'Into the Mind of the Coloniser': In Conversation with Adelaide Damoah

On Thursday 28 March, British-Ghanaian artist Adelaide Damoah will present ‘Into the Mind of the Coloniser’, in the Virginia Woolf Room of the Mary Ward House in London. The performance is part of a three-day event organised by Open Space entitled ‘Forum: Of Hosts & Guests’. Throughout the evening, the audience will read aloud with Damoah, reciting passages from nineteenth-century instruction manuals written for colonisers. Slowly, the artist will be cut from her Ghanaian funeral dress, revealing her bare skin painted red like dried blood. She will then coat herself in shea butter and create an imprint of her form upon the manuals – the shadow of the past upon the present.

The somatic focus of Damoah’s practice is interesting given her background in applied biology and expertise in pharmaceutical sales, as well as her history of chronic illness. ‘Into the Mind of the Coloniser’ takes the human body as its focal point in its response to the contemporary discourse on decolonisation. As the site of colonial violence, the body has the power to recall past traumas and heal old wounds; to represent one’s ancestry and anticipate one’s legacy. On the 28thof March, Damoah will ask for our participation. We will bear witness to the present as she pays her respects to the past, and take these lessons into the future.

I sat down with Damoah to learn more about her upcoming performance this Thursday, and to delve more deeply into the many threads that weave through her work. Below are excerpts from our conversation:

Portrait of Adelaide Damoah in traditional Ghanaian funeral dress which will form part of her performance ‘Into the Mind of the Coloniser’ (Image: Jennifer Moyes)

CH: How did you come to be involved with Open Space?

AD: I have known the guest curator, Katherine Finerty, for a few years, and she invited me to work on this project. Huma Kabackı [founder of Open Space] attended my solo show last year – we follow each other on Instagram – and Halime Ozdemir [International Visual Arts Director & PR Manager of Open Space] works with me at MTArt Agency. I am not sure who decided to approach me. We were all connected and it worked out this way, which is fantastic.

Is ‘Into the Mind of the Coloniser’ a work that you conceptualized prior to your involvement with Open Space? When did you first discover the colonisers’ texts that inspired this performance?

I found the colonisers’ texts – which are, in fact, digitally scanned out of print books – quite by accident on eBay. I have several search terms set up and a few of them are specifically related to Britain’s colonial history. Every now and then books, objects, photographs, maps and stamps come up which are of interest and I buy them. I am never really sure of exactly what I will do with them, but I am always confident that their utility will be revealed with time.

The out-of-print books came on a CD ROM and the seller claimed to have 204, rare, out-of-print British Empire books about our military and colonial history on it. It cost me £4.65 in the summer of 2018. I had been wanting to explore Britain’s colonial history [in] Ghana for quite some time and knew that this would be an interesting place to start. The desire to explore this subject seriously in my work was initiated when I found a photo of my great-grandmother holding my grandmother as a baby in 1920 – during the colonial era. I knew that these books had the potential to provide a lifetime of material and I knew I wanted to make work around [them] using video (reading), performance and the use of the text as background for body prints.

When Katherine sent me the brief for Open Space and I read about the reference to Albert Camus’s L'Hôte [an overarching theme in this edition of Forum], and its contextualization in light of the colonial conflict in French North Africa, I was immediately reminded of the texts I found – which then got the ball rolling for the development of the idea and everything fell into place after that.

‘Into the Mind of the Coloniser’ by Adelaide Damoah

From what I have read about your work, I understand that you are wary of the discourse around the decolonisation of culture, and whether the mindset that engendered colonization has truly changed. Can you talk more about that?

I am not a scholar on the subject of decolonisation…I have an interest in the subject purely as a reasonably politically-engaged citizen who is also the daughter of people who were alive when present-day Ghana was a British possession. We live in a society which is still shaped by imperial power structures. I am referring to society as a whole when talking about decolonising culture. Is culture not the distillation of the customs, ideas, knowledge, and social norms of a people? The art world is a part of that. When we talk about decolonising in the context of the art world, we are often referring to the inclusion of the stories of the “other,” and about issues of representation – the importance of seeing oneself represented in popular culture.

But I am also talking about decolonising the mind (the title of Wa Thiong’o’s book which was the catalyst for much thought and published work on the decolonisation of the African mind). Gaining knowledge, knowledge of self (whatever your identity is) and understanding of our colonial past so that we can understand our present. The “de” in decolonising is not about the removal of anything as far as I am concerned, it is about understanding so that past mistakes are not repeated while at the same time including multiple perspectives which are relevant to where we are today. It is about placing multiple perspectives in dialogue with each other while simultaneously understanding and acknowledging the past and its impact on our present and potential futures.

There also seems to be a very logical, scientific element to your approach. We have not evolved much in the years since colonisation, though we claim to hold different morals. Has your scientific background contributed to your line of inquiry as an artist?

I think my scientific background has had a marked impact on my approach to many things in life. I think when you are trained well in a particular way of thinking early on, it shapes and colours the way you look at things in future.

Speaking of science, chronic illnesses affect the way a person relates to their body. Do you think experiencing endometriosis contributed to your arts practice centring your own body as a tool?

Yes! I used to obsessively relate to my own body and specifically my womb in a very direct way in my art. Presently, using my body feels like reclaiming my body from my own condition. Like taking back control. Agency. However, ironically, it is the condition that brought me to art as a career in the first place. I am painfully aware of my body because of my condition and do my best to stay healthy with diet and exercise. I have to be reasonably strong to do the work that I do. The endometriosis informs so many areas of my life. None more so than my artistic practice.

‘A Person Alone Hurts’ (‘Ɔbaako yɛ ya’) by Adelaide Damoah (Image: Todd White)

Prior to your medical diagnosis of endometriosis, had you explored art-making at all? Were you an artistic child?

I was a very artistic child! My earliest recollection of an art project was when I was around six years old. Funnily enough, it was a silhouette of my own head, which is funny when you think about how I work now! Art and science were my two favourite subjects at GCSE level, and it was in those subjects that I always scored my highest grades. After I left secondary school, I continued to create what I considered to be works of art as a hobby and as a comfort in times of stress or pain. Art has been a retreat and a healing tool for me for as long as I can remember.

I have also heard the term ‘Sankofa’ used in reference to your work. What is its significance?

Sankofa is a word in Twi – the language of the Akan people of Ghana – which translates to something approximating “go back and get it.” There is a longer proverb associated with the word which means something like, “it is not wrong to go back and fetch that which you have forgotten.” That which you have forgotten relates to the past. History. The proverb teaches us that it is important to learn from our past in order to understand the present and to build a fruitful future.

Is the original proverb a common one? Is this a term you grew up hearing or is it more literary, something you came across later in your research?

Yes, it is very common. I don’t remember when I first heard the term. I feel like I have always known it, but I only started to think about it and relate to it in the way I do now in around 2005 when I started making art about social issues. The Sankofa proverb is represented by a symbol which belongs to a group of ancient Akan symbols called the Adinkra symbols. They all represent different proverbs. The Sankofa symbol is represented most commonly by a bird turning its head to pick up a precious egg from its back whilst its feet are facing forward. When I started working as an artist in 2005, I was looking for a Ghanaian symbol to connect my work to my heritage. I think that is when I really adopted Sankofa as a principle… and I started to embody it more consciously in the last three or four years.

How will you utilize ‘Sankofa’ in your performance?

This performance is all about the concept of Sankofa for me, in that I am intentionally reading about a past