Architectural resistance

A collective of artists and architects are working to reimagine public space through site-specific installations in abandoned property developments in Ghana's capital city.

Image credit Anthony Comber-Badu.

The directions were standard for Accra. About five lines of intricate orientation followed by: “Then take the first right and at the building site, ask for Emil.” A friend was hosting a bonding session at her pool for all the contributors to the inaugural “LIMBO // ACCRA”—a collective of artists and architects working to re-imagine public space in Accra. Too late now to question the whiff of unwaged labor in her earlier message: “If you’re free today and wanna come by and help out then you too are officially involved in the LIMBO project lol.”

To even the untrained eye, rampant property development (and abandonment) in Accra is hard to miss. Yet as with global trends, rapid construction does not mean widespread affordable housing. A lack of regulation and arbitrary pricing means those who can afford to build in Ghana exploit the chaos for significant returns. Measuring the scale of the problem is guesswork with reliable data shockingly difficult to find. Despite government and UN intervention to boost housing supply, completed new homes remain unaffordable for average Ghanaians. Across the capital, developers barely hit 60% occupancy in new builds. As one developer put it: “…the prospective homeowner’s budget or affordability is a complete mismatch… that is why there is this big disparity.”

Despite the obvious solutions, developers are doing little to provide affordable housing to Ghana’s urban poor.

Image credit Anthony Comber-Badu.

I arrived at the building site that would host Limbo’s first public intervention. Into the dilapidated dwelling I stepped. The upper floor, sprawling into contact with an orange tree, was crowned with metal rods, spires for the roof that never was. The team’s activity was so infectious that I changed into my swimming trunks to better wade in and help. Emil was sunny and his throaty Danish accent lent a reassuring depth to everything he said. I warmed to his efficiency as he gave me a tour, bringing me up to speed on the installation. The exhibition was opening the next day and only the prominent plastician Serge Attukwei Clottey had filled his space.

Image credit Anthony Comber-Badu.

Clear blue sky beckoned to us above the naked central staircase. We rose through a hole ringed in iron and concrete lattice. The precarious landing led directly onto a first encounter with Clottey’s installation. His signature yellow plastic containers had been tessellated neatly into the gaps in the walls and popped with artificial cheer against the crumbling concrete. Above, the blue expanse domed in every direction, providing the view that his artwork denied the windows. As dusk settled into the dusty ruin, more contributors floated up through the floor. Dominique, Limbo’s co-founder, arrived by moped and ran through her to-do list before expanding on their vision.

Image credit Anthony Comber-Badu.

“It’s a direct challenge to the extractive property market, the system that takes. Land, manpower, resources, community space. These unfinished properties are everywhere just trapping it all as frozen capital and that’s why we called it Limbo. What’s all this negative space doing to people’s minds?”

This attitude of taking and making for yourself was the blueprint for Limbo’s architectural exercise in resistance. As we parted that evening, I wondered what lessons Accra’s art consumers would take from this sprawling offering.

Image credit Anthony Comber-Badu.

Exhibition day arrived and I hung back, capturing peoples’ interaction with the space. Nene, a whizkid designer who was bunking his third day of class filmed alongside me. First came the group of artists, offering their points of view amidst pointless walls. A stray iron girder became a crutch to hang Patrick Tagoe-Turkson’s rubber tapestry. His hefty patchworks use discarded chalewote (flip-flops) and evoke Kente, pixels and pollution. One also served the double function of blocking a large archway over a steep drop. Guests would have to venture deep into the space to discover David Alabo’s afro-surrealist works, spectrums of technicolor and shade peeking out from unfinished en-suites. Diego Asamoa’s photographs of shrouded models in motion were uncanny reminders of life frozen still. The final room upstairs had been earmarked for Free The Youth. The liberated lads burst into the event a fashionably late rocking their graphic laden garms. Throughout the night guests ducked into their leafy photo booth to be snapped in front of a large Ghana flag.

Image credit Anthony Comber-Badu.

Next came the public who were greeted with a blue van parked across the entryway by Nana Osei Kwadwo. Nana had installed a Trotro (Ghana’s most common mode of transport), complete with driver, the shrill call of his mate and a TV playing his films on Trotro life. Behind the van, Deryk Bempah’s quieter monochrome works invited guests inside. Bempah’s award winning photojournalism resurrects Ghana’s defunct national rail network. The tracks and stations now stand ossified, relics from the postcolonial era of infrastructure investment. Cramped as they were, it was a rare chance for the urban audience to inspect those fossils up close.

As my shutter clicked away, I watched Accra’s creatives and her misfits, her excluded and most privileged rub shoulders beneath the baking sun. It had cost them nothing to bask in an open space filled with a world of music and political art. If the government is serious about empowering young people through the creative arts, then providing spaces that encourage creativity is the best start. Why not transform abandoned properties as evidence for a transformation in policy?

Image credit Anthony Comber-Badu.

The crowd grew thicker as evening approached. Harmattan Rain, who’d provided an eclectic ambience for the day, upped the BPM and pushed the crowd towards the whiskey bar. Adjoa Armah perched regally on a stool as she drew them round. She delivered a monologue on existing between alienation and familiarity since her move “back” to Accra. Each forceful line began “Home is…” and she spoke beyond the audience that arced around her. She spoke for me and the disaffected youth of the diaspora, turning back towards Africa to find the best way forward; for the free youth of Ghana, unshackled from reliance on their inert elected officials; for young artists with too few public spaces to wonder and grow in together; for young collaborators spreading a message of resistance. She spoke for a global generation facing extinction as a firm possibility; for all these potential people, she spoke the truth—our home is a place that has long been in limbo.

Further Reading