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I’ve been thinking a lot about ghosts lately. Not so much about phantoms, haints or apparitions; no. It has far more to do with back-in-the-day shadows and memories; old ways, old stories and the kind of happenings that national or international talk of independence unearths for me.
With #Ghana60, and this year’s Independence Day celebrations, it came to me, through a quick mental calculation, that in my lifetime – which is getting up there in years – I’ve spent less than a year in total in what is either my mother country, or fatherland – depending on my mood. I reckon I’ve clocked up around nine months in total, and these have been spent in short- to mid-term batches that have essentially involved UK-to-Ghana visits to immediate and extended family, and a lone, Accra-based working assignment when on route to Lagos.
For me, any mention of Ghana – particularly pre-1957 – takes me back to the home I grew up in, where parental reminiscences of what I as a child thought was a pristinely named Gold Coast, were very much a part of my south London oral experience. These were stories of boarding school traumas (mum); being beaten for braving the ocean (dad); school trips to a leprosy hospital (mum); taking cigarettes and books to Sekondi’s Central Prison (dad); a colonial school ban on all talk of apartheid (mum); brief flirtations with life as a photographer (dad); the death of a teenage brother (mum) … all of which have long been lodged in my memory bank. However, these true-life tales always kept Ghana very much as a place “over there” until adulthood, when I zoomed in – via my work as a writer – on the new styles and narratives of design, technology, and architecture; topics that rightly or wrongly became commercial knowledge banks of cultural information.
It’s through editorial means that I’ve forged a new relationship with Ghana. Although the spirit of any country can’t truly be imbibed through print or digital platforms, it’s my focus on future-facing design, the architectural ghosts of Accra and elsewhere and the tributary stories that come from this, that offer an inspirational mishmash of interests in history, art and visual culture that helps me to keep navigating a country from which I get much of my cultural DNA.
It’s thoughts about Ghana’s heritage and its architectural shadows that probably started to take shape a few years back, through a casual conversation with Nat Amarteifio – a curator, architect, art collector and one time Mayor of Accra. An avuncular personality, I met him in Milan for Afrofuture, an African-fused, experimental event with designers, artists, tech activists and photographers who were invited from London, Lagos, Nairobi and Senegal to give the lowdown on African urban creativity to an Italian audience. It was over lunch that I chatted with Amateifio about his post-independence memories of early 1960s Ghana. He’d had an eclectic working life that featured architectural commissions in 1970s US and Canada, followed by similar work in Port Harcourt. He returned to Ghana in the early 1990s, a pre-millennium era when the country’s infrastructural needs were at their most crucial. At that time, Amarteifio had enough international experience to stitch together the country’s physical holes, and a long enough memory to recall on some of his original design influences.
Remembering the “architectural ghosts” of his youth, he recalled a time when the modernist template for many of Ghana’s ministerial buildings – although predominantly designed by Soviet-Union, Polish and Yugoslav architects – were the tropical design template of the country; all very daring in construct at the time, but now revamped to accommodate what he felt was “a whiff of Chinatown”.
He essentially turned my thoughts backwards to some of the bedrock edifices that were once the new aesthetic of Ghana – and elsewhere in Africa. These were the likes of Independence Square, the State House Complex and the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. Each were built in the early to mid-1960s by men such as Berislav Kalogjera, Nebojsa Weiner, and Miro Marasović, who had the then president as their client and boss, at a time when the political vision for Ghana was specifically global in a newly futuristic sense, and the Eastern European architects were brought over to showcase their experiences of expansive metropolitan building in Ghana.
However, my subsequent editorial focus on the country shifted to the strong whiff of futurism in some of the aspirational design thinking that seemed to be fuelling many of the design narratives that sprung from the ubiquitous “Africa Rising” mantra that was finding its way into and onto media platforms within and beyond the continent.
Keyspaces include the stop-start HOPE City (Home, Office, People and Environment) creation, where a public clash of ambitions seems to have merged with the wish list of multi-functional features needed to create a city within a city. Ambitiously earmarked for Prampram, Greater Accra, the venture has been snagged by problems that continue three years on from its publicity stage, so that it still exists in a redesigned blueprint form, but is thought of by many as an African fantasy.
Nowhere near its glass, sci-fi-influenced image of six cone-shaped mega towers serviced by transparent link bridges, its grounds currently have nothing to offer but an expanse of shrubs fringed by rows of Neem trees.
Despite the hitches, the vision still remains to build a city that takes its aesthetic and community-based inspiration from Ghana’s history and heritage. Designs for the circular towers are based on the compounds of northern Ghana or Cameroon, a nod – by the Italian firm behind the master plan and Ghanaian entrepreneur Roland Agambire – to the fact that they are standing on the shoulders of West African giants.
HOPE City’s public shout out to Ghana’s heritage is part of what informs my thinking about the integration of old and new Ghana and its pre- and post-independence identity.
Bureaucracy aside, it’s relatively easy for non-African organisations to experiment with available or up-for-sale spaces across Ghana’s rapidly populating landscape, but in reshaping the landscape by constructing monolithic, money-generating cities, what happens to the ghosts of the past? How are the old venues cherished or remembered, or old skills reclaimed and repurposed anew?
Looking back at the first independence moments, the East-meets-West designs were strategic, but preservation – of both high and lower-status buildings, as well as design ideals and practices – has over time become an additional narrative in as much as there are flawed notions of what is or should be maintained as part of the nation’s legacy.
