In Adum, in the center of Kumasi – Ghana’s second-largest city – an old warehouse stands as a beautiful letdown. It has been over ten years since the loco shed was used to full capacity. It is neglected and yet somehow humming with life.
In years past, faulty trains were sent there to be repaired. Now, only a handful of staff remains at the station. From the roof, old lamps hang from where they once shone light. Plants have occupied windows and walls. Families occupy old offices, turning them into places of residence. The platform is a resting place for the homeless. Growing shrubs sprout from the withering machines. The workshop is now a transitory place for passers-by looking for a shortcut to somewhere else. Its inhabitants and activities spill out into the neighborhood around it.
During the exploitative years of colonialism, the British established the railway to extract precious metals, minerals and cocoa from the hinterlands and send them to the coastal ports for export. The lines would pass through the Ashanti Region, of which Kumasi is the capital, the Western Region to the port in Takoradi and also the Eastern Region to the port in Accra. When Ghana gained its independence in 1957, the railway was renamed the Ghana Railway Company and over the next 40 years the Kumasi Railway would house and be a place for the repair of equipment, vehicles, engines and carriages from Japan, Germany, America and Britain, each piece gradually wearing away with time.
In April, the blaxTARLINES KUMASI curatorial collective held an exhibition entitled “if you love me…” , featuring 30 artists and a number of their collaborators. From painters and sculptors to horticulturists and engineers, the artists – many of whom practice in Kumasi – exhibited their interpretations of the theme at the locomotive shed of the Kumasi Railway.
The artists and curators contemplate the possibilities in the space and the linkages across the country. For instance, Eugene Edzorho’s collection of rocks gathered from small-scale mining sites hang in an old carriage, a reminder of the significance of trains to mineral ore transportation. Edzorho and his collaborator, Rex Akinruntan, are working on a similar installation at the Takoradi Railway Station, which is currently under construction.
The shed’s current state poses some questions. Do any of us here – loitering, mingling, living – know of or remember the station in its former incarnation? And do we care? Should we? In a bid to reconcile the aspects of life and living in the locomotive shed, the curators – Robin Riskin, Selom Kudjie and Patrick Nii Okanta Ankrah – along with the artists, attempt to weave the artworks and the environment together. So much so that even a floating locomotive doesn’t seem out of place as it hangs as though in zero-gravity. Like a spaceship, the suspended styrofoam blocks inside it, with tessellated patterns drawn on by artist Lois Selasie Arde-Acquah, oscillate gently with the breeze.
The exhibition takes its title from the work of Eric Okwei Nii Noye, whose fabric with the inscription “if you love me let me know” can be found hanging in the windows and on drying lines like that of the clothes and fabric of the people living in the warehouse.
People stream through the shed going about their day, sometimes stopping to read artists’ inscriptions on the walls or old buses and other aspects of the exhibition. Some are impressed, others unfazed. Two young men linger longer than most. Encouraged by the unfamiliar visitors to give their opinion on the exhibition – “It is interesting” – they say eventually before scuttling off.
Just outside the warehouse on a large billboard, grinning cyborg Medusas greet drivers and their passengers on the Asafo interchange as they go by. Bursting with color, Adjo Kisser’s instantly recognizable cartoons signal transformations across space and time as the environment changes. On an adjoining billboard, Deryk Owusu Bempah’s vanishing-point display alters perceptions, causing the viewer to consider the immediate space and question where it really ends, if at all.
Black and white painted soft drink cans, styrofoam plates and takeaway boxes installed by Francis Anim-Sakyi are littered along the tracks and platform. They differ only slightly to the plastic waste strewn around the area. Easily overlooked, Anim-Sakyi’s work highlights how we can get used to seeing discarded rubbish out and dumped thoughtlessly.
Rainbow tapestries of one pesewa coins hang over the platform wall onto the crushed stones and ballast. For this work, the artist Yaw Owusu puts the coins through oxidization, heat and chemical processes to achieve the multicolored effect, effectively speeding up the ageing process. Like the railway, the tapestries themselves represent something of little use. The coin, the lowest value in the currency, is accepted nearly nowhere.
In one of the rooms above a windowless opening, a headless statue alluding to the figure of Kwame Nkrumah – Ghana’s first president – is painted over the cracks of the wall by Afia Prempeh, as though telling of a loss of leadership. Without a head, what use is the body?
Observing the warehouse and interacting with its occupants and the exhibition – itself a sort of occupation – it’s hard not to imagine what could have been, or indeed could be if the political will and right management was in place. A thriving railway would transform the country, least not in the economies of the regions it would run through, with people and goods crossing the country with relative ease.
Recent and present governments have all pledged to rehabilitate and build new lines to the outstretches of the country, as far up north as Paga in the Upper East Region on the border with Burkina Faso. Work in Takoradi-Sekondi and along the Western Corridor has begun, but the Kumasi line remains idle. And, as such, the workshop is somewhat removed from its old life. It continues to transform, morph, expand and be expanded.
Perhaps then, a possible closing of the title of the exhibition could be “if you love me… help me grow.”