Theresah Ankomah’s monumental and immersive artworks put a new spin on the basket-making traditions of Ghana’s northern and eastern regions. Having learned basketry from local craftspeople, the Accra-based artist uses a variety of natural fibers such as kenaf, palm leaves, jute, and rattan to create woven environments whose appearance changes as light filters through them and casts shadows within and around them.
Repurposing is central to Ankomah’s art making, and her work often makes use of the kenaf produce baskets, or chalis, that are found in marketplaces across Ghana. Embedded in her art are the geopolitics of the region, where traditionally handmade items like baskets are being replaced by cheap imported goods.
Ankomah began incorporating baskets into her installations after a visit to the Anloga onion market in Kumasi, where she watched baskets filled with onions being off-loaded to traders’ stalls. Today she collects her onion baskets from Anloga and another major onion market in Ghana, the Agbogbloshie market in Accra.
The onion baskets are taken back to Ankomah’s studio, where they are dyed, cut apart, and woven together into sculptural forms. “After I get them,” she says, “I go through the process of sorting them into sizes, then soaking them in water before dyeing them in a sudine”—a special vessel used for this purpose—“using different colors depending on the dyeing routine for the day.”
The dye baths color the normally pale brown baskets in an array of reds, greens, yellows, purples, and oranges. “I dye them to mimic how tradesmen identify their produce by tying colored fabrics or polythene to their baskets,” Ankomah explains. “They are then dried in the sun, after which I cut them into semicircles using scissors and a knife.” Then she spends time “splitting and collaging, cutting and stitching together, joining and reweaving.” She adds, “My body of work becomes an appropriation of individual weavings collected through encounters with people, experiences, and narratives.”
For Ankomah, woven baskets are not simply objects but also embodiments of a host of social and economic structures. In Africa, basketry is usually practiced by women, who pass down time-honored techniques from generation to generation, and the craft has historically provided them with a source of income. Ankomah’s Untitled #2 (2017), a site-specific installation in the Anloga onion market, returned the transformed baskets to the place where she first encountered them, activating this public space in a performative way that drew new attention to it—and to the baskets.
“The tradition of basket weaving has been neglected as a result of modernization, industrialization, and technological booms,” she says. “The importation of polythene and plastic baskets into the West African region not only contributes to a decline in this traditional craft but also contributes to the increase of plastic waste and subsequent pollution of the environment.”
Over time, handwoven baskets decay, perhaps even returning to the earth as compost and becoming part of an endless cycle of transformation and renewal. “I must say, I’m a lover of nature. I see myself in dialogue with fibers, studying their ecological processes, especially the climatic and environmental forces that affect their materiality over time,” Ankomah says. “My interest in exploring the dynamics of fiber lies in its ability to generate a dichotomy between temporality and permanence.”
Theresa Ankomah, The Wonderland, 2016. Photo: Va-Bene Elikem Fiatsi.