Coal Market
Ibrahim MahamaCoal Market, château Strünkede, Herne, 2018.
Photo : Frank Vinken, courtesy of Ruhr Kunst Museum, Herne.

Jute, Entangled Labour, and Global Capital

Sarah Amarica
In recent years, Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama has gained international attention for his ongoing Occupations series (2012–), in which he swathes architectural landmarks in jute fabric. In the various iterations of the project, Mahama reconfigures old jute sacks, originally used to transport cocoa and coal in Ghana, into vast stitched-together coverings or tent-like structures that envelop public sites in a monumental fashion. The following inquiry into Mahama’s jute installations is, in many ways, a story of jute itself, and seeks to unearth the numerous processes of labour embedded in each part of the material and the artworks as a whole. Through the artist’s use of jute, the Occupations series raises critical questions surrounding the different kinds of industrialized labour made invisible under capitalism today.

For Out of Bounds (2015), Mahama’s contribution to the 56th Venice Biennale and one of his largest projects to date, he occupied a three-hundred-metre-long corridor with three thousand kilograms of jute fabric. Heavy panels of rough, tattered jute swallowed the space, and passers-by beneath it. Sometimes, clusters of trinkets and household materials — tags, braided rope, netting — were sewn into the fabric as evidence of how these bags were originally made, identified, and exchanged. Some panels were branded with their trademark place of origin or “Product of Ghana,” and others were stamped with sporadic dates or signifiers indicating past travels, former owners, and previous usages.

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This article also appears in the issue 94 - Labour
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