Works list and sizes:
Reanimating Shadow Projections of the Real 1. Mixed media on canvas. 210 x 100 cm
Reanimating Shadow Projections of the Real 2. Mixed media on canvas. 210 x 100 cm
Reanimating Shadow Projections of the Real 3. Mixed media on canvas. 210 x 100 cm
Images by Jennifer Moyes
In 2020, Damoah produced four works and presented a new performance in response to works by celebrated Malian photographers; Abdourahmane Sakaly (1926-1988) Adama Kouyate (1928 – present) and Malick Sidibe (1935 – 2016). The photographs immediately reminded her of so many images of her mother and aunties from the same time period. Born in 1946 in Gold Coast (present-day Ghana), Damoah’s mother was 11 years old when Ghana attained independence in 1957. Even now, she remembers it well. She recalls the Independence Day celebrations and she was there when Kwame Nkrumah gave his famous independence speech. Mrs Damoah still vividly recounts the huge excitement and optimism in the air at that time.
The photos the artist selected for this work are from 1963, six years after Ghanaian independence and three years after Mali got independence- when her mother was still at boarding school- and 1969, when she was 23 years old, four years after she moved to the UK to study nursing.
A strict Jehovah’s Witness, Damoah’s mother is very conservative and does not like to reveal too much about her past. Even with her daughter’s incessant questioning, she only reveals so much and claims that she did not have much time for parties, dancing and other entertainment. But according to Damoah, photos of her from that time reveal a very different story! Beautiful clothes in the fashion of the time.
Miniskirts, platform heels, thigh-high boots and beehive hairstyles. Mrs Damoah has many studio photographs as well as snapshots from various parties when she was in her twenties in London. Damoah selected one studio shot which she reports as being an “interesting juxtaposition to the post-independence studio photography of Sakaly and Kouyate” and another beautiful snapshot of her at boarding school in Ghana with three of her friends.
The repeating images in the work portray the love and respect Damoah has for her mother’s life and for the lives of the black West African women of her generation who struggled with bravery, independence, style and grace to live, love and nurture children through the time of the independence transition. Even if this meant migrating to another strange country at the age of 19 in order to pursue higher education with the promise of a more prosperous life for themselves and their families than at home.
It is well documented that colonial governments suppressed the education systems in the countries they governed for multiple reasons, not least of which was the need to keep the “natives” in a state of ignorance so that they would not be able to govern themselves and rise up. The brightest “natives’ ‘ were often selected for premium education in the “motherland” of the coloniser so that they could come back and help the colonists to administer their colonial systems. Damoah’s mother dreamed of becoming a lawyer, but the UK needed nurses to help build the NHS, so they drew her in with the promise of a free higher education, a job for life and a good pension. While some of this materialised, over time she initially found herself in a cold alien country facing blatant and deep-rooted racism at her school, from patients and even from her neighbours.
Of the process of making these works, Damoah says,
“Working on these pieces which are very physical, labour intensive and repetitive has been a meditation on my mother. They are a reminder of how hard she always worked. She keeps appearing and disappearing in the work. Sometimes she’s perfect and sometimes deformed or degraded. And I can’t predict how each image is going to turn out. I’m tired and my body hurts from creating this work. But it’s an intense but painful labour of love. It connects me at a deep level to black womanhood and the idea of motherhood. My mother worked hard in the face of many difficulties to raise my sisters and me with a firm but loving hand. Her repeated image in this work is my act of homage to her and a celebration of the significance of her life. I feel I am archiving her in a respectful way, placing her gently and reverently within the annals of art history amongst the iconic images of other strong West African women.”
Of the images by Sakaly, Kouyate and Sidibe, Damoah states,
“The knowledge that the women in the images were from Mali meant that I could not in all honesty complete this work without contemplating the history and the struggle of Malian women. While I have never visited there, the political and social struggles of the country are well documented. The status of women is a result of the complex interplay between a number of factors, including French colonial rule, conflict and independence among other things. To attempt to unpack all of that here would be inappropriate, naive and I simply do not have all of the information. However, the women in the images presented in the exhibition are beautiful, free, strong and independent. This is how they have chosen to be seen, which presents an obvious contradiction to what we in the West hear about the status and position of women in Mali currently. I meditated on all of this in the completion of this work. There will always be things that we can not know when we look at images. There will always be a mystery behind the eyes of the subject.
Back in 2016, I interviewed my mother about her experience growing up under British Colonial rule and then independence. There are things I can never know because as her daughter, she will never tell me. Likewise, there are things the viewer can never know when looking at the images of these women, no matter how much historical research is done. This is why I wrote out the contents of that interview with my mother in one of the works. As the viewer, you can only see odd words out of context. You can never know the full story behind what she told me. You can never know the full story behind her eyes and neither can I. But this is part of the beauty and mystery of photography and of human beings. This is what I hope will keep you coming back for more”