Letter from Elsewhere: Ghana

The House of Tomorrow

Osu House, the ANO Institute of Arts and Knowledge headquarters, Accra, Ghana. Photos: NLC Ghana

When I came back to Ghana ten years ago, my plan was to create an arts institution in the mountains of the rainforest where I am from. My mother had passed away a few years earlier and left her house in the hills to be inherited by the women in the family, as is the norm among the matrilineal Akan from which I stem. I sat on the porch of this house as a child, listening to the old women who chatted outside while my mother cooked, telling stories of the forests, of our histories. It was after these same women I would later name my organisation: ANO or “3no”, which means grandmother in our language. It was here that my uncle taught me the Ayan, the language of the sacred drum. And it was here that my grandfather planted the palm trees that stood tall on either side of the main road that traversed the town. Here, where my roots stretched hundreds of years down into the earth, was where I planned to start a cultural space that would spring branches and blossoms from those roots, stretching out far into the world. 

My dream did eventually come to fruition, but not in this place, and not in the form I had imagined at the outset. For despite the matrilineal tradition of the Akan of Ghana, with power and property passing through the line of women, its structures are overwhelmingly patriarchal. An older male relative informed me I could not fulfil the plans I had discussed with my mother; instead he was going to convert the house according to his own ideas. I did not know it then, but this was the beginning of my ten-year struggle to assert ANO as a space inspired by the wisdom of women, within structures infused by the immutability of men.

I had started ANO back in 2002, at the Liverpool Biennale. The title of the exhibition, One, reflected the way I’d experienced art and culture from childhood: not as something concealed in specially walled-off spaces, but immersive, dynamic, and intrinsically part of life. The architecture and design of One was inspired by classical Asante courtyard houses, ten of which, made of timber, bamboo and earth, still exist in the Asante kingdom, but most were destroyed by the colonial violence of the British. I included paintings, films, sculptures, fashion and music by artists including El Anatsui, Owusu-Ankomah and Marigold Akufo-Addo, and curated them to feel like a proper home, rather than an exhibit in a museum. 

That theme of interdependence has continued like a thread through every exhibition I’ve curated in the twenty years since. It culminated in 2019 in a collaboration with the architect David Adjaye, for Ghana’s first pavilion at the Venice Biennale. 

Osu House, the ANO Institute of Arts and Knowledge headquarters, Accra, Ghana. Photos: NLC Ghana
Osu House, the ANO Institute of Arts and Knowledge headquarters, Accra, Ghana. Photos: NLC Ghana
Osu House, the ANO Institute of Arts and Knowledge headquarters, Accra, Ghana. Photos: NLC Ghana

When I got back to Ghana ten years ago, the country’s arts organisations had long been spread out and fragmented, with little exchange or communication between them. Collective formed, inaugurating a festival known as Chale Wote. This launched on the streets of Jamestown, a raw neighbourhood on the seafront that combines fishing and intense commerce. Chale Wote harnessed the energy of our classical festivals, brought the local and international, traditional and contemporary together, and created something new and altogether exciting. Slowly but surely, each of us got drawn into its orbit, until by 2015 everyone in the arts across Ghana, as well as many from across the continent and diaspora was involved. 

That year, the festival’s theme was African Electronics, which looked at using indigenous, esoteric knowledge to create the impossible: an imagined world in which we ourselves were technology, in full control of our systems and data, as well as our histories, realities, and dreams.

It was also the year I first showed my idea for a Living Museum – not a large, monolithic structure, but a kiosk accessible to all. Its success led to the creation of a Mobile Museum, a modular structure that travels into communities across Ghana. 

For a brief euphoric moment, it felt like we were harnessing the energy of African Electronics into something truly intergalactic. We were collectively starting a movement unlike anything the world had seen before. But sadly it didn’t last. Business interests were quick to spot an opportunity and were already swooping in. I was asked to set up a gallery in a new hotel, and though I was reluctant at first, there was no money in the arts, I helped establish Gallery 1957. That success unwittingly helped usher in the kind of superficial commercialism that to this day flattens any real creativity or innovation in towns and cities across the world. I realised what was happening, though in slow motion, but had no power to stop it. And I understood that the brief, thrilling moment of raw possibility when we all came together was already over. Something approximate to our original concept, but not the real thing, had taken its place. 

So I turned my attention back to the Mobile Museum and it was there, in a space of listening, exchanging and learning, as well as co-curating, that I uncovered the connection and integrity I’d found missing in the white-cube spaces of conventional museums. Each encounter I had, with farmers, teachers and knowledge keepers, and many others, led back to our original idea of interdependence, encapsulated in our traditional knowledge systems. I realised it wasn’t enough just to occupy art spaces: the spaces themselves had to open out. 

With the proceeds of several book advances I bought land in Accra and in the hills outside – not quite the rainforest, but populated by villages and others trying in some way to connect back to the land. In my curatorial practice I had always worked with architecture inspired by local, sustainable methodologies, and now we used raffia palm, bamboo, earth and wood to create spaces for the arts, farming, research, and education. The idea was that in these structures our indigenous knowledge and technologies would be given room to assert and manifest themselves again. 

It wasn’t where or how I had originally imagined it ten years earlier, closer to home, but it was something new, born of experience. After a decade of trying to create what we wanted within a confined, masculine space, it felt like we were returning to the unifying ideals of ANO’s beginnings. 

When the scholar Bénédicte Savoy came to visit last month, having herself opened a new chapter in our global narrative, she said it felt like home as soon as she entered. She told us we were creating new models of the future in Ghana, and that this, the new ANO space, felt like the House of Tomorrow. Afterwards, I reflected that, however hard and circular the journey had been, this perhaps was the destination all along.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim is a Writer, Filmmaker, and Art Historian and Founder of the ANO Institute of Arts and Knowledge, who lives and works in Accra, Ghana

Life

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