By REBECCA ANNE PROCTOR, July 2021
In their latest exhibition at Gallery 1957 in Accra artists Langlands & Bell create work based on Ghana’s forbidding slave forts exploring how the past and present are forever intertwined.
A narrow rectangular arched doorway looks out onto a violent sea. As the tide rises and falls with the crashing waves, the onlooker notices something else: prison bars block the door’s exit. The tumultuous sea can only be accessed when the door is unlocked. This multimedia video installation by British artist collaborators Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell has been positioned at the back of one of Gallery 1957’s spaces in Accra, Ghana for the artists’ current exhibition The Past is Never Dead… (until 12 July), curated by Jonathan Watkins, Director of IKON, an art venue in Birmingham, UK. It recreates “the door of no return”—the infamous door on the whitewashed slave castles aligning Ghana’s coasts through which millions of Africans would be pushed before they were shipped to a life of slavery in the Americas, the Caribbean or Brazil. The door gave them their last glimpse of Africa, their home.
Turner Prize nominated British artists Langlands & Bell have never shied away from delving into risky subjects, especially those that reopen the old wounds of human history. For the artists, who have worked collaboratively since 1978, architectural structures bear witness to the political, cultural and economic events that have shaped our world. The very survival of these structures serves as moments of truth for times that have since come and gone. Throughout their four-decade career Langlands & Bell have consistently revealed both the beauty and violence behind some of the world’s most historically challenging structures. This includes their Turner Prize-shortlisted interactive work The House of Osama bin Laden that was commissioned in 2002 by London’s Imperial War Museum to document and investigate postwar Afghanistan as part of the aftermath of September 11, 2001, and saw the artists venture inside the former home of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Last year, Langlands & Bell created work inspired by British architect Sir John Soane for their show Degrees of Truth (4 March 2020-3 January 2021) at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London exploring the complex web of relationships between people, architecture and today’s technological systems of communication. As the artists continually demonstrate, the historical monuments of our past act as reminders of periods of history that have had an immense and undeniable effect on the realities that shape our present world.
For their most recent exhibition, The Past is Never Dead… , which was postponed several times during the pandemic, the artists present a series of video, sculpture and appliqué works inspired by the forbidding structures of Ghana’s many slave forts. Built along the coast of Ghana by European slave traders following the construction of Elmina Castle by the Portuguese in 1482, these castles played an instrumental role in the transatlantic slave trade. They were the last place African slaves would pass before embarking on the long and perilous journey to the Americas.
The artworks on view are in the form of detailed plans of 20 of the many forts and castles along the coast of Ghana. They are made in a variety of media, including cotton appliqué on wooden stretchers, African redwood, 23-carat gold leaf, paint, glass and lacquer. Simple and abstract in aesthetic, these works are akin to the carefully drawn coordinates of any map, and at first glance, the viewer could easily mistake them for mere works of abstract and minimalistic art without realizing that they are in fact the re-created plans for the European-built coastal architecture in Ghana. It is the meticulous and subtle detail of each work that prompts the spectator to search for deeper meaning. For many of the works, Langlands & Bell collaborated with local Ghanaian artisans, including Baba Issaka, a master Asafo flag maker in the Cape Coast region of Ghana and carver Eric Kwasi Danguah, his wife Augustina and their son Ernest, from the town of Aburi. The enigmatic plans of the slave forts also bear similarity with Adinkra symbols—a traditional Akan visual language used extensively in Ghanaian fabrics and pottery.
It is the prominently placed foreboding dark wooden European-styled chair in the center of the gallery that intrigues the most. It is called the Governor’s Chair and it reinterprets the Dutch State Chair of Cornelis Nagtglas, the last Dutch governor 1868-72 of Elmina Castle in Ghana. Just like the purpose of its sitter so many centuries ago, it commands the room and the surrounding artworks. In the Anglo Dutch Gold Coast Treaty of 1872 Dutch colonial possessions were ceded to the British. Langlands & Bell found the original chair falling apart in a back room of Fort St Anthony in Axim, Ghana. They photographed it and gave a 1-1 size print of it to a carver in the town of Aburi who then re-made the chair for by transforming the 2D image with considerable skill into a 3D object. The plan of the fort created as a model under glass in the seat, is cast as a shadow on the surface of the plinth underneath.
The artworks on view are the product of several years of intense research that Langlands & Bell conducted into Ghana’s slave forts, via site-exploration across Ghana as well as research including at the Dutch National Archives, in The Hague, The National Archives in London, and University of Legon in Accra. The artists believe the slave forts offer a “shared history, albeit of unequal power relations, connecting West Africa, the Americas, and Europe, a history that is subject, as the artists describe, “to a kind of willful amnesia…forgotten, especially (conveniently) in Europe.”
