It contrasts with the grey British sky!’ Why the Barbican has been wrapped in pink fabric

Visitors to London’s Barbican Centre this month will find its lakeside facade swathed in a magnificent magenta fabric, dramatically taming the grey brutalist architecture. Resembling a billowing pavilion or awning, the exterior has been transformed by a vast expanse of pink-purple striped material, embroidered with garments that tumble exuberantly down the face of the building. “The building is very masculine and I wanted something that would somehow soften it,” says Ibrahim Mahama, the Ghanaian artist behind this textile takeover.

Based in the northern city of Tamale, Mahama, 36, has gained international renown for enveloping buildings in curtains of tattered jute sacks stitched together. Made in south-east Asia, these sacks are used in Ghana to transport cocoa beans abroad, then reused domestically for hauling rice, maize and charcoal. Mahama exchanges new sacks for old ones, which he prizes for the memories, scars and toil embedded in the material. He has covered theatres, ministries and museums at home and abroad in these jute skins, a gesture that invites the viewers to reflect on work, migration and the inequities of global trade.

His intervention at the Barbican marks his first use of bright colour. It’s also the first time he’s had his fabric made by hand – all 2,000 square metres of it. The artist draws a link between the 1,000 weavers and seamstresses who produced the material over five months and the labourers in the 70s who hand-finished the concrete surface of the Barbican with pick hammers.

“I thought it was quite beautiful because a lot of workers on this building had to chip off the concrete by hand to create the texture,” Mahama says. “I was trying to respond to that. So I thought, ‘Why not start from the basis of labour and produce everything by hand?’” (There is a further connection as the Barbican stands on what had been a thriving hub for the rag trade in the Cripplegate neighbourhood, before bombs flattened it in the second world war.) Much of the fabric was produced in Tamale’s sports stadium. The enormity of the project’s scale is clear from photos showing the makers toiling away in a sea of pink that blankets most of the football pitch.

Made by hand … the altered skyscape of the Barbican. Photograph: Pete Cadman/Barbican Centre

Why pink? “It started as a joke,” Mahama says. “I thought, ‘The British weather is always very grey, why not pick a colour that contrasts with the sky?’” The installation is titled Purple Hibiscus after Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s audacious 2003 novel of the same name about domestic violence and religious zealotry in post-colonial Nigeria. Mahama often titles his work after novels by African authors in tribute to their creativity. I would suggest that the fabric’s colour opens up another reading of the work as a celebration of queer communities and of human rights in general – no doubt a western perspective, but pertinent nonetheless since Ghana passed legislation in February which, if ratified, will make it illegal for anyone to identify as LGBTQ+.

Purple Hibiscus is part of the Barbican’s current textiles show Unravel, which has seen several artists withdraw work after the institution cancelled plans to host a speech about the Israel-Gaza conflict. Mahama says he will go ahead with his installation. “For me it’s not so simple as ‘Let’s boycott’,” he explains. “So much hard work has gone into this, the men and women who were sewing this material were so excited about what its potential could be. When they see an image of the material covering the building, imagine what it can help to produce in Ghana going forward.”

People believe that if you take a batakari robe to the shaman, you can get a curse placed on its owner

Mahama has added another layer of meaning to the work by incorporating into the fabric traditional Ghanaian robes known as batakaris, worn by everyone from royals to ordinary people and often passed down over many generations. It was, he says, a challenge to persuade people to part with these cherished garments because of long-held superstitions around personal items. “The batakari is like DNA. People believe that if you take it to the shaman, you can somehow place a curse on them, and the curse will go back to the past, and their present and future generations will be affected.”

He had to convince them the smocks would be used for art, and offer an exchange for new bakataris or other goods. “But then they don’t just give it to you like that,” he says. “Some of them will have to pee on it first because they believe that pee or human excrement is a way of desacralising the material.” These smocks, large and rectangular, or frilled and bow-like, create an unruly abstract pattern against the pink backdrop, as they cascade and overlap toward the bottom. With their head holes and signs of wear, the garments imbue the work with a sense of personal connection, of residual beliefs and traditions.

