Elisabeth Sutherland on Her Art and Belief in the Afterlife
Artistic director of the Accra Theatre Workshop, Elisabeth Efua Sutherland was born in Accra, Ghana in 1991. She holds a BA in theatre with a minor in education studies from DePauw University (2013) and an MA in contemporary performance making from Brunel University, London (2016). In 2016, Efua was an artist-in-residence at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris, organised by 89Plus and co-curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Simon Castets with Julie Boukobza. Sutherland works across theatre and performance but is starting to explore new fields like media and materials. She is increasingly concerned with interactivity, video, sculpture and texture in making performance/performative objects. Her interest also lies in the way culture can shape identity and development, and in the impact that active cultural curation can potentially have on individual and national attitudes. In this interview with Omenka, she discusses her influences, work and recent exhibition at Gallery 1957.
Please tell me a little bit about your background and how you got into the performing and visual arts.
My family has a strong background in the arts. My grandmother is quite famous in the literary world, and was quite the renowned playwright and theatre practitioner. She devised new ways of anansesem — a traditional storytelling format she altered to anansegro — which was much more experimental, as well as scripted in different ways. She passed away when I was a child, so my memories of her are very domestic; of her sitting at her home. I also have vivid memories of being used as a living prop during rehearsals. Although we had many cousins, I was usually left to amuse myself. I think that’s where some of my passion for art came from. It was never a conscious decision to do art; it was always something that I have done. I drew and sketched a lot, but made a conscious decision to study theatre because it incorporated almost everything that I was interested in— directing, writing, and making objects. I also studied a bit of dance, which began when I was young. I grew attached to the idea of a performative object, not just something that plays a role on stage as a prop as it happens in theatre, but something that actually has a life and significance of its own and is always in performative context because I think humans are inherently performative. We are constantly playing a role at every stage of our lives. Anything that we make, own or feel a need to hold on to becomes something that is a performance in and of itself. That is what drew me to employ more objects in my work. My sets grew increasingly more abstract, and I began using projection shortly after I worked in New York. During my undergraduate studies, I completed some internships and one of the theatres I worked at used many projections. I began incorporating several into my work, as well as weaving and using more fabric as architecture. All these culminated into an interest in contemporary performance. Though I hold a Master’s degree, it (contemporary performance) is kind of an abstract term. I’m gravitating towards a generalisation regarding, how do you have a multi-media/multi-functional performance piece? How does something live on beyond the performance? What’s the residue? And how do you indicate the leftovers of the daily acts that we do, both in a pedantic way (I wake up, eat breakfast, drive my car) and in terms of performance?
I see many similarities between your practice, which is multi-disciplinary and the African artists of old, whose masquerade art form embraced painting, sculpture in the masks, performance and dance. How do you see yourself in that context?
I believe we only started specialising as humans about 100 years ago. There was no real difference between being an artist, a scientist, doctor or healer. Nowadays everybody feels the need to qualify him or herself according to a specific box. I think this is unnecessary. People stress themselves out when they do because they play so many roles in their lives as mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers. For example, you are a doctor when you self-medicate, a chef when you cook, and a gardener when you water your garden. We play all these roles, so it’s kind of bizarre to limit yourself to a specific title so that you can’t function outside of it or develop your other capacities. I use many videos in my work and I’m almost entirely self-taught. I also learned the basics of carpentry at school, and it’s sometimes about picking up a hammer and just doing it. I feel it’s the human thing to do instead of calling a carpenter for every little repair job. I do many different things; paint, work with fabric, and use videos, and so I had to learn maths in a completely different way. My work here, Kaleidoscope requires several calculations of angles. We should have been taught with arts at school instead of this focus everybody has on science, technology and mathematics. It should be science, technology, arts and mathematics because for instance, a kinaesthetic person learns with his body. As a dancer who weighs 45 kilos, how do you lift someone that weighs 60? There is something called contact improvisation, where you share weight; you have to find your centre of gravity, then lift that person over it, to reduce the amount of force needed. In fact, it becomes almost no force. I can lift someone twice my size because of that technique, and that’s physics. If I had been taught this technique in secondary or primary school, I would have understood my examinations and become a much better equipped adult to handle certain things, even in terms of emotional intelligence. It’s hard to teach that with raw science or technology. Imagine if kids are taught chemistry within the context of a Shakespearean play, even if to create fog on stage it would open up their mind in a completely different way. How do you make fog? We use dry ice. There is a derived formula for the compound dry ice, there is also one for ammonia. We don’t breathe ammonia, why? That knowledge leads us to biology. These are ways you can concretise learning for people, especially kids who are not logical or rational thinkers. Unfortunately, our education system is completely geared to taking exams and favours those who are good at them. It is fundamental that they are not actually learning anything most of the time. Arts like you said are not discrete. We may not become singers or dancers or venture into drama, but if we teach people in that way, we will groom complete human beings out of the education system. Education is the basic problem in Africa and all over the world. Who decides that the way we are taught, as well as the content (of what we are taught) is correct? Why do we have to follow them, as a group, what are we actually learning? Are we learning to follow directions even if the person giving them doesn’t have a good idea of what he is doing? Art teaches you to think for yourself. Even when you are on stage and forget your lines, you have to improvise. We do a lot of work with children and it’s incredible what we do with them in a period of just two to three weeks. There is much difference between the children who have been told ‘stupid boy,’ ‘sit down,’ ‘you are loud,’ ‘you are a bad boy,’ and ours. I told one of them who has decided to be a director ‘You don’t necessarily have to be a director because you like it, but you can do so many other things, just don’t lock yourself down.’ Many of our youth don’t see possibilities, that is why they are all running away from Ghana. They still have this idea that the white man’s country is better, meanwhile whatever story the whites have been saying about us is because we haven’t decolonised our education system. We talk about it a lot, but to achieve this, we have to systematically decolonise, because our colonisation was systematic.
