Interview with MIASA Artist in residence Seyram Agbleze

Hello Seyram Agbleze. In 2023, you spent three months as an Artist in residence at MIASA. What was your project about?

MIASA CC-BY-4.0: Seyram Agbleze at the MIASA internal seminar, 15 June 2023

Seyram Agbleze: My project has a woven art and a film component. The woven art is inspired by the Ghanaian tradition of Asafo flags. I use locally woven fabrics, on which I stitch unicolour textiles as a collage. Each “flag” tells a story. In Ghana, the first people to produce Asafo flags were Fante people, who live along the coast. It was their way of recording history and of storytelling. They were also the first who got in contact with Europeans arriving along the coast, and they depicted some of these encounters with Asafo flags. I want to capture stories in the same and unique way, giving my art some authenticity and maintaining this traditional part, but also finding a new way in telling stories in an old way. As an artist you need to explore different ways of working, and you have to find your voice. I came to know more about the Asafo flag tradition through another project, and I found my voice with this art. I feel it’s a story that continues, and I also want to maintain the continuity in telling the story. I use textiles to depict images, it is collage making. This is an old and widespread art tradition also in other west African cultures. It produces a different expression. In addition, I occasionally use films, too, as a medium of expression which I find quite similar to collage making. For my project at MIASA, I did both. I wanted it to be a whole project. The film complements the art, it gives it a deeper understanding. I wanted to create the connection. The film offers it a kind of voice. It provides an idea of what is the meaning I want to transport, and if offers a different way of storytelling.

MIASA CC-BY-4.0: Public exhibition with Seyram Agbleze, 5 Sept. 2023

Your project is called “Still here”. What do you mean by this?

MIASA CC-BY-4.0: Seyram Agbleze presenting his Asafo flag on “1957 Freedom” at the exhibition, 5 Sept. 2023

Seyram Agbleze: In art, anyone can have their own interpretation. “Still here” is a wordplay. In a positive sense it refers to resilience in the struggle of Africa, but it’s also a question. There was a lot of hope when we achieved independence. In 1957, Ghana was a model, now we are struggling with unemployment and corruption. A lot of things have gone wrong. We have not yet achieved what we wanted to achieve with independence. “Still here” in that other sense is to ask the question: “Are we still here?”. My project is a body of work that highlights the state of affairs in Africa, looking at some sources of its struggles with sustainable governance. In general, I try to use my work to advocate for a better society. The film documents the voices of people in Keta (Ghana). This is a place where everything comes together. There is a slave fort, which reminds us of how African people have gone through a cycle of exploitation and slavery. And today, young people in Keta find themselves unemployed and without opportunities. “Still here” also refers to the issue of migration. The current migration crisis is linked to the experience of mismanagement and corruption, and it is linked to our history of slavery. All these things are linked. The film highlights this. It’s not just an African issue, it’s a world issue. We can address the causes only if we recognise the roots of this story, and that this story is a world issue. There are too many inequalities in the world. This is not sustainable. We have to address these issues, and we need more collaboration.

Seyram Agbleze CC-BY-4.0: “Sankofa reflection” Asafo flag and capture from the documentary film “Still here”

At the end of the documentary film, the spectator can see a man from the back at the Keta beach looking at the sea. I noticed that one of the Asafo flags, which you created, takes up a similar image with a silhouette of a man next to a Sankofa symbol. How are these two images related to each other?

Seyram Agbleze: Yes, the two images speak to each other. Some of my artworks use Adinkra symbols. The Sankofa bird turns its head to its egg. It literally means “to return to fetch it”, and it is widely used as a symbol for history and for the importance of learning from the past for the future. The flag is called “Sankofa reflection”, and it can be linked to the image in the film, when looking to the sea. This point of reflection is an important part of the story. Looking to the sea recalls all what has come with the ocean, beginning with the slave trade, to this date, where we still have young people taking the ocean to leave. It’s an important point for the project.

Seyram Agbleze CC-BY-4.0: Asafo flag on “Migrants on the sea”

It is related to one of the other flags, which I called “Migrants on the sea”. People are now taking these boats voluntarily, but they are still caught in a history of exploitation. These people are deeply disappointed by their countries, driven to a point of desperation. They are tired to the point that they don’t mind if they may die. At the same time, taking these boats to cross the sea has become a form of protest, a form of protesting their situation. I once saw a video in the news where a rescue ship was coming, and the people on the boat were excited and celebrated. I wanted to capture these conflicting emotions. These people have given up on themselves, their humanity doesn’t mean much anymore, but they are humans, they have a home. Everybody has a mother, people come from families. The world needs this reflection and be more human when talking about migration.

How was your experience being at MIASA, among research fellows and in the middle of Legon campus?

Seyram Agbleze CC-BY-4.0: Asafo flag “Adinkra crocodiles”

Seyram Agbleze: I have brothers who are in academia, so I already had some personal experience with researchers. Maybe because of this, I always wanted to have a fellowship in an academic context. I really wanted to do this. I felt how important and enriching it can be to have the interaction with academia. My impression was that academia can be quite opposite of the art. My brothers always want to put everything into context and have an empirical example to proof. Arts is open to imaginations. We are working with imagination. At MIASA, I was happy to meet people who understood how arts can be appreciated, I met researchers who were really interested in my work and also contributed to it. We had very good discussions. For example, when I created my work with the interlacing two crocodiles (Funtunfunefu Denkyemfunefu), which is about depending on each other, because the two crocodiles share the same stomach, one of the MIASA fellows from Cameroon raised my attention that this doesn’t concern only an African, but also a world context, something about humanity as a whole. We should appreciate more the connections and not just blame each other. We are all connected to each other. For me, MIASA was a great place for learning and valuable exchange. Of course, there are differences between academia and art. However, in the end, I came to the point, that it is good this way. We need to have different ways of appreciating, different ways of knowledge. This is how things should be. That’s why I’m an artist and not an academic.

Seyram Agbleze is a Ghanaian artist and storyteller educated at Central University College. His art practice employs figurative collages inspired by traditional African textiles such as the Asafo flags and Kente. He was MIASA Artist in residence from 1 May to 31 July 2023.

The interview was conducted by Dr. Susann Baller on 17 January 2024. You can find more visual impressions from MIASA artist in residence events with Seyram Agbleze here.

 



Cite this blog post
teammiasa (2024, January 18). Interview with MIASA Artist in residence Seyram Agbleze. Merian Institute for Advanced Studies in Africa - Blog. Retrieved May 18, 2024, from https://miasa.hypotheses.org/1850

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