The artist first hit on the idea of covering objects and infrastructures in 2012 while studying for his masters in fine arts at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, southern Ghana. He had begun collecting ragged jute sacks and sewing them together, but had no idea what he would do with them. One day he brought the material to the market where some traders spontaneously threw it over a pile of charcoal. “That really impacted me,” he says. “I decided this is interesting, why not focus on it?” Mahama often finds himself compared to the artist duo Jeanne-Claude and Christo, famed for wrapping buildings from the Reichstag in Berlin to the Pont Neuf in Paris, but where they did it for aesthetics, using industrial fabrics, his concern is with the physical human labour embodied by the material.

Mahama has had what most would consider a meteoric rise. He has shown at prestigious international art events such as Documenta in Germany and the Sharjah and Venice Biennales. Besides his Barbican commission, coming up he has a solo exhibition at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh and a group show on the sidelines of the Venice Biennale. It has all happened in just 10 years, since he took part in his first international show, at London’s Saatchi Gallery in 2014. That was the first time the idea of becoming an artist seemed attainable. “I was like OK, maybe this is it, let me take my chance.”

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In the pink … some of the detailing that adorns Mahama’s wrapper. Photograph: Pete Cadman/Barbican Centre

With the proceeds from the Saatchi show, Mahama set about creating an art scene from scratch in Tamale, his birthplace and Ghana’s third largest city. To date he has built three cultural centres, what he calls his “life’s work”. There’s the Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art, its sister institution the Red Clay Studio, and Nkrumah Volini, which he converted from an abandoned silo that had been built in the euphoric heyday of Ghana’s 1957 independence from British colonial rule.

Although these spaces host exhibitions, performances and lectures, they are not cultural centres as we know them. They’re also living history museums and archaeological sites, filled with relics of colonial times and of Ghana’s thwarted economic hopes before the 1966 overthrow of its first post-independence president, Kwame Nkrumah. Mahama has collected hundreds of metres of train tracks originally laid by the British to transport gold and repurposed them for artistic and educational use; he has salvaged train carriages and decommissioned planes, turning them into classrooms. He is interested in failure as a proposition for regeneration. “I’ve always thought that we can use crisis and failure as some kind of a protagonist in order to be able to create new experiences,” he says.

Everything he earns from his work, Mahama ploughs back into these projects. So Purple Hibiscus will return to Ghana after its run at the Barbican to be expanded and used in installations around the country. At the core of his practice is the idea of sharing his work back home. “My primary audience is the members of the community and the kids,” he says. “In my work, the translation or the redistribution of art through these kids, and what it produces in the future both ideologically and materially, is the most important thing for me.”

When things are old and scarred, I believe they contain ghosts

Mahama has just won the inaugural $75,000 Sam Gilliam award from the Dia Art Foundation, named after the pioneering American abstract painter. Some of the money will go towards a scholarship fund for university students. The rest he hopes to invest in building a new art school to be named after his professor and mentor Karî’kachä Seid’ou, “one of the most significant proponents of art on the continent in the 20th century”. Seid’ou’s radical ideas about expanding and democratising art have informed Mahama’s appreciation of decrepitude.

For Mahama, every piece of scrap has value and beauty; besides jute sacks and batakaris, he has accumulated hundreds of old shoe repair boxes, sewing machines, colonial-era school desks and railway seats and turned them into monumental sculptures that hold powerful narratives. “When things are old and scarred, I believe there are ghosts contained within them,” he says. “Those ghosts have the potential to allow us to transcend the boundaries of how we see the world.”

Ibrahim Mahama: Purple Hibiscus is at the Barbican, London, from 10 April to 18 August. Songs About Roses will be at the Fruitmarket in Edinburgh from 13 July to 6 October

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