Lab Project

Guabuliga – Well by the Thorn Tree

Slightly Lost in Translation
Bernard Akoi-Jackson

“Meet[ing] me halfway” and coming back again, eventually

Chance acquaintances have ways of mutating into long and sustained collaborative relationships. My initial artistic encounter with Baerbel Mueller began sometime in March 2009. I got a call from Lesley Naa Norley Lokko to participate in an ambitious multidisciplinary project that was to be manifested in the James Fort Prison (now a World Heritage Site), located at Ga Mashie, the local name for old British Accra.

The project’s working title was “Meet me Halfway”, and the exhibiting group was to be eventually morphed into a creative collective called “Hybrid”, due to the diversity of its members. This diversity permeated several of the participants’ experiences. In these several instances, we were culturally and professionally diverse, differing in aesthetic interests, spatial concerns, and even political positionings. The meetings were held in the Golden Tulip Hotel in Accra. Amongst the prospective participants, I recall meeting Rania Odaymat, Orthner Orthner & Associates, Nii Obodai, Kofi Setordji, and Nat Nunoo Amarteifio. I think Lesley Lokko’s interest in my work stemmed from her having seen aspects of my MFA project and the way I was dealing with collective history, memory, and spaces of historical significance. I had staged, in Tema, near the site of the erstwhile Meridian Hotel, a faux-memorial event entitled: “In Memoriam”, in remembrance of the hotel and all it stood for in its prime. 

At the “Hybrid” meetings at the Golden Tulip, Baerbel and I did not really talk much to each other. It was, however, on our onsite visits to James Fort prison that we began talking. Our proposed projects were to have been located in close proximity to each other and we soon realized that we were sort of having similar thoughts about the use of space and possible aspirations of the erstwhile inmates of the prison. Whereas I was seeking to occupy the open drainage systems with excerpt texts from Dr. Kwame Nkrumah’s speeches and to create a physical space near Nkrumah’s cell from sheer fabric that would have some form of projected images on it, Baerbel wanted to project the ocean onto the wall that barred former prisoners’ views of the ocean beyond the wall by installing a huge mirror. The illusory ocean would become a reenactment of the prisoners’ desires and aspirations of hope. I think both proposals were about seeking to imagine futures and possibilities beyond the mere physicality of the space. Nkrumah’s words of liberation, rising out of the drains, would intermingle with the dreams of imminent release and freedom for the prisoners, quite like the freedom Nkrumah himself had experienced after having won elections from within prison and thereby emerging out of prison to ascend to the position of prime minister, just before he became president.  

When eventually the project was not realized, due largely to bureaucracy and an obvious lack of funding, Baerbel and I promised to still imagine a future of collaboration. I was therefore not entirely surprised when a few years thereafter, I received notice that Baerbel wanted to collaborate with me on a project in the north of Ghana. One of the proposed futures had come. The opportunity to keep our promise of collaborating again had eventually presented itself.


Lines, Shapes, Colours, Dwarf Paintings and Cheerful Smiles: The Guabuliga Mural Project

I came to the Guabuliga project with previous knowledge of the Bambolse wall-painting tradition of the women from Sirigu in the Upper East Region of Ghana. I therefore also had the idea of quoting local practices. I would however immediately note that this part of the north was rather “modest” in terms of wall embellishment traditions in comparison to other places, such as Sirigu.  I still managed to develop an aesthetic that dominantly referenced Bambolse.

This aesthetic was also based on other projects I had already implemented elsewhere in Ghana.

For two weeks, I spent time with the Guabuliga orphans, their caretakers, and the volunteers, sharing my practice and bringing smiles to their faces through the activities developed to realise the murals. The children were put into various groups and these groups were given tasks to perform. The mural design was itself based on lines, shapes, and colours. Since I worked throughout the whole day, the children could go to their specific locations anytime in between their chores and school activities. I also went on periodic “visits” to the various locations to give advice and help out.

