One of the opening works in the 35th iteration of the Ljubljana Biennale of Graphic Arts, titled From the void came gifts of the cosmos, is a video installation created by the Amsterdam-based Slovenian performer Christian Guerematchi (b.1981) in response to the work of the Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama (b.1987), who also serves as the biennale’s artistic director. In Črni Tito – Blaq Tito Addressing the Parliament of Ghosts FIG.1 Guerematchi appears in the guise of ‘Blaq Tito’, a persona based on Josip Broz Tito, the former president of Yugoslavia.1 In reference to Tito’s typical outfit as Marshal of Yugoslavia – the highest rank in the Yugoslav People’s Army – Guerematchi wears a pristine white military uniform and a peaked cap decorated with a red star. His head is concealed by a black, opaque stocking, lending the character a spectral appearance.
In the short film, Blaq Tito travels to Mahama’s birthplace of Tamale, the northern Ghanaian city where the artist has set up three contemporary art institutions since 2019. From the mid-1950s until the late 1970s, Tito similarly travelled around Africa seeking support for the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), a group of countries – many from the developing world and in the process of decolonisation – that did not align themselves with or against any major bloc in the context of the Cold War.2 Tito travelled to Accra in 1961 and met with the first Prime Minister and President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, who subsequently attended the first summit conference of the NAM in Belgrade later that year.
Over the course of the video, Blaq Tito delivers a monologue based on the ideals of the NAM, which plays as voice-over accompanied by electronic music. In the opening scenes, he is seen moving slowly in the flooded basement of Nkrumah Volini, a former grain silo that Mahama converted into a cultural centre in 2021. The silo was originally constructed under the former Ghanaian leader, who enlisted architects from the Eastern bloc to build large-scale repositories across the country for the storage of maize, grain and cocoa. After the coup against Nkrumah in 1966, the silos were abandoned and left to fall into disrepair. The next scene FIG.2 shows Blaq Tito, now wearing aviator glasses, descending from one of the decommissioned aeroplanes-turned-classrooms at Mahama’s studio complex, Red Clay, before embarking on a solitary cavalcade through the streets of Tamale, waving to indifferent crowds from the back of a tuk-tuk. Finally, Blaq Tito returns to Red Clay, where the titular Parliament of Ghosts is situated. The large-scale assemblage work was originally conceived by Mahama for the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, in 2019, and comprises forgotten objects associated with colonial infrastructure and the transition to independence. The iteration at Red Clay is an evolving installation that centres on a tiered, forum-like seating arrangement. It is here that Blaq Tito appears for a final time, gesticulating around a firepit.
Under the artistic direction of Mahama and a curatorial team of Patrick Nii Okanta Ankrah, Exit Frame Collective, Alicia Knock, Selom Koffi Kudjie, Inga Lāce and Beya Othmani, From the void came gifts of the cosmos explores the ecosystems of transnational friendships and solidarities that emerged out of NAM and other movements in the Global South. These concerns have become prevalent in the contemporary art world since Okwui Enwezor’s 2016 exhibition Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965 at Haus der Kunst, Munich, which offered an account of Modernism through international networks.3 In Mahama’s art practice, his large-scale jute sack installations share similar concerns. The sacks he uses were imported from Bengal to Ghana in order to transport cocoa across the country for export to Europe and North America, the profits of which funded Nkrumah’s nation-building projects. In the late 1950s and early 1960s Nkrumah invited architects from around world, including from Yugoslavia and the Eastern bloc, to construct architectural symbols of the country’s independence.
In this biennale, which is shown across seven venues in Ljubljana, Mahama invites other artists to consider the transnational connections between Ghana and Slovenia or, more broadly, Africa and Yugoslavia and the Eastern bloc.4 For example, at the Mednarodni grafični likovni center (MGLC) Grad Tivoli, the South African artist Nolan Oswald Dennis (b.1988) presents the video installation Why a School? Notes from an Unrealised Film FIG.3.5 The work spotlights the artist’s uncle Nigel Dennis, who participated in the armed struggle against apartheid in the late 1970s, before – supported by allies of the liberation movement – studying film-making at Filmová a televizní fakulta Akademie múzických umění v Praze, Prague (FAMU). At Cukrarna Gallery, a former sugar refinery, an installation that resembles a living room FIG.4 by the Accra-based Slovenian artist Tjaša Rener (b.1986) foregrounds migrations between Ghana and Slovenia through objects, mementos and a recording of an interview conducted by the artist with a Yugoslavian woman who settled in Ghana.
Founded in 1955, the Ljubljana Biennale is in many ways a product of NAM. The biennale was conceived as an exhibition of prints from states with which Yugoslavia maintained diplomatic ties, before becoming an important showcase of artists from other NAM countries alongside those from the West and the Soviet Union. This year’s edition includes printmakers from Egypt, Estonia and Iraq who have previously participated in the biennale, as well as others, such as the South African artist Kagiso Patrick Mautloa (b.1952), the Ghanaian artist Galle Winston Kofi Dawson (1940–2021) FIG.5 and a collaboration between the Sudanese artist Mohammad Omar Khalil (b.1936) and the Lebanese artist and curator Abed Al Kadiri (b.1984) FIG.6, which reflects on printmaking as a medium for shared intergenerational experimentation. In the context of transnationalism, the significance of print lies in its dissemination and circulation; it traditionally rejects a singular work of art in favour of the many, mirroring a process of decentralisation. One of the exhibiting venues is the print workshop SVS Studios, which operates as a space not only for artmaking but also for collaboration and the exchange of ideas.
