Parliament of Ghosts: Exhibition Review

‘Parliament of Ghosts’ by Ibrahim Mahama at Whitworth Art Gallery. Part of Manchester International Festival

I didn’t really know what to expect. Not only from ‘Parliament of Ghosts’ but of the Press launch at Manchester International Festival!

Yes that is right, I was mingling with the big boys at the MIF Visual Arts Press Launch day. It started at 10:30 at Whitworth for ‘Parliament of Ghosts’, where we were welcomed by MIF CEO John McGrath himself! We were introduced to the exhibition by Ibrahim Mahama too. We then boarding a swanky coach and headed to HOME mcr for David Lynch’s ‘My Head is Disconnected’ (review of that to follow soon) followed by a lovely buffet lunch. The day continued to Manchester Art Gallery, drinks at Hotel Indigo and ended at Yoko Ono ‘Bells for Peace’. Man, it was a long but amazing day!

Back to where is started, ‘Parliament of Ghosts’. The sheer size of the installation is awe-inspiring. The overall space is set up like The Houses of Parliament – rows of seating looking at each other, looming over you, awaiting a speaker. Yet, this parliament is created from memories, history, ghosts if you will. These are the themes of the exhibition, which explores ‘the histories and memories of a country [Ghana] and its people asserting their independence.’

Ibrahim Mahama asks us to look into what the word ‘ghosts’ can mean. Not only death (obvious) but the idea of reincarnation, an afterlife, another being, another form, not forgotten or disappeared. All these ideas of ghosts are there in this exhibition. The parliament structure is created from materials gathered from Ghana over several years, including old train parts from the disused rail service in Accra, Ghana. The gallery smells old too, that rich, wooden smell fills the room. There are old chairs, rusty cabinets, metal wires and wood all create this historical structure. It is believed that these chairs were actually made in Manchester, and this exhibition is like a full-circle, linking the materials back to where they were created. Mahama is interested in history, and the failures of history. The disused rail service is a ‘failure of history’ and so Mahama gives it a new purpose. A ghost of what it once was.

The exhibition also houses a video piece in a huge silo (a storage container). True to Mahama’s style, after political changes in Ghana in the 1960s, these containers were no longer used. Yet Mahama see’s these objects has historical moments, giving them a new life, a new use. This hexagonal silo is the home to a multi-screen installation, showing videos of people labouring away, salvaging components, creating new things – all linking back to the themes of ‘Parliament of Ghosts.’

For me, I struggled a little to have any kind of personal connection with the work. History has never been my thing, neither has politics, so it was difficult for me to fully immerse myself in this exhibition. That was until I entered an adjoining room that was full of colour. This part was named ‘Paintings’ however, it was more textile and photography than actual paint. These humongous collages of wax prints fill the room. They embody the colours and patterns that are so easily associated with African countries. Tribal patterns, bright prints and natural forms fill the walls of the gallery. The fabrics carry a dense history, taken from ‘women’s clothes, bags and baby carriers’, there is also funeral cloth and fabrics that have been passed down generations.

This part of the exhibition feels like it focuses more on identity. Alongside the fabrics and the links to family and culture, there is also a photography series. In this series, Ibrahim Mahama photographs the tattooed arms of people he has collaborated with. The tattoos, quite shockingly, aren’t their for decoration, instead the tattoos state their name, relatives names and birth places. They are there in case ‘they are hurt or killed in the many accidents on the roads or at work.’ Very emotive.

It was such a privilege to be at the exhibition launch and to hear the words of the curator Dominique Heyse-Moore, and from Ibrahim Mahama himself! And although I may not have had a personal connection with the art, it is one of those exhibitions where you appreciate all the work and effort that has gone into creating it. The sheer size of the installations is impressive, the meanings and themes are emotive, and the work is in-line with the all the other amazing art and events on at Manchester International Festival.

‘Parliament of Ghosts’ is commissioned for Manchester International Festival (4th – 21st July) and is on at Whitworth Art Gallery from 5th July – 29th September.

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