Nana Oforiatta Ayim is the founder and director of ANO, a self-described “Institute of Arts & Knowledge” in Accra, Ghana, that since 2002 has presented exhibitions and educational programs in the city and organized roaming initiatives, including the Mobile Museum Project and The Cultural Encyclopaedia, a collective archive initiative devoted to past and present culture from around the African continent. Under the aegis of ANO, Oforiatta Ayim has worked as a writer, filmmaker, historian, artist, and organizer with grand ambitions for writing and rewriting narratives around aspects of culture that often go unrecognized. —The Editors of ARTnews
The idea for ANO was born on a winter’s day at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. I was there for a year in the early 2000s as part of my studies in Russian culture, and I went to the museum as often as possible with my free student pass. The Hermitage is an encyclopedic museum covering the world’s cultures, past and present, though what struck me first that day—and then again and again—was the lack of context around displays of historical African masks and sculptures, as well as the exclusion of Africa among the Western and Eastern “masters” of modern art. There were obvious gaps and imbalances in the seemingly complete knowledge of the world.
After I completed my degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, I went to work in the Eastern European section of the Department of Political Affairs at the United Nations in New York, researching and writing on issues of sovereignty and autonomy in areas like Chechnya and Nagorno-Karabakh. When a human rights journalist I met at dinner one night told me he had heard of my railing against Russia’s entrenched power on the Security Council, the Big Brother nature of his comment and his advice for how I might better toe a diplomatic line suggested that the UN was no place for me. I wanted to agitate and upset the status quo—to unearth unequal structures of power rather than support them.
Having left Ghana as a child to live in Europe, modes of Russian expression spoke to me in a way that brought me closer to home. I had been fascinated from a young age by revolutions—most of all by how the history of Russian revolution was powered by and linked with literature and art—and my thesis work centered on the activating power of art in revolution and its use as a tool for political and spiritual change.
I knew I wanted to be part of revising the narrative about the continent I was from, to fill in the gaps and imbalances. I knew I was in a position of privilege by dint of a European passport that allowed me to travel freely, as well as of the assurance of access and education my parents had tirelessly enabled. I had the privilege of choice and possibility.
I also knew that, as a black woman, I would represent the most disadvantaged demographic, at least in the Western world. I would have to fight to be heard, seen, and treated as equal. I wanted to create a voice and access, for myself and others. I wanted the wealth of culture I knew from Ghana, my mother country, to be as valued as that of anywhere else—and for that culture to serve as a pathway to understanding, wisdom, and transcendence.
That was how ANO was born.
After my year in St. Petersburg, I went home to Ghana determined to find out more about how artists expressed themselves there and how their voices might resonate more. In Accra, I saw art in everything—in the hand-drawn embellishments on the backs of trucks, in the tailor-made designs worn on the streets, in the festivals that were like Gesamtkunstwerke—almost always mediated for me by grandmothers who watched over the city with eyes of wisdom. The name ANO is a tribute to them, drawing on the word “ɛno” in the Akan language as well as the Esperanto suffix “-ano,” which, when added to certain terms, denotes belonging.
In Ghana I researched cultural institutions and met people who created and supported them, including Joe Nkrumah, who was conservator at the National Museum; Ablade Glover, an artist and director of the Artists Alliance Gallery who had created a hub for the modernists of Ghanaian art; and Leroi Coubagy at the Asafo Gallery, who was showing Ghanaian artists such as Godfried Donkor and Owusu-Ankomah, as well as international ones like Ibrahim El-Salahi. On a trip back to London, it was recommended that I speak with Gus Casely-Hayford, a Ghanaian art historian who, as of early 2018, is director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. He told me that in order to do what I wanted with the depth and rigor I desired, I needed a Ph.D., so I started first on a master’s degree, with a thesis on contemporary Ghanaian art.
Around that time I received a grant and began to film the actors and institutions I had come across in Accra, where I also started to write for newspapers and magazines that were becoming increasingly interested in art from the continent. One writing assignment brought me to the 2001 Venice Biennale for the exhibition “Authentic/Ex-centric: Africa In and Out of Africa,” curated by Salah Hassan and Olu Oguibe. There, I met many of the people who, alongside my colleagues in Accra, would become friends and peers as well as mentors and guides, among them David Adjaye, Yinka Shonibare, and Thelma Golden—all of whom helped me understand that the African art world was one large movable family.
When I put together my first exhibition under the umbrella of ANO for the 2002 Liverpool Biennial, I was not interested in existing paradigms or typical separations between artist and curator, nor the alienating environment of the white-cube space. I did not want to be stuck in the ghetto of “African art” but to enter instead a realm of plurality and equality. I chose a large warehouse space and created a structure based on an Akan courtyard house. The producer Panji Anoff and musician Nii Noi Nortey recorded an album, and I bought an array of musical instruments for a “spirit room” in which people could lose themselves. The fashion designer Araba Hackman made clothes to be worn and photographed against a background by Marigold Akufo-Addo, and the designer Selassie Tetevie built furniture for visitors who could sip homemade palm wine while looking at paintings by Owusu-Ankomah, video work by Mawuli Afatsiawo, and a sprawling wooden sculpture by El Anatsui.
