Curatorial Statement

TRANSFER(S) is a site-oriented research and exhibition project sited between Osnabrück (Germany) and Tamale (Ghana) which draws on a plurality of historical and contemporary flows, knots, and contentions between Central Europe and West Africa with Ibrahim Mahama’s art practice as its muse. The project is commissioned by the Kunsthalle Osnabrück on the occasion of its 30th anniversary to doubly respond to the legacy of the Westphalia Peace Treaty—signed in Osnabrück and Münster 375 years ago—and the history of textile production in Osnabrück. TRANSFER(S) taps into the complexities of these two beginning points and engages them as ciphers of encoded economic, aesthetic, and socio-political relations transcending oceans and borders on a planetary scale. In this scope, the project aims to come to terms with the centrist-hierarchical power dynamics latent in these relationships which have engendered domination and exploitation since feudalist and mercantile capitalist regimes into our present day, while also generating alternative, disjunctive, and emancipatory trajectories through Mahama’s artistic vision and other discursive positions in an extended programme in Ghana with collaborators including historians, academics, DJs, and performers.

Mahama’s ecology of artistic forms instantiates the jute sack wrappings as a single strand, albeit the most popular, in his oeuvre. The artist’s expanded social practice has over the years mobilised a collectivist critique of capitalist modernity and its implications on everyday life through traces of its labour relations, commercial, and distribution networks. His collaborative, participatory, and social engineering strategies act as artistic decoys out of which materialist critiques of late capitalism are realised (whether by insisting on the visibility of the labour forces implicated in his works, or negotiating to acquire land as a means of reverse gentrification, among others). Mahama’s vintage use of threadbare burlap sacks (conventionally made from jute, flax, or hemp) as allegories of global agro-commodity trade speaks to such committed and politically-engaged practice. The artist’s recent foray into institution-building concretises his affirmative politics where he creates inclusive spaces and places in an attempt to subvert the extractive and exploitative logic of “accumulation by dispossession” endemic to the commodification of art and daily life—in a word, restitute art into the cultural commons in his hometown, Tamale, however contradictory this might prove as he deftly navigates the art market system.

Osnabrück’s position in this project is relevant for two main reasons. In the first place, the city was, like Warendorf and Bielefeld, one of Westphalia’s major indigenous textile-producing cities with a cottage-industrial production of linen flourishing since the late medieval period. This high-quality linen, domestically produced in mills from the fibrous stalks of the home-grown flax plant, was Germany’s most important export commodity to the rest of Europe during the early modern maritime trade, in addition to the trade of metal ware and glassware. Eventually, influential local merchant families from Osnabrück begun to mass distribute the linen fabric (famously known as true born Osnabrughs) to other major European trading venues such as Càdiz, Nantes, and London via North German and Dutch port cities to the Hispano-American and Atlantic markets. According to German historian Klaus Weber, linen probably made up to 90% of the German-English trade by the end of the 17th century. The production of linen in Osnabrück had thus become entangled with the slave trade and plantation economy by means of powerful global flows of goods and capital making use of port cities in Bremen, Bordeaux, London, and Hamburg to reach the African markets. Invariably, linen had become a crucial commodity to the economy of the transatlantic slave trade both as a barter commodity for captives from Africa’s coastal regions and in making garments for the forced labourers (including the European “indentured servants” or “engagés”) working on plantations in the West Indies.

Secondly, TRANSFER(S) coincides with the jubilee year for Osnabrück as 2023 marks 375 years since the Peace of Westphalia was achieved in Europe. The Peace of Westphalia generally describes the entirety of peace treaties concluded between the Holy Roman Empire, Austria, Brandenburg, the Dutch Republic, France, the Papacy, Spain, and Sweden on German soil, in the town halls of Münster and Osnabrück in 1648. The Westphalian system effectively ended the era of sectarian warfare during the Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648) fought between feuding Catholic and Protestant estates within the Holy Roman Empire which developed to involve most of Europe. The standard Western discourse on the Peace Treaty is that the Westphalian system inaugurated the principle of religious freedom and tolerance in Europe after more than 100 years of conflict. The Treaty also governed the structure of power, establishing the sovereignty of its member states as it balanced power between the Holy Roman Emperor and the princes. Thirdly, it inaugurated international diplomacy as a means of conflict resolution rather than resorting to military force in the struggles for hegemony by European empires to achieve religious, political, and economic domination. In this regard, the Westphalian sovereign states system is relevant to this day in political science as a successful model in achieving political and economic stability in Europe while serving as a watershed moment in history by establishing the earliest foundations for a European community of states, hence legitimizing the formation of post-war supranational communities such as the United Nations and the European Union. However, the Dutch historian Prof. Dr. Beatrice de Graaf gives us a counter-position to this standard narrative when she intimates that: "While the successful negotiations of Osnabrück and Münster brought the long-awaited peace to the people of Europe, the now pacified states turned their gaze outward, [as they] expanded and founded colonies. […] Thus, it was not until the Peace of Westphalia in the 17th century that economic empires could emerge whose financial resources and technologies made possible the great expansionist moves of the Netherlands in the 17th century, England in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the German Empire in the late 19th century” (Deutscher Historikertag, 2018). This critical perspective opens up a gaping paradox in the consensus on the Peace Treaty and complicates the picture by surfacing the unbridled violence and traumatic realities visited upon non-Europeans as a consequence of the Westphalian system.

There are two broad components to this research and exhibition project. For the first part Mahama merges the forlorn sacks with strip-woven textiles specifically made by local artisans in the northern region of Ghana, as well as locally collected garments/smocks (also made in Ghana from strip-cloths, popularly referred to as ‘fugu’ or ‘batakari’), to create a monumental site-oriented installation which drapes the south-west, south-east, and north-east façades of the former Galeria Kaufhof in Osnabrück. The tilted mid-rise architecture of the Kaufhof was built in 1955 as Merkur department store on the site of Hotel Germania (known from E. M. Remarque's novel The Black Obelisk) which was destroyed during the Second World War. Tessellated with iconic “Horten tiles”, designed by the German modernist architect Helmut Hentrich, the former department store or “temple of consumption” (as described in a local newspaper) now stands as a shadow of what it used to signify. The derelict building currently stands in the city centre awaiting a new future as it will be converted by the Hamburg-based project developer Imvest Projektentwicklung GmbH and, as of 2025, will house a multifunctional complex for shops, offices, gastronomy, co-working spaces as well as the departments of Art/Art Education and Textile Design of the University of Osnabrück.

The second component of the project augments Mahama’s spatial intervention in Osnabrück with discursive, relational, and gestural forms programmed at the Savanna Centre for Contemporary Art (SCCA) Tamale in Ghana. SCCA Tamale is one of three institutions founded by Mahama in his hometown, with the other two being Red Clay and Nkrumah Voli-Ni. On the one hand, SCCA Tamale and its sister-institutions constitute a fragment of Mahama’s interventionist and counter-gentrification strategies launched as a response to the lack of hard or physical infrastructure needed to sustain art practice in Ghana. On the other hand, they also function as a complex hub of artist-run cultural spaces with facilities ranging from gallery, natural history museum, greenhouse, library, cinema, studios, and more. The institution is dedicated to hosting local and international events. At a later point in the year SCCA Tamale will serve as the discursive hub where the historical-political strands of the research premises are deciphered in a series of roundtables, seminars, exhibitions, performances, and presentations programmed to generate more perspectives with academics, curators, performers, historians, musicians, and artists.

Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh & Bettina Klein

Works Cited
Deutscher Historikertag. (2018). Retrieved July 2023, from 52. Deutscher Historikertag Münster
2018: schattenseiten.html