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Jute-Sack Case Heats Up: Ibrahim Mahama Countersues Simchowitz, Ellis King

Artist’s lawyer alleges the dealers ‘made him sign these works’

Installation view, 'Civil Occupation' by Ibrahim Mahama, at Ellis King gallery in December 2014.COURTESY ELLIS KING

Installation view, ‘Civil Occupation’ by Ibrahim Mahama, at Ellis King gallery in December 2014.

COURTESY ELLIS KING

In the latest chapter in an ongoing feud, a lawyer for the Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama has filed a lawsuit in U.S. district court in California against dealers Stefan Simchowitz and Jonathan Ellis King, who served the artist with a lawsuit last year.

The countersuit alleges that Simchowitz and Ellis King broke a contract with the artist that stipulated they would not alter works they purchased from him and sell them, and that they violated the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 that protects an artist from “any intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification of the work.” Mahama is requesting an award of damages for economic losses, damage to reputation and honor, and emotional distress, in addition to punitive damages and attorney’s fees. There’s also a request for an injunction preventing them from selling his work.

The lawsuit is a countersuit to legal action taken by Simchowitz and Ellis King, filed in June 2015, that alleges that Mahama’s effort to disown work he sold to the defendants for $150,000 could cost them $4.45 million—the total price the dealers believe they can sell the almost 300 works for.

The thrust of the suit and countersuit amounts to a he-said, she-said.

Simchowitz and Ellis King claim that Mahama was on board with a plan to treat a larger work—a room-blanketing tapestry of jute sacks used to transport coal in Ghana—as a series of smaller individual works. Mahama claims that they never reached such an agreement, and maintains that only the full, unseparated tapestry can be considered an Ibrahim Mahama.

The new suit filed by Mahama’s attorney claims that his client insisted in emails and in person that the work not be sold part and parcel, but as a complete work.

“Mahama repeatedly communicated to Counter Defendants, orally and in writing, his desire to keep his works of visual art intact,” reads one section of the document.

The suit filed by Ellis King and Simchowitz says the opposite: “The parties further orally agreed to create a series of smaller, unique artworks from the remaining four Lots by reducing them into three separate sizes (108″x54″, 96″x48″, and 72″x36″) and mounting the fabric over stretcher bars, which would then be authenticated by Mahama’s signature on the recto of the stretched frame (the ‘Individual Works’), and which Plaintiffs would have the exclusive right to sell.”

That original suit also says that “On December 3 and 4, 2014, Mahama signed the 294 Individual Works at Ellis King’s gallery in Dublin.”

Both parties agree that while in Dublin, Mahama signed the newly created smaller works. (Simchowitz hired an artisan named Dylan Atkins to take the jute, cut it up, and stretch and mount the material, paying him $67,000 for the labor conducted under Mahama’s supervision.) This would seem to consecrate them as Mahamas.

But in a phone conversation with ARTnews, Rizwan R. Ramji, the Los Angeles–based attorney representing Mahama, claimed his client signed these works under duress, and alleged that Simchowitz—a controversial figure in the art world due to his well-documented practice of buying up an enormous number of works by young artists and reselling them at a premium—used this reputation to pressure that very young unknown West African artist.

“When they met in Dublin they ambushed him—especially Simchowitz—and attacked him and made him sign these works,” Ramji said. “So he signed them under duress but that’s not what he actually does, that’s not actually his way of making his work. He’s from Ghana, and he’s in this other world, and he’s got this overbearing threatening figure saying he’s got to sign these or else.”

But when reached on the phone in Los Angeles, Simchowitz noted that he was not present when Mahama was signing the work.

“I’ve never been to Dublin—I’ve never been to Ireland—so it would be very difficult for me to ambush him,” he told ARTnews. “I think Ibrahim should write fiction for his next career, I think he would be very successful.”

Noting the incongruous nature of Ramji’s claim that he attacked someone in a city he’s never visited, Simchowitz added, “The case has gone from insult to absurdity.”

Simchowitz also stated that in no way did Ellis King coerce the artist, noting that the correspondence between him and Mahama following the meeting in Dublin was cordial.

“He signed over 250 works—signed them, titled them, dated them,” he said. “He built the raw materials himself. He stayed in Dublin two days. If he was coerced and ambushed, why did he come back the next day? Frankly, it’s libel.”

He also noted that the case has negatively affected Ellis King’s gallery business, and claimed that two artists canceled shows at the space do to the hubbub surrounding him.

“Jon Ellis King, who’s a young dealer in Dublin, he basically had a nervous breakdown over the last few months,” he said. “This nice young kid who has taken huge risks. When you go and buy and spend over $200,000 on 200 artworks, that’s a lot of money in the real world.”

When reached on the phone at 9:00 p.m. in Dublin, Ellis King declined to comment.

