Contemporary African art is a burgeoning field, with artists exploring diverse themes and challenging established norms. One of these emerging artists is Rita Mawuena Benissan, whose exhibition entitled “In the World, not of the World” is currently on show at Gallery 1957 in Accra, Ghana, until June 17, 2023.
At the heart of Rita Mawuena Benissan‘s work are ceremonial umbrellas, traditional objects of Asante culture dating back to the 18th century. Once reserved for chiefs, these umbrellas symbolized power and prestige. Today, although they are an integral part of daily life in Ghana, their importance is often overlooked. It is this ubiquity and invisibility of umbrellas that inspired Rita Mawuena Benissan in her exploration of culture, identity and history.
In her short film accompanying the exhibition, Rita Mawuena Benissan uses aerial shots to fly over Accra’s Makola market. Dozens, if not hundreds, of umbrellas are laid out on the market, stripped of their ceremonial role and serving simply as shelter from the sun for the merchants. Yet seen from above, these umbrellas are transformed into magnificent symbols of people and places, transforming the daily bustle of the market into a spectacle of exceptional beauty and profound cultural significance.
In a piece entitled “The Triumphant King Returns” (2023), Rita Mawuena Benissan reimagines this tradition of ceremonial umbrellas by creating a work of art in the shape of a large umbrella. Made by the same craftsmen who traditionally make chiefs’ umbrellas, this piece depicts an archival portrait of a Ghanaian chief dressed in traditional robes and adorned with gold. Through this creation, she redefines the role of the umbrella, transforming it from a simple symbolic object to a means of questioning memory and identity.
In addition to her artistic activity, Rita Mawuena Benissanis also the founder of Si Hene, a non-profit foundation dedicated to preserving the historical archives of chieftaincy in Ghana and raising awareness of the country’s cultural history. Looking through Si Hene‘s visual archive on Instagram, we can identify some of the characters depicted by the artist in her works. However, she deliberately chooses not to reveal the names and dates of these individuals, creating a kind of blurring of origins. This approach underlines Rita Mawuena Benissan‘s interest in how traditional objects can be relevant in the contemporary world, rather than relegated to the status of historical artifacts.
Rita Mawuena Benissan‘s exhibition offers a fascinating perspective on contemporary African art and how cultural traditions can be reinterpreted to address 21st-century issues. Her creative use of ceremonial umbrellas and her willingness to blur temporal boundaries make her work a captivating visual experience. Don’t miss the opportunity to discover the exhibition “In the World, not of the World” at Gallery 1957 in Accra, Ghana, before it closes on June 17, 2023.