Tell me a little about your use of fabric, where they are from and how they impact your work and belief in the afterlife?
Clothing is very important in our culture. It is used very symbolically at every stage of life. When you transition from the world of the unborn to the world of the living, you are ‘out-doored’ after eight days, then brought out of your home with your mother. A name is then given to you because it is understood that you have decided to stay in the physical world. It is believed some children leave to return because they can’t decide if they like it here or not, sometimes they also cannot decide which mother they like. At the end of life, the funeral is a passing from the land of the living to the world of the dead. It is believed that when people die, they are not really gone but hanging around somewhere; we just can’t see them. Sometimes they can be conjured, or we can feel them through a barrier. We have a strong belief in spirits, and believe that our ancestors come back to visit us. This is why many of our festivals feature this, especially in Nigerian culture. In Ghana some ancestors also come out as masquerades to settle disputes. This fascinates me on several levels. For example, as performers we have different masks for different periods in life. A mask is not a bad thing if it doesn’t have a negative connotation; it’s just for different roles that we play at different times. All the fabric used in this show are funeral cloths from different places. The cloth made in Ghana is very traditional and distinctive, the black banners from the ceiling. The cloths from Kumasi imbibe the lost wax method with screen printing on one side, some have monograms of Ghanaian textile companies stamped on them. These companies also do wax printing. There is also the imported Dutch wax print while others are imported Chinese wax. Some of them like the honam banners are from my grandmother’s funeral and so have personal histories for me. One of the drawings on the banners is of a funerary terracotta head (mma), for remembering the ancestors while the other is a container called a kuduo. In my performance, I am collecting coins. This money and personal belongings of the deceased are placed inside for him or her to take to the afterlife. The money is to pay the ferryman. Sometimes schnapps is included to appease the gods or any other ghost (saman) that the deceased comes across. Anything else the deceased might need is also put inside the kuduo. For instance, if the deceased was a carpenter, his tools will be placed with him. We have a strong belief that one carries across his trade or something that he enjoyed. If one was a fisherman and caught a particular kind of fish, it would be carved and included with one’s fishing net.
Do you actually believe in this?
I do, I’m a Christian who believes in holistic education. I believe that you can’t go forward without looking back. I also believe there are other things in this world and another side that we can’t see.
You mentioned a close connection with your grandmother though she passed away when you were very young. Do you sometimes feel her presence especially when performing?
I wouldn’t say her presence necessarily, but would say that I sometimes feel her weight. I feel a strong connection when I read more about her and return to her work. It has been mentioned that I have her spirit. I’m not sure it goes that deep but I definitely feel her weight. It’s not necessarily a heavy one, it’s more like an awareness.
Do critics compare you to her already?
Not to my knowledge; I think our practices are very different. Maybe in a few years when I’m on another level, it would be interesting to do a comparison, not because we are related, but in terms of our work with children. I approach mine from quite a different angle, though with many of the same underlying theories.
Why Gallery 1957?
Jacob Tetteh Ashong, Paa Joe’s son contacted me about the exhibition a few months ago and we approached a few people. We talked to the Nubuke Foundation, I’ve done a lot of work with them, and they are amazing. I also work with quite a number of other people including 89Plus. Most of my visual art exhibitions have been with them, they’ve taken videos of my work, which was added to the LUMA Foundation in Zurich. I was also with 89Plus at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris, which was when people started paying attention to what I was doing. Recently, I was at the Harn Museum in Florida. but we felt Gallery 1957 was the right fit for this show. Marwan Zakhem has invited me to work with him before, but I always felt I needed the piece needed to fit the space.
I would like to know a little bit more about the performance.
The structure of the performance is in three parts, the process of dying, the funeral, and the transition. It’s not a concrete interpretation of what a Ghanaian funeral is as my choreography tends to be quite abstract. We also believe the funeral is the process of setting free the soul to make that journey. When the soul hangs around and is unable to leave, it is referred to as sasabonsam, a bad spirit. Sasabonsam causes trouble in the house because something has tied it to this side so it can’t go, or doesn’t want to, either because the person was killed, has unfinished business, or is there to protect someone. On the other hand, sasa is a normal ghost. I’m interested in the title of the show. We give money and personal items to people when they die, but where are they taking them? Do they work? How will we ever know? We don’t really know and this causes a bit of tension. I also thought it was funny they misspelt the title of the show, Akԑ yaaa heko, which means, ‘You are taking it somewhere’. Akԑ yaaa heko means ‘You are not taking it anywhere’. I was pleased with that because it perfectly captures that tension in-between. That was the latter end when we moved into the space, that liminal space between life and whatever happens after that.
March 18, 2019