The aesthetics of nostalgia

Looking back at 20 years of research-based practice in Ghana, Jesse Weaver Shipley’s latest exhibition blurs the distinction between political rebels and artists.

Mohammed Ben Abdallah from Anatomy of a Revolution by Jesse Weaver Shipley, 2023.

Some time ago, my mother recounted an experience that seemed inconceivable to me. She, along with a grandmother, was on a bus from Konongo, a town south of Kumasi, driving down to the capital, Accra. They were stopped at a military checkpoint: there had been a coup attempt, a curfew had been imposed.  They would have to spend the night at that spot. 

As a Ghanaian nurtured in the days of democracy, the threat of political violence was incredible to me. For want of knowledge, my concern had been directed at how they survived the night: did they keep the windows of the bust open to stay cool, but risk the terror of mosquitoes? Or did they keep them closed, resigned to live with that of the heat?

This story was floating in the undercurrents of my memory until I encountered Jesse Weaver Shipley’s Routes of Rebellion, which filled in the events of that frightening and disquieting day. That morning on June 19, 1983, some rebel soldiers had taken over and held the Ghana Broadcasting House. Not long thereafter,  they were in turn overcome by soldiers loyal to the ruling Provisional National Defense Council. 

Taking possession of the airwaves to announce a coup was a critical step in demonstrating one’s usurpation of power. Seizing the narrative was almost as important as seizing the monopoly of violence. (The Broadcasting House was the site of so many skirmishes that its compound remains littered with tanks today.) People sat by their radios awaiting the outcome; rebels and loyalists clashed and chased each other at various locations in the city, with each side claiming the upper hand from one moment to the next. It was “easily the most serious and daring of the coups against the PNDC and the only one that came within an ace of succeeding,” Ghanaian historian Albert Adu Boahen would later say. 

Shipley’s 2023  film interrogates both the distance of these events and how they are remembered by filming, on vintage tape camera some of the locations and routes the soldiers traversed in 1983. The soundtrack—sources from bootleg cassette recordings—is composed of announcements by coup leaders, government soldiers, and broadcasters. For decades they circulated as unofficial accounts of the events. 

The 24-minute-long video lends its title to the larger retrospective it is a part of: Routes of Rebellion, an exhibition of films and audiovisual media at Tamale’s Nuku Studio. The show looks back at 20 years of research-based practice by Shipley, an artist, anthropologist, and writer who is based in Ghana, New York, and London, and collaborates with art practitioners in these locations. 

“Rebels are often people who move between two worlds, culture-brokers constantly in motion, looking and listening from various angles simultaneously,” Shipley notes in the catalog, “but insurgent creativity comes at a cost. As people imagine new ways of living, they struggle to be understood.” The show focuses mostly on Ghana, the show doesn’t make distinction between political rebels and artists: “revolutionaries are not only political but also challenge how we see and hear the world around us.” These rebel-artists range from Gerald Annan-Forson, personal photographer to long-time ruler Jerry John Rawlings; to Mohammed ben Abdallah, Ghana’s founding director of the National Commission on Culture; to the superstar and father of Ghanaian hiplife Reggie Rockstone, here credited for creating a new style of Ghanaian cosmopolitanism. The films and installations highlight the product of their work and the “routes of rebellion that push the limits of life’s possibilities.”

Jesse Weaver Shipley, a New Yorker, started out as a visual artist, studying painting, printmaking, and photography in London. At some point, he found the London art scene to be too depoliticized, moving at a fast clip in the direction of commercial markets. He decided to change tack. He went to Chicago to do a PhD in social theory and anthropology. There he would read and be struck by the works of Kwame Nkrumah, Ama Ata Aidoo, Ayi Kwei Armah, and others. Their work made a case for the arts helping imagine different futures—through aesthetics, not social critique or social science.

Accra in the early nineties had a small artistic scene; it was vibrant, despite the lack of energy or money. It had developed in the long shadow of the loss of both Nkrumah and the vision of a specific kind of possible future. “Nkrumah and Accra was a center of what could have been a more equitable and humanist world,” says Shipley, but the failures and values of the Western world and Cold War politics had desaturated the scene. On the other hand, these were the days of Fela Kuti and other big bands promoting music as an aesthetic form with political significance. At the theater, too, there was a sense of connection with older traditions stemming from the outward looking, forceful post-independence orientation of culture. Unlike London at the time, Shipley felt art in Ghana had a tie into progressive socialist African and global sensibilities. 

