By Annie-Marie Akussah
In 2017, I was part of the team that curated Art Quest’s Artists’ Pavilion during the 57th Venice Biennale. During my time in Venice, I visited the ‘Green light’ public workshop conceived by Olafur Eliasson. Olafur described the workshop as ‘’an act of welcoming, addressed to both those who have fled hardship and instability in their home countries and to the residents of the cities receiving them’’.
I happened to be talking to a workshop participant who had fled from Nigeria to Italy. He told me about himself and his journey – I told him about mine too. While he was talking about his story across the Mediterranean Sea, I was really captivated by his crossing through other African nations to Libya, the first half of the journey before one faces larger waters.
Society’s paradigm of expatriates is often from the Middle East and Africa, yet the prevailing perspectives, ideologies and impressions of migratory movement within the world pay little attention to inter-African migratory movement. Too often, the ones making treacherous journeys to and within Africa are not documented within contemporary art practices.
The recent exposure of Sub-Saharan Africans being enslaved and sold in Libya mainly evoked conversations around the crossing of the Mediterranean Sea and racism. Rather, it should have also evoked conversations around borders, security and employment within African nations.
What does it mean to be an African refugee on a continent that has sought for the success of an African Union, Pan-Africanism and Gaddafi’s dream of a United States of Africa?
Within my paintings, I have a dialogue about inter-African migration today, in the early 1950’s (before Ghana’s independence from the British) and post-independence whilst exploring the spaces migrants are held in (immigration offices, detention centres, slave auction houses etc.) The passport or any travel document, is a tool of identification but also a constraint because the exclusivity of certain passports, citizenships and visa’s trigger alienation. The drastic innovation of passports to intensify security, surveillance, defence and its identification with nation states, commands the notion of identity and authenticity. I have this dialogue within my paintings by using stamps and pages within travel documents, modifying some of the information to play around the notion of authenticity.
In 2018, I was awarded a Mead fellowship to run a project titled ‘’The Uprooted, The Unrooted and Those Who Remain in Transit’’. It will be held in Fetentaa refugee camp in Ghana.
‘’The Uprooted, The Unrooted and Those Who Remain in Transit’’ is a project for those living away from home, the diaspora, those who straddle between two identities, like myself and those who are currently moving as we speak. It is a 7-day painting, collage, assemblage and found material workshop which invites Ivorian refugee to interact and excavate through travel, deportation and immigration documents from Ghana’s public archive.
It is an act of reflecting, making connections and finding sustainable methods of assimilation to the protracted refugee situation in Ghana. The use of archives will enable us to discover and discuss repetitive waves of movement of a particular group of people into another land.
For example, if we look at multiple deportation documents of South-Western Nigerians from Ghana in the late 60s, we are likely to discuss the 1969 Aliens compliance order implemented under the leadership of Kofi Busia. This allows us to interrogate a country’s history, past glories, ambitions – both achieved and unachieved for refugees in Africa. The vast majority of Ghanaians are aware of commerce, politics and different areas of activity between other African countries but are unaware the presence of refugees, the buildings, policies and environments that surround them.
I would like to leave the Fetentaa community and the government with a sense of duty to work towards finding a sustainable and economically suitable method of assimilation for the protracted refugee situation. Placing art in a marginalised society is not new to me but this time I hope to approach this workshop with a context relating to the participants as well as the sheer joy of making art.
Running the workshop will not only empower the participants and the community, but also the translators and myself. The exchange of words, time, knowledge and skill will be one of the many benefits of the project. Once I return to the UK, I will hold a symposium to have a discourse around the proper assimilation of refugees, art spaces being a sanctuary for immigration and the ontology of archives.
Images by Annie-Marie Akussah (from top): Kwantunyi, Spaces, Homegoing