Institution-Building in the Global South: Ibrahim Mahama of Ghana’s Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art

For the annual Art in America Guide, published in print in January, the editors spoke to five directors of notable museums and institutions—Adriano Pedrosa of the Museu de Arte de São Paulo; Ibrahim Mahama of the Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art, Tamale, Ghana; Sharmini Pereira of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Sri Lanka; Hoor Al Qasimi of the Sharjah Art Foundation; and Roobina Karode of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi—about their work in and around the Global South.

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Opened in 2019 in Tamale, the capital city of Ghana’s northern region, the Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art (SCCA) is a multidisciplinary space founded by artist Ibrahim Mahama. With its sister institution, Red Clay—which also serves as Mahama’s studio—SCCA exhibits the work of Ghanaian artists, and facilitates research, workshops, meetings, performances, and publications. A.i.A. spoke with Mahama about turning once-remote visions into reality.

[As told to A.i.A.] The idea to build this space came to me in 2010, when I was at university in Kumasi. I was born in Tamale, and I always wanted to find a way to go back. I thought building a studio might influence a new generation of artists and thinkers. But I did not have the capital. I went back to school for my MFA and then, in 2014, took part in my first international exhibition, at Saatchi Gallery in London. With my proceeds from the show, I invested in Red Clay and SCCA.

I did not have a specific idea of what the institution should be; it’s purely experimental. Because we’re starting from … zero, we can do things most museums will not do. Sometimes we turn the space into a classroom. We invited Tracy Thompson, who makes artworks by cooking food, to turn it into a laboratory where she experimented with the help of students.

We want to exhibit artists who have practiced for several decades, but whose work is not very visible to the public. We work directly with artists—or the families of those already deceased—to organize shows and workshops. We’re currently planning to open a major retrospective of Professor [Yakubu Seidu] Peligah, a painter trained at the Kumasi School, who passed away recently. Our exhibitions go on for at least six months, so people from across the region can access them as much as possible. Many teachers are eager to bring students, even from faraway villages.

Ordinarily, no one would come to the north of Ghana for contemporary art—there was no foundation. The purpose of SCCA is to change that. Because the facility is a bit isolated, it allows a certain introspection. You have time to develop and produce work. For me, it’s important that more regional institutions are established, to allow artists to rethink their practices outside the big spaces of the capital. I am not interested in having an institution that just invites artists to make work. I’m interested in artists coming in and being influenced by the situation here to become different kinds of artists.

I recently bought some old train cars in the south of Ghana. The coaches are from the British colonial period, and I’ve been chasing them for years. I intend to use them now as classrooms, studios, and residency spaces, as I’ve already done with several airplanes. That way we can do long-term projects with kids from rural areas. I want to expand SCCA/Red Clay into an art school that encourages young artists to think beyond today’s dominant forms. There are brilliant curators, writers, and artists yet to be born. And it’s important that, when they are, the conditions for art are as wide-open as possible.

My philosophy is that if you’re from a place where things are not working, your best choice is to stay, contribute, and experiment. See what you can build; see if you can reshape the circumstances. If art is supposed to be about emancipation for all, why concentrate it in places that only a few elite people can access? If you want to test freedom, you should go to places where you think it might fail. The process may not succeed, but it could create a degree of liberation within. Failure is very important for me.

Banner images, left to right: exterior of the Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art, Tamale, Ghana; students at Red Clay 2022 [© Ernest Sarkitey]; Ibrahim Mahama [illustration by Denise Nestor]; students and visitors at the Kofi Dawson show “In Pursuit of something ‘Beautiful’, perhaps…” at SCCA; students at Red Clay.


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