This is the amphitheater he would arrive in. Encounters with Ghanaian academics Kofi Anyidoho and Africanus Aveh in Chicago were the catalysts for the visit. Lecturers and students at the University of Ghana were officially on strike at the time, but still hung around campus working on their shows. Through Anyidoho, Shipley got to meet them and spend time at the recently built drama studio at the school of performing arts on campus. “Accra still felt like it had the vestiges of a socialist society,” says Shipley, pointing more specifically to the dominant sense of communality. Though, moving between Accra and New York or Chicago or London, “you felt the global inequality.”

The drama studio, where Shipley would spend much of his time watching the Abibigromma company rehearse, was built on the idea of participatory performance. “Who are you, and what can you do to get involved” was the ethos, he says. He’d be struck by the costumes, how people used the space to tell a story, and who was able to observe the performer. “The idea that everyone is a part of the performance was built into the ideology of Ghanaian avant-garde arts,” he said. 

Shipley left Ghana after two months and returned in 1997 on a Fulbright to be in residence with the drama companies at the school and at the National Theatre downtown. In the meantime, he’s been inspired to think more about the context of Ghana and African history, and more transnationally about art. Spending time with the playwright Mohammed ben Abdallah, for instance, pushed him to appreciate the work of Theodor Adorno, Bertolt Brecht and other non-African thinkers; Abdallah saw in Brecht, what a lot of African theater was already doing. 

Abdallah had spearheaded the building of the National Theatre and, along with the drama studio, was championing a particular brand of story-making, one that thought intentionally about politics and power. Yaw Asare, the playwright who directed the theatre, exposed Shipley to storytelling forms at once traditional and avant-garde; there were simple stories told in complex forms, Ananse stories preoccupied with migration, power, and sovereignty. And everyone did everything. There were no set roles, such as set designer, painter, playwright, actor. It came out of sheer material necessity—most people had to hold more than two or three roles due to financial constraints—but the effect was a sense of improvisation, egalitarianism, and ownership distinct from the feeling on, say, Broadway at the time. 

Shipley would go on to detail the history of the National Theatre in his 2015 book, Trickster Theatre: The Poetics of Freedom in Urban Africa. (He would spend time with the concert party troupes, hang out with the Nkrumah-era actors at the Art Center, and direct Abdallah’s play, The Witch of Mopti, and perform in some of the local dramas himself.) Containing sketches of the key figures in the theater’s history, Trickster Theatre explores the way off-stage ideas and ways of identification affect the stories onstage. From the idea that performance was crucial to nation making, to culture as an object, technology, and commodity. It makes the argument for theater’s centrality to helping audiences consider new futures and moralities. 

At the show in Tamale, this message comes through most succinctly in the 10-minute film High Tea, from 2013. A pseudo-surrealist work, it is set both in the near future and in 1836, when the trans-Atlantic slave trade continued unabated despite being officially outlawed. The premise is simple: a man and a woman have tea in Jamestown, sitting on an old shipping pier. They initially seem clueless about everything: where they are, who they are, how they got there, who the other person is. The tea seems to prod their memories, and they begin to remember. Through the performance of tea drinking, a practice inexorably linked to the Atlantic slave trade, the couple struggles with its violence and dislocations. The effect is sharpened as the scene repeats but in different languages: English, Ewe, Twi, Pidgin, and Romanian. 

 When I asked Shipley why go to Ghana, he threw the question back at me: why not go to Accra? Why go to London? Why go to Edinburgh? Is Accra not an equally global cosmopolitan node on the map? The location of the show in Tamale, the third biggest city in Ghana, closer to the northern border with Burkina Faso than Accra is, takes that spirit of interrogation further. Why is this white artist doing a show in Tamale? Art is a way of reconfiguring globalization, he responds. The choice (however subconscious) to think of a place like Tamale as somewhat less worthy of hosting such a show is evidence of the way non-Western people are blamed for the failures of the global system. This is a part of the violence of Western intellectualism, Shipley says, and there is a tendency for African culture to be blamed for politics rather than the effort to understand the deeper, more historical forces that make African politics the way they are today.

