Biennale of Sydney

Ibrahim Mahama

Ibrahim Mahama, No Friend but the Mountains 2012-2020, 2020, charcoal jute sacks, sacks, metal tags and scrap metal tarpaulin, dimensions variable. Installation view (2020) for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, Cockatoo Island. Courtesy the artist; White Cube; and Apalazzo Gallery, Brescia. Photograph: Zan Wimberley

Ibrahim Mahama

Born 1987 in Tamale, Ghana
Lives and works in Tamale, Accra and Kumasi, Ghana


Ibrahim Mahama’s spectacular installations of sewn charcoal sacks are the result of his investigation of the conditions of the body in relation to both architecture and history. The practice takes many forms and one of the final products – the art – is equally displayed in marketplaces thus defying the artefacts’ intrinsic value system.

Public art’s main virtue is to exist beyond the imposed hierarchies of museums and galleries. Out in the open the works, orphans of preconceptions, confront an unacquainted public, perhaps igniting a sense of wonder.

Ibrahim Mahama’s spectacular installations of sewn charcoal sacks are the result of his investigation of the conditions of the body in relation to both architecture and history. The practice takes many forms and one of the final products – the art – is equally displayed in marketplaces thus defying the artefacts’ intrinsic value system.

Mahama produces the large draping surfaces by carefully assembling sacks imported by the Ghana Cocoa Board and repurposed by charcoal sellers. The sacks present patches, markings and traces of traders’ names and locations on their rough brown skin, which map out the many transits they endure as vessels of commodities. Wrapped around heaps of merchandise in the marketplace or embracing the contours of a museum building, the spreads of jute fibres become an oversized socio-political inquiry of the origin of materials, referencing what is normally hidden for the sake of concept or form. Ibrahim Mahama denudes the transits and ownerships of jute sacks along their lives as porters of goods, rendering visible the mechanisms of trade which define the world’s economy.

For the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, Mahama presents a largescale immersive installation, dressing the entirety of the interior Turbine Hall at Cockatoo Island with jute sacks. A crowded patchwork of rich, brown colour and rough and smooth planes, together their hardened surfaces mime the gritty materiality and architecture of the former shipyard and penal colony, to reference and stir the histories of labor and incarceration laying dormant on the island. This work continues Mahama’s material investigation into labour, economic history and production. Taking an almost forensic approach, the artist sees the surfaces of these materials as holding and bearing the physical markers, smells and traces of the networks and industries they previously moved through. This installation differs from other projects in which the artist blankets the exterior architecture of public buildings. In covering the interior of the turbine hall, Mahama creates a conceptual space for us to walk inside, and from within which to consider our own relationship to the layered histories on display through a heightened, bodily engagement with the space. Once inside, we are consumed with the smell, texture, and sensation of the jute, inviting new ways of seeing and occupying this site, caked as it is in layers of divergent and complex histories.

Mahama also presents A Grain of Wheat at Artspace. The immersive installation comprises around 400 upright first aid stretchers dating from the Second World War, which the artist collected from a site near to a Refugee Camp in Athens. Found elements drawn from Ghana embellish the canvas of the stretchers to create an elongated ‘painting’, while aromatic smoked fish papers sourced from West African smokehouses conjure a spectrum of responses. The materials carry with them an explicit residue of their past, existing together archivally as a sensory monument hinting at pain and labour. By presenting them inside an exhibition space, the artist engages in a process of making-visible the histories of their production and circulation, an aesthetic mode which is at odds with the expectations of viewership formed within traditional gallery space.

Courtesy the artist

Exhibited at

Exhibited Artwork

Ibrahim Mahama, No Friend but the Mountains, 2012-20, charcoal jute sacks, sacks, metal tags and scrap metal tarpaulin. Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney with generous support from Anonymous, and assistance from White Cube. Courtesy the artist; Apalazzo Gallery, Brescia and White Cube, London / Hong Kong

Photograph: Ibrahim Mahama, No Friend but the Mountains 2012-2020, 2020, charcoal jute sacks, sacks, metal tags and scrap metal tarpaulin, dimensions variable. Installation view (2020) for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, Cockatoo Island. Courtesy the artist; White Cub

Location: Cockatoo Island

Ibrahim Mahama, A Grain of Wheat, 2015-18, mixed media. Presented at the 22nd Biennale of Sydney with generous support from Andrew Cameron AM and Cathy Cameron, and Anonymous, and assistance from White Cube. Courtesy the artist and White Cube, London / Hong Kong

Photograph: Ibrahim Mahama, A Grain of Wheat, 2015-18, mixed media. Installation view (2020) for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, Artspace. Courtesy the artist and White Cube, London / Hong Kong. Photograph: Zan Wimberley

Location: Artspace