“Stations of Protest”
In Lagos last October, the Nigerian Army murdered protesters denouncing police brutality and the killing of young men and women accused of criminal activity or just suspected of elitism: Did we talk too slick, think or carry ourselves better than the poorly paid policemen, who were equally oppressed but saddled with guns and eager to unload their discontent? Were we carrying fancy gadgets; did we have foreign numbers in our contacts? Then we must be internet fraudsters. Or sometimes the reason was simpler: the refusal to pay a bribe.
And so, in response, we peacefully protested for the right to live. For two weeks, all across the country, we shut down highways, blocked routes to airports, organized, crowdsourced funding, and endured further brutality. On October 20, the government decided it had had enough and sent armed soldiers and tanks to the most visible site of protest. At least twelve people were killed, though the exact number is thought to be much higher. To date, no one has been held responsible, but it feels like we are on the cusp of something. We have tasted what resistance looks like, and we want more.
Things are not much better a few hundred miles away in Ghana, in whose capital the group exhibition “Stations of Protest,” curated by the art, architecture, and design studio Cult Meraki, took place. There, the LGBTQIA+ community is oppressed daily by the state and by the religious leadership of various faiths. The country’s positive economic outlook is hardly felt on the streets, where the gap between rich and poor widens every day. Last year, the government demolished a fishing community in Accra, rendering hundreds homeless.
And so the artists protest. The predominantly young, mostly Ghanaian artists in “Stations of Protest” work across media to highlight dissent on a granular, everyday scale. The Nubuke Foundation’s sprawling courtyard, typically green and lush, had been painted completely red for an installation by Latifah Iddriss, The greener grass on the other side of the fence [seems rather red], 2020. Not a blade of grass was spared. As Iddriss said to me, “There’s always blood on the ground here; there’s always violence. When do we stop paying with blood for just existing?”
Bright Ackwerh’s illustrations are created digitally, but at first glance display the finished surface of oil paintings. His canvases here showed caricatures of presidents across the African continent, mostly in embarrassing situations. In the digital print WAP, 2020, originally released online the same week Ghana had its presidential elections last December, President Nana Akufo-Addo and his opponent, John Mahama, are dressed up in pink and yellow dresses with big hoop earrings, their hair richly greased and in updos, luridly grinning with their tongues sticking out. The odd styling borrows from the viral 2020 music video “WAP” by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, who don similar getups to revel in their sexual prowess. On Ackwerh’s canvas, these two opponents are not so different at all. They have the same thing to offer the people, and presumably it’s not good. They are laughing at something we cannot see. Likely the viewer, the voter, the citizen is the butt of their joke.
Other artists in the exhibition engage in more oblique forms of protest. Joseph Abbey-Mensah’s photographs survey the male body. Men of various ages played with and cared for one another, always in close proximity. Dark, glistening backs appeared bent or stiffened. Mounds of muscle jutted out; bare arms were outstretched. The architecture of these images—the body parts and poses—seemed very organic, implying an eroticism that is meant to be understated but not missed. Barely shown their faces, we were invited to wonder: These men who have surrendered to the camera, are they free, are they themselves? In Ghana, masculinity does not typically look like the images here. This protest was personal.
Contemplating the show as a whole, it was hard not to be filled with resignation, particularly when confronted by Iddriss’s sprawling installation. One got the sense that the artists feared the things they were protesting would not change. Police brutality continues. What it means to be a man is still ringed with limitations. Corrupt old men will still present themselves for elections. These works bore witness not only to these inevitabilities, but also to the feeling of being powerless to do anything about them.