Before his Venice Biennale project is revealed, he shares his inspirations
What narrative are you trying to tell with your design for Ghana's first pavilion at the Venice Biennale and the materials you are using? How does this engage with the curatorial vision and the work of the contributing artists?
The narrative of the pavilion is inspired by Ghana Freedom, the song composed by E.T. Mensah on the eve of the independence of the new nation in 1957. It examines the legacies and trajectories of that freedom by six artists, across three generations [El Anatsui, Ibrahim Mahama, Felicia Abban, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye; John Akomfrah and Selasi Awusi Sosu]. The commitment shown by the Ghanaian president in commissioning this pavilion is a testament to what the country has to offer the art community.
My practice’s inspiration is rooted both in Ghanaian culture and its diasporas, and has been drawn from the country’s classical structures. The pavilion reflects West African heritage and culture, specifically of the Northern Ghanaian Gurunsi or Grusi people. The Gur-speaking community are masters of ancient mural painting and architectural design – known for its sculptural qualities and geometric motifs – which continues to inspire art and design in the region today. Each artist will exhibit in elliptically shaped, interconnected spaces, plastered with locally sourced earth that echoes classical Gurunsi earth house structures from Northern Ghana and Burkino Faso.
Your design for the future National Cathedral of Ghana [on show at the Design Museum] is rooted in local craft traditions. Can you explain how?
In meditating on the commission for the cathedral, it dawned on me that this was an important opportunity to not just replicate a church as we’ve seen it from the West, but to acknowledge that African Christianity is unique. It’s a project that shows the confidence of Ghana at the beginning of the 21st century, to be in charge of its destiny and able to express an image of itself to the nation and to the world. That confidence should not be underplayed. The cathedral design uses several objects, motifs and symbols related to traditional Ghanaian culture.
Although the origins of stools, umbrellas, textiles and stamps can be traced back to early Ghanaian history, they are still part of contemporary life and commonly found in markets across the country. The shapes, materials and ideas related to these objects have been woven into the building. Many, such as the ceremonial umbrellas and traditional stools, symbolise how sacred objects are viewed and used in Ghanaian culture. An abstract form of the stool can be detected in the building’s silhouette, and their decorative carvings inspired the building’s facades, doors and walls. Similarly, the Adinkra symbols traditionally used in storytelling form the basis for the landscape design.
How does it feel to work on buildings that are so strongly connected to national identity?
When an architect is brought into the equation they are being asked to solve issues that are not easily understood in the binary sense and go beyond national identity. Architects are being asked to think about questions on historic conditions, understanding new environments, taking into consideration demographics, diasporas and multicultural agendas within nations, cities and states, right down to what the emotional impact of architecture is on an individual user.
As a whole, I am inspired by humanity in its biggest sense, by culture and the stories of people’s lives and what details make up places. Travelling as much I have has allowed me to explore and transcend the idea of one type of living, one type of architecture.
Your projects often incorporate ethnographic artefacts from across the African continent. How have these cultural references translated into spatial terms?
I’ve always been very interested in the accomplishments of past generations, learning from them, but moving forward. This idea of always looking back and understanding human settlements, human patterns, geography, place, light, and then understanding the nuances of the present, the production, the relationship and using them as clues to fabricate fictions about possible futures.
If you’re lucky, these are realised, and for me, that is the act and art of creativity.
"I am inspired by humanity in its biggest sense, by culture and the stories of people's lives"
How did you distil your influences from Africa into your design for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC, incorporating the historical context of the US?
The museum is truly so much bigger than a building. It is the culmination of a 100-year struggle to do justice to a complex and significant history of a people whose stories are still too rarely told. For me, the project was about uncovering history and trying to convey the contributions of a community whose importance to the social fabric of American life has too often been invisible. There is an immense responsibility inherent in this project. That was weighty and challenging, but also invigorating.
The new museum does not try to conform to the white stone and classical style of other buildings on the National Mall. Instead, the architecture proudly and confidently reflects the contents of the building. Its primary shape, or ‘corona’, draws heavily from the crowns associated with traditional West African Yoruba sculptures. Yoruba is one of Africa’s most recognised artistic traditions and is still influential in parts of Benin, Nigeria and Togo. Diverse Yoruba artefacts include staffs, masks, crowns and court dress, as well as ornately carved architectural elements such as gates, doors, columns and veranda posts.
The museum’s facade draws on two important strands of African history. Firstly, it honours the contribution of African American slaves to the ornate ironwork common in the southern states of the US – the majority of the ironwork in cities like New Orleans and Charleston was designed and produced by black slaves. Before slavery, West Africans in particular had developed significant ironworking skills. We isolated common patterns in this historical ironwork and used them to create a new geometry for the museum’s external skin. Secondly, the material and colour of these panels is influenced by metal plaques and sculptures in the Royal Palace of Benin in what is now Nigeria. As well as being decorative, the panels have a functional role. The density – or porosity – of the pattern changes across the building, effectively controlling the amount of light that enters.
What contemporary artists from Africa and beyond have made an indelible mark on your work?
Artists have been central in terms of my journey as a maker in the world. My first works were commissioned for artists [such as Chris Ofili]. They are critical thinkers who allow us to have a very important view about the world we live in and the reactions we have to it. I had the privilege of working with Okwui Enwezor, who was endlessly inspiring. His boundless energy, introspection and intellect was humbling. He and the sculptor El Anatsui have been hugely influential to my work and approach.