 Shipley’s multidisciplinary approach—video installations, straight interviews, behind-the-scenes shots, scripted film, photography, fiction, and nonfiction—allows for a comprehensive sense of engagement, both with the work on display and with Ghanaian aesthetics. The show takes up the whole of the Nuku Studio, in a retooled former printing press with high ceilings and ancient glass windows with wooden frames. One video installation is soundproofed by a combination of egg crates and recycled denim fabric. Bales of clothing (another iconic aesthetic stemming from Ghana’s voracious appetite for secondhand goods) serve both as seats for viewers to engage with the work and as stands for some of the TVs.  

Shipley’s training as an ethnographer is evident in the show. The placement of the artworks and the spaces a viewer has to navigate to engage with them subvert the usual hierarchies. No matter where one starts, there is a feeling of being plunged into a great moment, and one senses the ethos of participating in a project of community archiving, or reorganizing collective memory. “If you understand a people’s arts as dynamic and futuristic,” Shipley says “you understand the arts as ways to think of the future.” There is a tendency to be stuck on the traditional, that which is held in time as African art. But Shipley contends that “the traditional has always carried with it the seeds of being edgy and modern and quirky and cool.” 

 His direct engagement with theater, performance, and art in Ghana would continue, as he documented in his 2012 book, Living the Hiplife: Celebrity and Entrepreneurship in Ghanaian Popular Music, and the experimental documentary Is It Sweet? Tales of an African Superstar in New York, which followed Reggie Rockstone, a pioneer of rap and hip hop in Ghana, and his friends. The documentary explores a slice of West African life transposed to America, following Reggie and his friends and collaborators through a series of public events and casual encounters.

The focus on artists and their craft is a way in which Shipley tries to unpack the role of art as critical in society. To highlight how artistic forms are constantly being reinvented and how young artists make sense of the world and draw on different influences. A powerful example of this in the show is the 2018 documentary Portrait of an Artist(s), which runs for 17 minutes.

This charming documentary follows the photographer Nii Obodai as he is making portraits of the Ghana-based Nigerian boxer Helen “Iron Lady” Joseph. They try various locations in Accra (including Obodai’s home at one point) looking for the best light they can get. The artists and the subject are at once collaborating to create a beautiful image and also pushing each other in their understanding of what is beautiful and what it takes to achieve that beauty. An extra delight is the presence of Eric Gyamfi, a young apprentice to Obodai, who chimes in, almost like a Greek chorus, with his observations and suggestions shaping this small one-act performance. Questions of the ideal aesthetics, physical performance, and the ability to capture or manipulate nature come up. 

Shipley’s Routes of Rebellion had a significant impact on me. I was hungry for more stories from my mom and other older relatives about a momentous era of our history that has almost largely been erased, partly due to trauma and partly because perpetrators fear retribution. It also made me wonder about the effect of decades of political violence, authoritarianism, and oppression on the human spirit. Bearing these questions in mind, I was aghast encountering the film Burnt Images: Photography and Its Afterlife, made in 2022. 

Running for 11 minutes, the film depicts Shipley’s incredibly opportune arrival at the house of Gerald Annan-Forson, the personal photographer of dictator Jerry John Rawlings. Annan-Forson was imminently to follow through with his plans to burn hundreds of thousands of photo negatives, spanning 50 years and covering the very historical period of which I had been lamenting the lack of documentation. As the personal photographer of the head of state, Annan-Forson had unparalleled access to events and happenings that shaped the nation. This verité documentary also delves into Annan-Forson’s personal artistic experiences and dilemmas as a photojournalist trying to survive in a world of rapidly changing technologies. Annan-Forson’s photographs, some of which were on display in the show, allow viewers to peek into life in Ghana from the ’70s through the 2000s. The accompanying label describes how the artwork explores “how memory is sedimented in the afterlives of photographic images.”

Shipley is deeply interested in nostalgia, “how the past gets embedded in and haunts the present, how people tell stories, and how to think about future possibilities in a critical kind of way.” “Because people get complacent and get seduced by art and storytelling,” he explains, “I’d like my work to help people be critical in understanding how aesthetics seduce.” Rather than lull audiences with nostalgia or a particular version of beauty, it is more helpful, Shipley suggests, to teach viewers to see through aesthetics, to learn about its ability to attract, and in doing so, to then pick apart and understand power.

Further Reading

Futuristic Folklore

Considering James Town’s weighty history, which played a huge part in shaping Ghana, it seems only right that when re-imagining a future Accra we start at the place where the city began.