started collecting old sewing machines. I reckon, however, the date on a poster of his show in Rome reads, 2014 – 2019, which presupposes, I guess, that his machines were collected between 2014 and 2019. Amoako’s maiden exhibition in Takoradi with the machines was in 2017. Given that, indeed, Mahama, was collecting these old sewing machines just about the same time that Amoako was, or, was perhaps even
collecting them long before Amoako, it is still untenable for him to go public with them, knowing very well that his global stature and eminence were going to totally eclipse Amoako’s humble efforts. A relative nonentity Amoako is, he, Mahama, obviously would be described as the originator of the sewing machine installation and Amoako, the copyist, if the latter is lucky to have his work also catch the attention of aficionados in the mainstream art world; while in reality, it is the other way around. Amoako’s work predates Mahama’s by, at least, two years, and it is important for this to be acknowledged globally. The world must know this.
Furthermore, I find it a little strange and amusing that Ibrahim Mahama’s Guiliani Foundation exhibition is captioned boldly with a time frame, 2014 – 2019, considering the fact that all previous exhibitions of his, which all displayed found objects, too, never stated or stressed for how long he had been collecting those objects or items in his exhibition announcements. Why is the paradigmatic time frame of such paramount material importance now, to warrant capturing banner headlines for his show? Does it not belie the artist’s previous knowledge of Amoako’s work, that he necessarily had to validate his own collection of old sewing machines, situating it within a certain time period, cognisant of the possible tongue-wagging and eyebrow-raising he knew his work was going to engender vis- à-vis Amoako’s old sewing machine installation? A time-frame, ingeniously derived, I surmise, with the earlier date preceding Amoako’s 2017 exhibition, naturally forecloses any adversarial contestation or challenges Mahama envisaged his old sewing machines may presage before Amoako’s; that, indeed, he was collecting the machines long before 2017, which was when Amoako out-doored his collection of old sewing machines. This time- framing in Mahama’s Rome exhibition announcement, 2014 – 2019, therefore, is pretentious and premeditated, aimed at slumping Amoako’s work. Ironically, however, having followed the genesis of Amoako’s work, I venture to say, he was collecting these old sewing machines long, long before even 2010. However, because of financial constraints in acquiring them, it took him a long while to be able to gather enough for his exhibition in 2017. He is still avidly collecting them for other future projects.
Sociological meanings Mahama may ascribe to his work, does not,
I reiterate, does not, also make it any different
a work from Amoako’s. Art
first and foremost,
a visual thing. What lingers in the memory of visitors to an art show are what they saw, not all the stories and meanings, etc., attributed to
the work on display. In this case, between Mahama and
Amoako, what visitors to their shows in Rome and Takoradi, respectively, would carry home are images of a
cluster of old sewing machines, not the meanings attached
to the installations. This is what makes Ibrahim Mahama’s work a plagiarized
art. We do not
have to mince any words in describing it
His action is dishonourable, exploitative and absolutely reprehensible.
I am grossly disappointed in Ibrahim Mahama, that he exercised no scruples but to stoop so low to take a friend and a colleague’s work, without the latter’s knowledge, and run to the big market with it. This unpalatable grave act of theft has left Amoako in a totally distraught state. No amount of explanation from Mahama, whether he was collecting the sewing machines long before Amoako, or what, would fly; it is untenable. He simply should not have done what he did. Amoako’s work prefigures his by far. Amoako’s work with the machines was just in its formative stages. Ibrahim Mahama should just have kept his hands completely off the sewing machines and allowed Amoako to develop his subject matter to the optimum, just as nobody contested, he Mahama when he started draping buildings with recycled cocoa sacks, which garnered him instant global attention. He cannot out of greed, want it all to himself. The old sewing machine, as a conceptual subject matter, is not a conventional, traditional medium for artistic expression, like oil and acrylic paint, for anybody to claim an inalienable right to. Amoako took precedence with his work with the sewing machines. It is an indisputable fact and it is well documented on Social Media – Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Any other person who comes after Amoako, using a collection of old sewing machines in an installation, must of necessity, acknowledge Amoako as the precursor or progenitor in the use of old sewing machines as an artistic medium. Failure to do this amounts to a gross act of plagiarism. Originality is the hallmark of any artistic endeavor. More so, in conceptual art, the novelty of the idea being expounded is on an equal footing with the novelty of the object, or, non-object, being used by the artist to carry his/ her message.
The Ghanaian art world is totally shocked and displeased with Mahama’s action against Amoako. There is a lot of backbiting, gossiping and deriding already going on. It is, however, not in the typical nature of the Ghanaian to tell you right in the face when you are wrong but would certainly be gossiping behind you. This pussy-footing and hypocrisy certainly does not augur well for the positive growth of our nascent art industry, which is completely bereft of any critical art discourse, let alone a rigorous one, hence, has inadvertently created a field-day for wanton and brazen plagiarizing of one another’s original creations. An open critique of an artist’s work could easily be misconstrued as an attempt to destroy the artist and his/her work, and you could be erroneously perceived an enemy by the artist in question and his/her supporters. This culture of silence, even in the face of a naked injustice of one artist against another, as in the case at hand, should be broken.
Ibrahim Mahama should do the most honourable thing befitting of the gentleman he is. I entreat him to withdraw the sewing machines from his exhibition in Rome and render an unqualified apology to Peter Amoako, affectionately called Amoako Gh by his friends. That would be a bold act of honor, and I expect nothing less than that. Mahama’s work is already in the international public domain and I had no option but make my piquant critique also a public document.
RIKKI WEMEGA-KWAWU is an internationally renowned Ghanaian Painter and Installation Artist. He also loves to write on art, engaging in social and philosophical discourse. He is an alumnus of the prestigious Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Maine, U.S.A. In 2008, he was an Adjunct Professor in Art at the New York University – Accra Campus, where he taught Post- Colonial Studio Practices. He lives and works in Takoradi, Ghana. This essay was written on November 18, 2019, at Effiakuma, Takoradi Ghana. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org