#14 movement
Nana Oforiatta Ayim

A Digital Narrative

Nana Oforiatta Ayim creates films as a form of research in action. It is her quest to uncover alternative history about and within Africa.

In a lot of African states, cultural movements have emerged and found new ways to tell their histories. Ghanaian historian and filmmaker Nana Oforiatta Ayim plans to create the Cultural Encyclopaedia, a collection of knowledge from Africa and its diaspora. First, a digital library, archive and database will provide access to essays from theses, books and magazines on subject areas that cover the cultural foundations of each country and range in scope from the arts (visual arts, literature, theatre, film, music, fashion, design, architecture) to the sciences (mathematics, social sciences like sociology, anthropology, philosophy, politics and economics). The second iteration will consist of a selection of these essays in published volumes. Starting with Ghana, one of the fifty-four African countries will be the focus each year. Third, and in parallel to the first two, Living History Hubs will house audio-visual archives of oral and performative histories, photographic and written documentation, as well as material objects from the different areas of each country. They will also act as centres for research, experimentation and education. The foundations of the digital encyclopaedia are already evident on Oforiatta Ayim’s organisation ANO’s website, and she has brought together a community of Ghana’s cultural and intellectual avant-garde, as well as like-minded institutional partners, to work on the first volume of the published edition. Read our exclusive interview with Nana Oforiatta Ayim and watch excerpts from her films.

The Cultural Encyclopaedia is intended to provide a foundation for alternative narratives of development

DDD: What is the basic idea behind your Cultural Encyclopaedia?

Nana Oforiatta Ayim: The idea of the Cultural Encyclopaedia springs from the notion of countering the idea of development as catching up to or emulating the West. It is intended to provide a foundation for alternative narratives of development by generating, collecting and sharing knowledge, as well as by bringing the greatest minds from each country together in one place. The goal is to answer questions as to how we can define ourselves, grow at our own rhythms, and in our own ways - however multifarious. How we can create freedom of choice and determination for the largest number of people. The films also act as research, whether into indigenous structural and narrative forms, or issues such as water shortage, the environment, and gender parity seen through the eyes or engagement of artists.

That sounds like a very ambitious, almost utopian project. Is it perhaps too utopian?

Everything I do is in a way utopian, in that it is reaching towards an ideal state of things, a future we cannot yet imagine or see. I think it is evident in my country at least that there is a deep-seated crisis of leadership, and perhaps even of values.

You can call it ambitious and utopian if you like. I see it as reacting to the realities I see around me…

This is not due to a single individual or party. It is a consequence of political and historical imperatives. I think that only with this kind of ambitious and profound examination, only with the force and layers of collective engagement, will we be able to create the foundations for a better future for those who come after us. You can call it ambitious and utopian if you like. I see it as reacting to the realities I see around me in the best way I know how.

How did you conceive of the Cultural Encyclopaedia? Why do you think there is a need for it?

There has been a shift in the narrative of and on the African continent and its diasporas. There is also still a kind of schism at play though, brought about, I think, by our hyper-accelerated entry into the capitalist sphere; by our idealistic, fated independence movements; and by the perhaps overstated, but also damaging cultural effects of the colonial encounter. W. E. B. DuBois spoke of a double consciousness when describing the African-American experience. Franz Fanon wrote of the alienated or divided state of the imperial subject. A few years ago, I made a film about Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera, who said of himself: “I am the doppelganger whom, until I appeared, African literature had not yet met.” In the film, I dramatize one of his poems, ‘A Shred of Identity’, in which he speaks of “this twilight zone, stretching between English school and my cockroach voice”, where the cockroach voice is his provenance from the slums of Rhodesia.

In a way, the Encyclopaedia wants to cast light on, perhaps heal, or rather bridge, this rupture of the twilight zone, of perception, of time, of the divided self.