What seemingly unites Africa and the former Yugoslavia and Eastern bloc is ghosts. In 1993 Jacques Derrida declared: ‘a spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism’.6 His statement sought to challenge the death of Marxism following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the assertion by theorists that capitalism had triumphed.7 Derrida alternatively proposed the figure of the spectre, which blurs the boundaries between presence and absence. This idea of the spectre was subsequently taken up by European contemporary artists and scholars in relation to colonialism, who travelled to formerly colonised spaces, seeking out ghosts in the detritus from this era.8 However, they often ignored the ways in which life continued, preferring instead a mirror image of themselves elsewhere.9
Central to the biennale’s title and premise are the teachings of kąrî'kạchä seid’ou, a Ghanaian artist-intellectual and Mahama’s former professor at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi (KNUST). Upon arriving at KNUST as a student in the late 1980s, seid’ou encountered a colonial pedagogy that privileged painting as a commodity for sale on the tourist market.10 He has since worked with colleagues to transform the curriculum, specifically moving away from the idea of art as a marketable commodity to that of the gift. Moreover, seid’ou’s Emancipatory Art Teaching Project, launched in 2003, advocates constructive and affirmative politics in impossible conditions.11 Mahama’s work as an artist and institution builder adopts the same philosophy, transforming abandoned symbols of Nkrumah’s post-independence Ghana into active entities.
The exhibition foregrounds these transformative politics, moving beyond the discourse of ghosts and offering a contrast to recent biennales, such as the 12th Berlin Biennale in 2022, curated by the French-Algerian artist Kader Attia, which belatedly diagnosed the ills of the world wrought by slavery, colonialism and imperialism. By contrast, Mahama asks what emerges from the apocalypse and its detritus. At MGLC Grad Tivoli, Muddy Demonstrations (2023) by the Ljubljana-based Bosnian artist DNLM (FKA Danilo Milovanović; b.1992) spotlights a children’s game that originated from Bosnia’s infrastructurally degraded environment. In the game, each child procures a small branch to make a bendable stick, which they then use to sling balls of soil onto a wall until it is covered with hundreds of dots. Upstairs, the Algerian artist Amina Menia (b.1976) explores shifts in the French colonial architecture and urban design of Algiers to suit current demands and tastes FIG.7. Exhibiting venues also include the Participatory Ljubljana Autonomous Zone (PLAC), a community space created to counter an increasingly gentrified city, and Krater, a public production ‘laboratory’ that explores sustainable creation in post-industrial ecosystems.
Mahama’s exhibition does not shy away from one of the current mainstays of biennales: research-based art, with its signature aesthetic of vitrines, plywood and walls plastered with graphs and charts.12 The art historian and critic Claire Bishop recently mounted a definition and critique of this vague category, exploring its relationship to knowledge and truth.13 Bishop argues that research-based installation art cannot be understood in isolation from contemporaneous developments in digital technology. If artists once undertook their own primary research then, today, in our digital world, they often download, assemble and recontextualise existing materials.14 Bishop states:
What results is a conflation: Search becomes research. The difference is subtle but important. Searching is the preliminary stage of looking for something via a search engine, ‘Googling’. Research proper involves analysis, evaluation, and a new way of approaching a problem. Search involves the adaptation of one’s ideas to the language of ‘search terms’ – preexisting concepts most likely to throw up results –whereas research (both online and offline) involves asking fresh questions and elaborating new terminologies yet to be recognized by the algorithm.15
Indeed, at Cukrarna Gallery, Threading Solidarity FIG.8, an installation by the Berlin-based Egyptian writer and director Jihan El-Tahri (b.1963) falls prey to ‘search’ instead of ‘research’. Although the work takes a rarely seen, candid photograph of NAM leaders laughing at the 1961 conference as its starting point FIG.9, the installation explores transnational solidarity through Google images printed onto glossy paper and pinned to corkboards. El-Tahri has also included black-and-white photographs of NAM leaders transferred to textiles and suspended from the walls in the style of a banner. As such projects depend on available image libraries, they effectively consolidate established narratives rather than contest them.16 In this case, it means ostensibly shoring up male protagonists.17 While Mahama’s exhibition takes Nkrumah’s Ghana as its starting point, these anti-colonial movements were subject to their own silences, injustices and marginalisations, specifically with regards to women.18
Other projects shown at Cukrarna Gallery recall an earlier phase of research-based work premised on artists’ primary investigations. In One Man Does Not Rule a Nation FIG.10, the Polish writer Max Cegielski (b.1975) and the artist Janek Simon (b.1977) spotlight a monument to Nkrumah designed by the Polish sculptor Alina Ślesińska (c.1926–94) in Winneba, a Ghanaian coastal town. The monument was demolished soon after the coup against Nkrumah. The installation presents a small-scale model of the monument situated on a plywood structure alongside archival documents and videos in a style that evokes digital meandering. Meanwhile, the Slovakian artist Ilona Németh (b.1963) explores the decline of sugar production in Central Europe in a work that compiles selected interviews and video essays from a larger research project.
Although both projects embody a kind of academic rigour, they lack what Bishop terms ‘artistic idiosyncrasy’, whereby research is mediated through a body, transformed into lived experience and imaginatively delivered.19 As Bishop argues, such differentiations are all the more pressing considering the development of AI search engines, image generators and GPTs. There is also a schism between the monodirectional didacticism of these projects – and the kind of viewing subject this creates – and the exhibition’s desire to transcend univocal, imperial narratives. If the medium of print conveys a message, then the one transmitted by research-based art sits awkwardly within the overall premise of the exhibition.
Nonetheless, From the void came gifts of the cosmos demonstrates the ways in which the crises and failures of the past have spurred creativity today. While ghosts like Tito and Nkrumah may abound, their absence has led to alternative presents.