I went on in the years after to create shows, installations, and discursive spaces outside the conventional context of galleries and museums, and worked with Casely-Hayford at the British Museum to coordinate the placing of contemporary African art in 40 institutions in London for an initiative known as Africa05. But I found myself wanting to dig deeper into precolonial cultures, oratures, and ontologies, such as those bound up in what became an obsession: Ayan, a language of the drum in which philosophy, history, and form are intertwined. In Ayan I found the subject for my Ph.D. and a means to focus inward—and homeward.
Though the international context-building for contemporary African art was dominated by men, the work on the ground was being managed by women creating institutions in places like Ethiopia, Senegal, and Nigeria. In Addis Ababa, I did a residency with Meskerem Assegued at Zoma Contemporary Art Center. In Dakar, I worked with Koyo Kouoh at Raw Material Company. And in Accra and Dakar, I did writing workshops for Bisi Silva’s Àsìkò traveling art school for the Center for Contemporary Art, Lagos. Each of these women was creating new cultural realities through their institutions.
In 2011 I joined Invisible Borders, a loose collective traveling across Africa by road in search of cultural narratives. While making my way through Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Sudan, I started to develop an idea to create The Cultural Encyclopaedia project as a movable, living archive to chronicle past and present culture across Africa. The idea was born in part through a research project I developed for an exhibition of David Adjaye’s documentation of architecture around the continent and had taken shape before that through a series of workshops, the first of which, “Salon Afrique,” I conceptualized with the artist Hassan Hajjaj. More work took place in a workshop at the Dak’art biennial in 2014, with a group including writers Billie A. McTernan, Nana Ocran, Kobby Graham, and Nana Nyarko Boateng, as well as the filmmakers Anita Afonu and Caroline Deeds. (We also connected with curator Salimata Diop, educationalist Amadou Diaw, and philosopher, writer, and musician Felwine Sarr.) Other workshops followed in Paris as part of a residency with the Kadist art foundation, and this year in Accra, through a season of ANO-organized programming we called the Sunsum Sessions.
In 2015 an Art & Technology Award from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art allowed for the beginning of an online platform for The Cultural Encyclopaedia as well as the creation of a Mobile Museum structure for the Chale Wote Street Art Festival in Accra. Four years earlier, a collective of arts groups in Accra invited artists and musicians to present their work in the festival, which brought together and revolutionized how we engaged with each other. For Chale Wote in 2012, I created a film installation related to Ghanaian oil production in Jubilee, an oil field off the Atlantic coast. For the edition in 2015, I wanted to coalesce the local idea of a public festival and the Western notion of an enclosed and concentrated cultural space—while recognizing the existence and coexistence of both. The immediate answer was the kiosk, a kind of vernacular structure that was on every street corner, serving every conceivable purpose. I collaborated with DK Osseo-Asare, an architect who was looking at these structures as a strategy for advancing local fabrication and sustainability, to create a kiosk that would serve as a Mobile Museum.
The theme for Chale Wote that year was “African Electronics,” which festival literature called “. . . a popular term describing indigenous esoteric knowledge that Ghanaians use to create the impossible. It is the grand manifestation of our most powerful creative ability as a people, the cryogenic refrigerant that has kept our technologies alive across time. It is a way out—a secret pathway to possibilities unseen before.” As festival text elaborated, “new frequencies are re-creating Ghana, Africa, and the world, through a tunnel traveling from the past through the future. With African Electronics, we look at how race, culture, art, and technology merge to create a different kind of world that is inclusive, diverse, electric, and on the move.” Those words articulated so fully what ANO and other individuals and organizations across the continent had been aspiring toward. The collective energy of people coming together and resonating outward was creating an energy unlike any I had experienced before—something like the revolution we had all been dreaming about.
The next iteration of the Mobile Museum Project was a structure designed by the young Accra-based architect Latifah Iddriss that we could take apart and rebuild according to context and location. We are currently touring Ghana with it, collecting material and immaterial culture while organizing workshops to allow people in different communities to determine their own ideas of cultural value. This tour will provide the methodology for other African countries we are partnering with, and all our findings will be uploaded to The Cultural Encyclopaedia website and will eventually feature in The Ghana Encyclopaedia, the first of 54 bound volumes to be published, one for each of Africa’s nations.
Meanwhile, in Accra and across the continent, exhibitions, performances, and conversations continue in existing venues, while new institutions arise and discourse moves more and more from the margins to the center. The question is how, in this moment—in this time when so many revolutions have begun to surround concepts of “Africa” and “blackness” that for centuries have been synonymous with a myth of passivity—do we define and redefine, claim and reclaim our power without occupying the positions of power we are trying to dismantle? How can we create new dynamics that are open, inclusive, and collaborative, and that honor the integrity and dignity of all? ANO, for one, will keep asking these questions.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of ARTnews on page 54 under the title “Institutional Memory.”