To many of Amarteifio’s generation, there’s a particular viewpoint on Ghana’s past and present structures before millennial interest took hold. It’s been said by his peers that the colonial era’s lack of twenty-first-century-style technology meant that an environmental sensitivity did exist without features like manipulated air conditioning. Although there is now a savvy take on what’s possible for home-grown, or at least more accessible, Ghanaian design that’s being done on what feels like a more intricately artistic level. Things are – and have been – happening that are bringing artists, curators, idealists, educators, and inventors together in specifically tactile ways and creating a new preservation, of sorts.
Maybe it’s glaringly obvious, but the country’s chock full with wood that for decades has been architecturally sidestepped – concrete being the go-to, high-end material choice. However, an innovative “movement” was kickstarted over a decade ago by Joe Addo – an architectural don who co-founded the Accra-based ArchiAfrika salon-style forum for creative thinkers to come together to exchange or act on ideas about creative culture. It was Addo (as some sort of inadvertent poster guy for eco-awareness) who coined the term “inno-native” as an explanation for his ideas about integrated architecture. Taking from the past to create the new, his much talked up eco-wood home is a hybrid of European appliances and strict African style, materials and poetic sensibility. Raised wooden decks, solar panels and the use of mud blocks constitute a semi-throwback to colonial building, but with a slick twenty-first-century Ghanaian twist.
What seems like decades of amnesia about stylish wood builds was revived with Addo, but there’s been new life in the design world – and not just from more celebrated names the likes of David Adjaye who does have an Accra-based office.
Younger, smaller firms are bringing back the look and many of the lost skills for producing wood-fronted, sustainable townhouses for greener, more ethical living, and even Accra’s World Bank has come in on the act, with a sixth-floor garden, which works as a pretty good urban vantage point as well as a return to bona fide tropical architecture, as the first green rooftop in Ghana.
Essentially, the splicing together of art and architecture – though far from revolutionary – is finding its flavour in Ghana. Wonderful fusions of PhD thinking and arts curating have shown themselves at platforms including the annual Chale Wote festival where smart aesthetic fusions of waste, agriculture, and art were realised last year, in an installation featuring an almost sensually treated and constructed “coconut wall”, designed (and manufactured) by architect Mae-Ling Lokko. Merged with the jute sacks of artist Serge Attukwei Clottey, the display showcased beauty from waste, art, and agriculture in a perfect cross-sector creation of a prototype wall that looked close to something that Gucci or the House of Versace could have put out.
As resistant as brick – and arguably better looking – there’s a sense of tribute to Ghana’s resources and to what the country has the ability to offer that comes on the flipside of the dumsor power outages, or retrofitting old buildings as churches or shop fronts, as money dwindles or interest in cultural spaces evaporates.
I’m thinking now, of the roll call of cinemas that have disappeared from Ghana’s landscape – or have at least changed their use. Many are gone or now show big screen football as opposed to visual stories, but in the realm of visual arts, there’s been an interesting take on looking backwards to go forwards.
Even though the 1990s VHS explosion and the subsequent Nollywood phenomenon had an inevitably sharp collective impact in Ghana, it’s refreshing to hear about the new life being breathed into the crumbling Rex Cinema in Accra, by the avant-garde, US-Ghanaian filmmaker Akosua Adoma Owusu. It stands to reason that the limited places to showcase art house films like her own, Drexciya – a haunting piece about a mythical African city – or to regularly promote films that don’t fit the Nolly or Hollywood mold would help spike a mini artistic movement.
What’s interesting is that in trying to breathe new life into old spaces, there’s a new kind of preservation of memories that brings a cross-generational audience together. Older patrons will have been consulted about their memories of places like the Casino Cinema in Tema, Sid Theatre in Dzorwulu or the Opera in Central Accra. A parallel comes from projects in Angola, where many of the open-air movie houses of the 1960s and 1970s have been photographically documented, in a publication by media artist Walter Fernandes and actor Miguel Hurst. Their journey took them throughout the Lusophone country in a bid to highlight the dramatically shaped architectonic gems of their nation’s past.
Back to Ghana, and the cyclical interests in what disappears or what loses its value is being dynamically driven by intersecting sectors. The constellationary blend of youth, artists, economics, heritage, architecture, identity and the fundamental passage of time are potent players in Ghana’s rich mix of past and present blended interests. Adoma Owusu straddles programming, curation, and preservation in her campaign to restore this particular cinema house and although – due to unfortunate red tape realities – her initial project has faltered, she’s chosen to flip the script by documenting the journey behind her mission to revamp the Rex, using her artistic smarts of fact and fiction filmmaking.
In essence, her remixed film project – which hopefully will get high enough off the ground – will ultimately represent another portal through which to view Ghana’s past and blend it with the present, by bringing a brand-new energy to something that’s long been dormant.
If the original idea to revamp the cinema is to get a revisit, it’s essentially mindsets and perhaps a respect for cultural nostalgia that need work, although even this is fodder for further thought about who would benefit from this particular movement. That, in itself, is perhaps a diaspora vs “grassroots” Ghana conversation for another day. In the meantime, who knows; maybe the Rex could at some point be a catalyst for a new wave of avant-garde film centres; something to add to the broader African palette of cultural centres, foundations and gallery spaces that are also finding their way onto the landscape.
In any case, these are my musings; a mash-up of thoughts that stem from what I see as part of the range of narratives about design dreams and realities that can hopefully create a whole slew of new physical monuments, aesthetic ghosts and delectable fantasies for the future.