Seduced By The Charms Of A Mistake | In Conversation With Al Hassan Issah

Seduced by the Charms of a Mistake is the title of Al Hassan Issah’s first solo exhibition at the Nubuke Foundation, Accra, on view until March 12, 2022. This young Kumasi-based artist’s practice spans painting, sculpture, architecture, metalworking and beyond. On this occasion, Issah, speaks about the exhibition, his creative process and how activism ties into his work.

by GRIOT - Published on 12/02/2022
Al Hassan Issah in front of his work A.I.B., 2021. This work was dedicated to Al Hagi Ibrhaim, the blacksmith who passed away in 2021. On view at Nubuke Foundation, Accra, Ghana. Photo: Madina Sacchi. Alle images: Madina Sacchi

GRIOT: What is your idea of painting and how do the objects you create relate to the space in which they are displayed? How can your work create space as opposed to occupying it?

Al Hassan Issah: My work challenges the idea of traditional painting on a canvas; it is a point of departure for an investigation. At one point in my life, I started to feel as if the charcoal drawings on a canvas were too flat. I felt the need to push drawings further, making objects in the space, in other words, making physical drawings.

The painting becomes a form, an object that shares space with the visitor. It is a sculpture that works with an idea of transparency: you can see through it. It requires something beyond the optical intervention and forces you into a physical engagement: you can walk around, into, or outside it. My creation process starts with the sourcing of upcycled materials spanning from aluminum to wood, steel to fabrics. These are then reassembled to new life through the collaborative work of different craftsmen.

Al Hassan Issah, Seduced by the charms of a mistake, Two loves and Kotodwe, 2021
Al Hassan Issah, Seduced by the charms of a mistake, Two loves and Kotodwe, 2021

Whenever I travel, I take photos of things that I find interesting to later re-elaborate them into abstract symbols. The “metal drawings” I produce are the result of this process of picking things from different past experiences to form new pieces. Every single artwork is inspired by a color I have seen in the city – I am fascinated by the idea of bringing the energy and colors within the built environment into the gallery space and investigating how the new materials are contributing to forming the landscape.

The show suggests an interest in mixing, layers, and different mediums. What is the link between the flags disseminated in the garden, the soundscape, and your metal drawings?

Just like in music, there is a certain flow that I find in my work. Even though there might be different objects within the space, there is something, like a chorus in a song, that connects every single one of them. But I would say texture and the application of paint are what bind my artworks together. The 400 flags on the outside are a representation of a kiosk, a container, or a building that I came across. I have decided to locate them outdoors to study the impact of nature in time. They are constantly growing into something interesting. In contrast, the flags located indoors remain static.

Al Hassan Issah, Seduced by the charms of a mistake, Eloquence of the wind, 2021
Al Hassan Issah, <i>Seduced by the charms of a mistake</i>, Eloquence of the wind (2021)
Al Hassan Issah, Seduced by the charms of a mistake, Eloquence of the wind, 2021

I was interested in unfolding a certain idea of the power that a flag can hold. Flags are usually hosted remarkably high and in contraposition, I placed them at human height, accessible. I am attracted by the idea of having the public actively interact with my art, dismantling the sacredness often associated with exhibited artwork. For the same reason, some of the flags are positioned out of the property boundary along the road leading to the gallery, to connect with people around the area who would not necessarily be visiting an exhibition.

Al Hassan Issah, Seduced by the charms of a mistake, 2021. Installation view
Al Hassan Issah, Seduced by the charms of a mistake, A dream of toffees and spikesI, 2021. Installation view

The metalworks are part of an ongoing investigation, almost an obsession I have with gates and balustrades. I have been sketching and documenting them during my travels, paying attention to how the shapes change within different spaces. The soundscape is a collection of sounds recorded during the process of making the work: welding, grinding, sanding, cutting, and hammering. Later on, a friend who is a sound engineer worked around the  sound to create the music made from the mistakes, which plays along with the title of the exhibition: seduced by the charms of a mistake…

Al Hassan Issah, Seduced by the charms of a mistake, Kuran Gawayi, 2021
Al Hassan Issah, Seduced by the charms of a mistake, Biem, Kekabom, 2021

Speaking of mistakes, as the title of the exhibition suggests, this word  seems important within your practice. Could you talk about your concept of failure and how that can be a generative rather than disruptive?

The title of the show is borrowed from the title of a song that I love by the band Late Night Jazz. One of the key elements in my practice is the transformation of something no longer in use into a new shape. My work is about creating by combining disused materials that in some way could be seen as mistakes.

When talking about your art you often refer to the pronoun, we. What is the relationship/exchange between you and other figures that participate in your process?

I am not a magician; I collaborate with many people. Something that is particularly important in my practice is how I bring the contribution of the craftsmen I interact with into the work. It is never a one-man project but the result of combined efforts. I usually cooperate along with carpenters, welders, and blacksmiths.

Al Hassan Issah, Seduced by the charms of a mistake, Dream State, 2021

Although I was very much interested in learning from them and working with their forms, I was also interested in teaching them what I know. Like osmosis, it is a mutual exchange of learning and unlearning, a workshop where we are constantly challenging each other. This aspect became important in my practice. It is not just about commissioning the work I envisioned rather leaving them with an understanding of what they are doing.

I honor some of the collaborations I had with the titles of some of the works. I also dedicate this exhibition to Al Haji Ibrahim who is the blacksmith I worked alongside. He passed away in 2021, whilst in production.

Al Hassan Issah, Seduced by the charms of a mistake, Installation view

You are highly active within your community, especially in terms of exposing vulnerable kids to art. How does your activism feed into your practice?

The importance of knowledge exchange grew in me to the point that it is something I am constantly seeking. During the lockdown when we were all forced to stay home, I decided to organize workshops for the kids that lived in my compound. Even after lockdown was lifted, the kids continued to seek this learning experience, which convinced me to invest in establishing a permanent structure.

I converted the studio where I used to work into a library and the space is still used today by kids aged 6 to 18 years old. From time to time, we organize workshops with painters and filmmakers that expose them to things that they would not experience otherwise.

Instead of hanging outside right after school, come to the library and experiment with different forms of art. The older ones look out for the younger ones. The progress they have made within the past few years is significant, to the point that for some of them, it has become a source of income.

Madina Sacchi

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