On one particular dawn, I executed a surprise plan that I had been harbouring all along. As my interpretation of the Guabuliga founding myth, I decided to create a painting as a “gift” to the people of Guabuliga. This painting was, however, not a portable one. I went out under the dawn light, a slight distance from the orphanage in the direction of the next village, and made a painting on a large boulder that was lodged within the roots of a huge tree in a field. I was done by early morning and returned to the orphanage. No one had seen me go or return, so people who saw the painting later started creating myths about who had done it. Some said that it had been painted by dwarves in the woods. Others actually thought the painting was itself a dwarf. It was only a few days later that the townsfolk reconciled the painting in the woods with the murals in the orphanage.

  One year after the mural project was completed, Baerbel continued to work in Guabuliga with students, elaborating on various research projects. A review visit to Guabuliga in February 2012 brought me in contact with the steady progress of the projects. At this time, we collaborated with and participated in Jürgen’s performative piece: “Will you come back again tomorrow?”  Later on in the year, I served on the jury of Theresa’s children’s poster competition in Guabuliga. Eventually all of these projects were shown at the Nubuke Foundation in Accra in the exhibition, Guabuliga: Well by the Thorn Tree. The exhibits were positioned around the tall Indian almond tree in the garden compound of the Foundation. As we may now be aware, “Guabuliga” means “the well by the thorn tree”. So it is no wonder that trees or images of trees became prominent features of the entire project. When the exhibition travelled to Vienna, what was most conspicuous about the images I saw at the [applied] Foreign Affairs exhibition at the Sliver Gallery in the University of Applied Arts, Vienna, was the enormous silhouette of Christian Car’s mango tree on the wall.

This presented a stimulating parallel to the Indian almond tree that hosted the work-in-progress exhibition at the Nubuke Foundation earlier in the year. The haunting image of the tree's silhouette orchestrated an appropriate context for the Vienna presentation. With the help of technology and a certain amount of ingenuity, the spirit of a local household compound had transgressed borders, been transported through waves, and been transplanted into the context of an exhibition space far away. It was satisfying, even gratifying, to be witness to the eventual realization of an idea--begun some time back through chance meetings between various protagonists--through a truly multidisciplinary collaborative effort.

Indeed, ideas do first begin as a cell of thought, a qualm, an inkling or fluke, seen through a hazy film, of an individual (here, I refer to an initial idea of the chief of Guabuliga). It may grow and become the dream of a group of people, in this case, a team that has taken up the task of conducting architectural, social, developmental, and artistic research, and presenting it in the described manner. Yet what sustains this vision is the commitment and dedication of the holders of the dream. And when this dream has finally seen its manifestation, and so beautifully, too, one is first humbled by the sheer possibility of it and proud, even honoured, to have had a certain layer of influence on the celebration, in my case, in the roles of a muralist, guest teacher of the [a]FA project, and reviewer.

The manner in which the collective work of the students—Ioana Petkova, Stefanie Theuretzbacher, Theresa Theuretzbacher, Christian Car, Joseph Hofmarcher, and Jürgen Strohmayer—has been shown is aesthetically, conceptually, and spiritually uplifting: a compound of ideas, images, videos, research material, located in the middle a well. But this time, it is not just a well of water, which is good for growth, but also a wish for the future, which suggests growth in itself. It is a prospect, a hope, and another dream in the making, another desire perhaps: the projection of what might lie in the future, not only of Guabuliga, but also for all the individuals and groups involved in this project.

Chief Salifu Mahama Tampurie did a great job in his desire for the development of his village and his initiation of this collaboration with Baerbel Mueller, who deserves applause for having dreamt up this lab in the first place and bringing her students on board. The collaborating lecturers, artists, teachers, and technical personnel have made salient inputs into the success of the entire project, but those most worthy of compliment are the elders and people of Guabuliga, who made their land available for such complex projects.

If there is growth to follow, if sustainability is the intention, then this lab has already begun reaping the fruit. And quite literally, when we consider Christian Car’s eloquent tree silhouette on the wall, as well as his talking trees project (which proposed the background for the Guabuliga green belt project), growth can be expected for Guabuliga, that little well by the thorn tree.


BERNARD AKOI-JACKSON (b. 1979). (MFA, Kumasi) is an artist-writer whose multi-disciplinary work has become a project in a continual state of metamorphosis. He interrogates hybrid, postcolonial identities through ephemeral, makeshift memorials and performative rituals of the mundane. His work has been seen in spaces all across the world.