ANN ARBOR – If you’ve driven by the University of Michigan Museum of Art over the past week, you may have noticed that the building has undergone a complete transformation.
As part of an installation by artist-in-residence and Ghana native Ibrahim Mahama, the museum is covered in 4,452 square feet of jute sacks which were stitched together by staff at U-M’s Institute for the Humanities over the past month.
Known for striking architectural interventions, this is Mahama’s first outdoor exhibition in the United States -- and it’s also the first exhibition he didn’t install or see in person.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Mahama directed the entire project remotely from his home in Ghana via Zoom with U-M staff. He’s also been teaching virtually and participating in virtual events as part of his residency at the university.
Mahama visited Ann Arbor in 2019 as a Penny Stamps Speaker Series presenter. At the time, Amanda Krugliak, the curator and director of the U-M Institute for the Humanities Gallery, began planning his exhibition. The pandemic and subsequent stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions changed their plans dramatically.
“When plans shifted in March, we did not know if he’d be able to be here, so this entire project has involved a great deal of trust from the artist, and we’re grateful that he’s worked with all of us to make this happen,” Krugliak said in a statement. "It is really significant that we are doing this in this moment when everything seems impossible—and when we’re going through a series of crises.
“I believe that this piece in particular acknowledges this in a very public way that the institute, museum and university are committed to racial equity and the value of labor and what can be accomplished together, even with our challenges.”
Mahama repurposes materials for his public art displays, which explore themes of migration, globalization, commodity and economic exchange.
The exhibition at UMMA, titled “In-Between the World and Dreams,” is a reference to the trade markets of Ghana with the use of jute sacks as a raw material.
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The sacks were shipped to Ann Arbor from Los Angeles, New York and Venice, Italy.
Mahama said he believes art education and cultural opportunities "allow for people to find new ways to acquire knowledge, not only of themselves, but their histories and the places and spaces in which they find themselves.”
According to a press release about the exhibition, the jute sacks are “meant to contrast with the monumentality of the institutional buildings and spaces they cover, becoming remnants and traces that reference the hands of laborers, the imprints of colonialism and the interference of Britain and the U.S. in Ghanaian history.”
Laura De Becker, the interim chief curator at UMMA, said his work aligns with other initiatives underway at the museum.
“The timing is significant—in the next year we are doubling the space dedicated to African art in our permanent galleries and engaging in a variety of projects that highlight contemporary artists from Africa and its diaspora,” she said in a statement. “Mahama’s installation, for UMMA, is both a prompt and a promise: We want to be transparent about histories of colonialist collecting practices and critical towards what stories we tell about our works of art and why.”
Krugliak echoed De Becker, saying how timely Mahama’s installation is.
“In this pivotal year defined by COVID-19, worldwide protests in support of Black Lives Matter, climate change and our U.S. presidential election in the balance, Ibrahim Mahama’s work offers a visual opportunity to witness and reflect—it is both personal and universal, global and close to home,” Krugliak said in a statement.
“The work exemplifies our deep connections and responsibilities to one another, interwoven, and the potential for empowerment through the arts," she continued. "It acknowledges troubling past histories while, at the same time, offering hopefulness towards building new futures together.”
The installation will run through Oct. 23.
Mahama has another installation running alongside “In-Between the World and Dreams” at the Institute for the Humanities Gallery at 202 S. Thayer St. The viewing is from the gallery window only.
The U-M Museum of Art is at 525 S. State St.
On Oct. 23, Mahama will participate in a virtual discussion with Krugliak and others as a speaker in this year’s Penny Stamps Speaker Series presented in partnership with Detroit Public TV and PBS Books.