The six complete uncut gallery-size lots of work were purchased by Simchowitz and Ellis King in October 2013 for £90,000 ($144,000). In December 2014, Ellis King mounted an exhibition of the work at his gallery in Dublin, selling 27 pieces to collectors from around the world. The following May, one of the jute sack installations was prominently featured in the Arsenale section of the 56th Venice Biennale, curated by Okwui Enwezor, where it was draped on the walls of a long, enormous outdoor corridor. It was popular on Instagram, as most of the the 500,000 attendees who came to last year’s biennale passed through the corridor at some point during their visit. At 28, Mahama was the youngest artist chosen for inclusion by Enwezor. 

The artist’s newly minted global presence is brought up by both parties. Mahama’s suit uses it to bolster his status as an important, well-known artist who deserves protection: “As an artist whose works have been included in international galleries and exhibitions, including Ireland, the Saatchi in London, and Venice’s Biennial Exhibition, Mahama’s works that he sold to Counter Defendants were works of fine art and are entitled to protection under VARA.”

Simchowitz uses it to boast of his status as kingmaker. “Simchowitz is a renowned cultural entrepreneur,” his suit reads. “Simchowitz has had significant success in discovering, financially supporting and promoting unknown artists, guiding them from obscurity to international prominence. Mahama is one such artist.”

Documents included in the new suit also include a series of emails between Mahama, Ellis King, and Simchowitz that—in addition to providing delectable insight into how Simchowitz and his associates deal with young artists who they decide to support early on in their careers—show how Mahama was aware of the manipulation of his larger works to sell them as smaller works, even if he seemed trepidatious of the plan.

It bears noting that the correspondence, on all sides, is riddled with spelling errors and mangled sentences. The notes often seem hastily composed, dashed off from disparate parts of the world. Seemingly every paragraph of the emails contains multiple sics. Also, the conversation is mostly between Ellis King and Mahama, with Simchowitz keeping quiet despite being cc’ed on most dispatches. His sole quoted contribution seems consistent with his reputation: “Jonathan will discuss this and 18 other works like this sold to a person who should not have bought them and sold them to Sothebys [sic]. Jonathan and I strongly suggest that you get a handle on this on behalf of Ibrahim.”

Ramji, Mahama’s attorney, said on the phone that they included the emails to show how Mahama pleaded with Simchowitz and Ellis King to not break apart the works and sell them individually.

An email from the artist to Ellis King in November 2014 addresses concerns that he wished to take care of before the opening of his show the following month. “I have serious concerns regarding stretched work (the pieces you cut from the original work and stretched), as they are not part of my practice,” the email reads, before explaining how cutting the work up negates its “character and sense.”

Such concerns were not addressed in the brief response.

“Ok good to know your thoughts and of course I’m always open to discuss everything,” Ellis King responded, before saying he had to run to Brussels.

The last quoted email is from May 2015, just after Mahama’s work appeared at the opening of the Venice Biennale. In it he claims to have never authorized the dealers to sell his work, and that because the work was not displayed and sold in its entirety, they can no longer be considered authentic works, thus denying them any value. The email goes on for pages, and lists the invoices for the sales of his work from Ellis King’s gallery.

“I do hope this issue may be resolved this way so we can avoid any further legal remedies,” the letter ends.

No response from Simchowitz or Ellis King is included in the filing. Three weeks later, they sued the 28-year-old artist for $4.45 million.

Despite that hefty figure, Simchowitz insisted in an interview with ARTnews last August that an apology would be enough to resolve everything.

“I love Ibrahim Mahama,” Simchowitz said in an interview. “Ibrahim could call me tomorrow and say, ‘Simco, you know what? I’m so sorry. I’m young. I’ve made a series of absolutely borderline-fatal decisions…I’m naive and I’m young,’ and I’d be like, ‘Ibrahim, it’s fine. I think you’re wonderful. You’re an amazing artist.’ And I would support him. I would invest in him.”

It appears such a reconciliation is not happening.

“Behind the scenes, at least the facts show, Simchowitz was the mastermind behind it all, he was the one who wanted to take these weak artists and break them down,” Ramji said. “People hate him and they’re going to hate him even more.”

Simchowitz said that with the filing of a counter-claim, he will continue to use all his financial means to emerge victorious, even if that means he has to get through a messy, protracted trial by jury.

“I’m looking forward very much to defending this case, and I’d like this to be a very, very public outcome,” he said. “The trial is going forward and and I’m very excited for it to go to trial. Once it gets through the court system it will be very clear what’s going on here.”

Ramji, however, said that, ideally, they can work out an agreement before this goes to trial, and mentioned that he’s optimistic that they can make some headway at a mediation that is scheduled to occur in April. He realizes that this ordeal is, above all, a distraction for Mahama.

“He wants to work on his art,” Ramji said. “He wants to move on.”

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