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EXHIBITION: TRACKING BACK THROUGH HISTORY WITH IBRAHIM MAHAMA

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Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama has launched “Parliament of Ghosts”, his first major exhibition in the UK, with the world première of his haunting new installation of the same name at the 2019 Manchester International Festival.

Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama has launched “Parliament of Ghosts”, his first major exhibition in the UK, with the world première of his haunting new installation of the same name at the 2019 Manchester International Festival.

The biennial season in northern England, which focuses on original work by rising contemporary painters, writers, sculptors and musicians, this year also features the German-Egyptian visual artist Susan Hefuna, the poet Stefan Sutcliffe and a host of others.

Railway development has been neglected for decades in Ghana and materials already in use have been left to fade away.

The rail system was built during British colonial rule and was due to be expanded after independence in 1957. Indeed, railway workers played an active part in the independence movement. But after a series of military coups, and as the country’s economy fluctuated, dreams of expanding the railway system faded.

Hundreds of hard, badly scratched second-class train seats were abandoned after the carriages were sold for scrap metal several years ago. There were no other plans to recycle them. Chancing upon them, the artist decided to make use of the train seats.

New life from old junk

Mahama has made his name on the international scene by collecting objects most people would dismiss as junk, and reinterpreting them, using them to tell a story.

The artist has now repurposed 120 of these abandoned seats, plus several dozen old lockers once used by railway workers, to create a four-sided imitation of Ghana’s Parliament chamber at the Whitworth gallery in Manchester. This is his Parliament of Ghosts.

Cabinet of memories

Parliament of Ghosts represents the “potential of a country that was yet to manifest itself, but never came to be, in a way”, Mahama says.

For him, the seats and other objects assembled in his central installation carry memories of everything Ghana has witnessed and been through. “They embody all of it,” he says.

The same goes for the lockers, “A lot of these cabinets were used to store workers’ clothes and tools and things. So, there’s a lot of grease from the restoration of trains and the dismantling.

“The cabinets almost become these living organisms that witness the entire life cycles of generations upon generations of how a certain system has somehow been maintained, but at the same time the flaws of it,” Mahama explains.

“I like to think they are living things that somehow can speak in a language that the workers themselves cannot.”

Parliament of Ghosts not only represents the flaws of Ghana’s government, but is meant to highlight the failures of parliaments around the world. “It is a question of what potential lies within the failures of the world,” the artist says.

Not forgetting Ghana

Mahama says there are more train seats in Ghana. He plans to create a much larger version of the parliament at the arts centre in his home town, Tamale, which he opened in March.

“When I propose a work, I always make sure I have one [of the same] maybe three or four times larger in Ghana, which we can somehow use to create permanent spaces for the local community to experience.

“I guess I’m quite tired of seeing how we as artists produce works which end up going to Europe and other places, whereas locally our own people don’t get to experience these ideas that we’re working with,” he says.

The train seats are actually thought to have been manufactured in Manchester or Leeds. Their provenance adds a circular element to the story, making the installation for the International Festival a kind of sankofa.

People are invited to visit Mahama’s parliamentary chamber and use it to host their own debates, performances and screenings.

* “Parliament of Ghosts” by Ibrahim Mahama is at the Whitworth, Oxford Road, Manchester M15, until September 29. The artist will be in conversation with Alistair Hudson (director of the Whitworth and Manchester Art Gallery) at the same venue on Thursday July 11
* The Manchester International Festival runs until July 21. Details: https://mif.co.uk