It seeks to articulate hidden knowledge, similar to what Diderot attempted with his Encyclopaedia…

It wants to do this by building trajectories from past to present that gain in strength by being collated. It seeks to articulate hidden knowledge, similar to what Diderot attempted with his Encyclopaedia and the effect it had on the Enlightenment, or what DuBois envisioned and Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates carried out with their Africana. The difference with this Encyclopaedia is first that it is not definitive. The online version, in particular, is ever expanding and shifting. It is also trying in some sense to mirror in form, to validate, some of the classical ways of passing down history. Such as the Akan, which were not told from a single authoritative point of departure, but were more multi-layered, collaborative, open-ended, and therefore more spacious.

When you look at the situation in your home country Ghana, for example, what do you see as its potential?

I look at my parents’ generation, the calibre of thinkers, people like Kwesi Wiredu, Kwame Gyekye, J.H. Nketia, Efua Sutherland, Ama Ata Aidoo, Ayi Kwei Armah, who redefined and widened paradigms. Then I see what is happening now, this educational culture of regurgitation, where innovation and creativity are stifled, and the stagnant state of our current system isn’t altogether surprising. Even if it doesn’t express itself as such, it is a crisis, and it’s tragic when you take into account the breadth of solutions we hold in our histories of thought, of ideas.

I felt that my literary knowledge stretched much further back in the European than in the African canon.

Our curriculums are still largely colonial remnants. We know more about Shakespeare than the Ayan, more about Elizabeth I than Nana Dokua. What does that say about how we value ourselves and our cultural provenance, our narratives and trajectories? And it’s not just on a collective scale, but also in individual expression. There are only a few architects incorporating the balances of vernacular design, doctors drawing on the panacea of traditional healers, photographers being inspired by the iconographies of our photographic pioneers. I did a research degree because I felt that my literary knowledge stretched much further back in the European than in the African canon. And the form that spoke to me most, perhaps because I am so interested in language and rhythm, was the Ayan, a form of literature, of passing down history, actually told on the drum. I made my first film using this form, which is very elliptical, cyclical, and layered, to look into the crossing over of historical ways of passing down knowledge through ceremonies and rituals, and more contemporary ones, such as schools and universities. The older ways are more ceremonial now than they are educational, but the essence and methodologies of their wisdom are still of value.

I think it’s important for these different epistemologies, these forms of knowledge, to co-exist and feed each other. The Cultural Encyclopaedia wants to make them accessible and visible. It is interested in the notion of education as a tool for self-knowledge, but also in the idea of the democracy of education. At the moment there is still a certain hierarchy of education, which is dependent to an extent on a privilege of access and means. But things like new technologies, the reach of mobile phones and internet cafes, are creating spaces for new ways of learning through sites like Uncollege, and apps like whatsapp. They make a whole new level of interactivity, of cross-platform learning, possible. So this project also aims to feed into these movements, to open up the limits of learning.

Why a cultural encyclopaedia instead of, let's say, a political one?

Culture allows us to engage critically with our surroundings, and create new spaces to reflect, see things as they are, and imagine them differently. I’ve been making films on artists and their work in Ghana. There is not much infrastructure, so artists go into the streets and create their own installations, performances, and exhibitions. All of them are commenting on their environment in some way, drawing on the traditions I spoke of, and reflecting something back through them. With his theatrical group Golokal, Serge Attukwei Clottey is taking on the tradition of performance being used for historical retellings and political critiques.

Zohra Opoku is reformulating tropes like those of the Sirigu women wall painters to resee our built environments.

Ibrahim Mahama is using cloth in a similar way as the Kente or Adinkra was used in the past, as a semantic tool to comment on the nature of trade, transfer of value, and commodification.

They are in a way the visual expression of the Cultural Encyclopaedia, of the idea, which was prevalent at least in Akan culture that culture is inseparable from life; that it underlines, completes, and reminds us of what gives it meaning.

More Information

Find out more about the project:

Interview by Johannes Preuss

Photo: Copyright Zohra Opoku

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