Ghana’s slave forts have born witness to one of the worst crimes in human history. Through their work the artists have once again raised questions concerning the capacities of past architectural structures to bear testament to the profound political, economic and social events that have shaped our current world. Undoubtedly, in the absence of these forbidding forts, the horrifying journeys that Africans were forced to embark on, into what was then called the “new world,” would probably have never taken place. The mere act of trying to create contemporary works of art that appropriate the slave forts both commemorates the memory of those who were forced to leave their homeland as well as raises questions regarding our present understanding of such structures.
Like Langlands & Bell’s recent show at the Soane Museum, in this brave exhibition at Gallery 1957 in Accra the artists shed light on the challenges of the times we live in that many are now calling: the era of “post-truth.” The term denotes the idea that objective facts are now less important in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion as well as personal belief. During a time when emotions continue to run high regarding race and identity politics, works such as those created by Langlands & Bell prompt us not only to face crucial facets of the truth, but importantly, the effects of that truth on contemporary consciousness and present psychological wellbeing.
Importantly, Langlands & Bells’ work prompts exploration into what should the role of these European-built slave forts to be today? How does humanity face monuments that can continue to represent the unhealed wounds of our past and the source of ills in our present society?
On June 20, Gallery 1957 hosted a panel titled “Is the past ever dead? Restoration, tourism, and the historical importance of the slave forts of Ghana” Featuring: Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell, artist Adjoa Armah, Abdul-Rauf Issahaque, curator for the Ghana Museums & Monuments Board, collector and art patron Nish McCree, creative producer Okhiogbe Omonblanks Omonhinmin, Charlotte Ashamu from Yale University's Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, and moderated by Ghanaian historian Allotey Bruce-Konuah.
The overarching question of the panel centered around what should be done today with these frightening reminders of our past—reminders that continue to trigger unhealed emotional wounds. Are they best served as tourist attractions, monuments to the Africans who entered into slavery through them, with many perishing along the way?
“I want to see how this devastating part of history that we understand through these architectural buildings represents an extended or expanded narrative,” said Ghana-based American-born art patron and collector Nish McCree. “This exhibition should live in a larger context. I think that others can benefit from it by experiencing it around the world.”
But does everyone have a right to create art from such landmarks of pain—African and non-African alike? Does it even matter?
Langlands & Bell, while recognized artists worldwide for their courageous art—often produced in areas undergoing extreme conflict—have encountered some backlash for this novel body of work. It is a new concept for artists who are not from Africa but instead from the West and from Great Britain, one of the nations most responsible for the transatlantic slave trade, to create art about monuments that have witnessed such horrors, particularly during a time when the topic of race, equal rights, and the underprivileged runs high in public awareness and on most political agendas. But does that mean such art should not be done?
“We both have a particular history,” said Ben Langlands. “We are both Londoners and white and we have a different kind of complicity in this subject, but we approach it as best we can. We are not trying to say that this is the only way of approaching the subject or making art about it, but we do think it is perfectly legitimate that we do make art about it. We have had our own struggles about making art in difficult situations.”
“I think that this subject, while the history is absolutely appalling, is very important and anyone can make art about it and that we are among those anybodies,” he continued. “And I am not trying to say that what we have done is the last word on the subject, it is barely the beginning of the conversation.”
“Art has the power to connect people and by working here we are hoping to open up the discussion in a much broader way,” added Nikki Bell.
At the whitewashed Cape Coast Castle on the other side of the “Door of No Return”—the structure which mirrors Langland’s & Bell’s video installation of the same door—there is now a sign that reads “The Door of Return.” The new sign is a symbol, our tour guide of the castle explained, that all those that were forced to leave are now always welcomed home. “Wherever you are and no matter what happened, you can always come back to your roots,” he said. A timely ode for the recently passed Juneteenth holiday in the United States, commemorating the emancipation and extraordinary resilience of African American slaves, which comes on the back of Ghana’s “The Year of Return” launched in 2019, a year-long program of activities to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first recorded enslaved Africans in the State of Virginia in the United States.
And while the terrifying history of these old forts still rings true, causing shivers to all who dare confront them in person or read of their horrendous woes, they might soon have new purpose. Now, centuries later, for the thousands who left, they can now enter metaphorically and physically through the “Door of Return” captured through Langlands & Bell’s powerful work, and finally return home. WM
Rebecca Anne Proctor is a journalist based in Dubai. She is the former Editor-in-Chief of Harper’s Bazaar Art and Harper’s Bazaar Interiors, a role she held since January 2015. Her writing has been published in The New York Times Style Magazine; Bloomberg Businessweek, Architectural Digest, Vogue Arabia, Artnet News, Frieze, BBC, The Forward, Arab News, Galerie, Ocula, The National, ArtNews and The Business of Fashion. She is an international consultant for Rizzoli Books and also regularly writes texts for books and catalogues on Middle Eastern and African art and culture.view all articles from this author