Ibrahim Mahama has made some curious purchases over the past three years: a grain silo, and several aeroplanes meant for the scrapyard. In 2020, the Ghanaian artist acquired the silo, which had lain unused since the 1960s, in the town of Tamale in the country’s north. Mahama renovated the decrepit building, and opened the space as Nkrumah Volini, a cultural institution featuring exhibitions and programming for locals and younger generations that he hopes will inspire.
It’s this same drive for fostering young minds that motivated the artist to open the Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art (SCCA) and Red Clay Studio in Tamale, the latter of which also serves as the artist’s studio space.
The artist offers to give Tatler a mini tour of Red Clay Studio over video chat. A far cry from the stereotype of an artist’s studio—the stereotypical high-ceilinged, paint-filled room where the temperamental artist works in tortured solitude—his is more of a complex, and it’s almost always packed with visitors. As he takes us around, hordes of uniformed children are seen spilling out of school buses; the artist says they are expecting at least 2,000 visitors that week alone.
In addition to children, members of the local community frequent his spaces; Mahama hopes to get people of all backgrounds to engage with and think about art and local history in unconventional ways. “I’m building an institution within an environment which has not had this level of justice in terms of thinking about art or contemporary art in its history.”
The vast complex houses Mahama’s workspace as well as exhibition areas, archives, libraries, film screening rooms, and a large courtyard-like structure called the Parliament of Ghosts. Amongst the many intriguing sights glimpsed during the virtual tour are Mahama’s second unusual purchase: six Soviet-era aeroplanes. Far from airworthy and destined to be torn apart for scrap metal, the defunct aircraft planes were instead transformed into classrooms where schoolchildren now attend drone-operating workshops, as well as drawing and coding classes. Repurposing materials with little or no obvious remaining use is an integral part of Mahama’s intrinsically sustainable practice. “I’m interested in the fact that these objects could perform different functions and allow for new ideas to sprout,” he says.