In 2015, Ibrahim Mahama instructed his gallery to sell some of his works. As one of Africa’s most influential artists, he did not struggle to find a buyer, and, quickly, he was flush with cash. But Mahama had a plan; the Ghanaian government had put up for sale a huge dilapidated grain silo close to his home in Tamale, the capital of the Northern Region of the West African country and the city of his birth. Locals referred to the silo as ‘Nkrumah Volini’. At the opening of his exhibition in London’s White Cube, Mahama told Wallpaper* that ‘the term loosely translates as “inside the hole”’.

‘The phrase means a void, a place of doom, a place no one goes to,’ he says. ‘But it can also be a place of transformation – like a teleportation device, or a time machine.’

Three collaged artworks on white wall at White Cube gallery, exhibition by Ibrahim Mahama
Ibrahim Mahama, ‘Lazarus’, exhibition view, White Cube Bermondsey, © the artist. Photo © White Cube (Todd-White Art Photography)

Mahama found Nkrumah Volini ‘after I became interested in post-independence infrastructure and architecture’, he says. ‘The building had been abandoned for 60 years, just as many others had around the country. But it seemed to have caught the imagination of the people around, even if they didn’t quite know why it was there, or what it was built for.’

What would anyone do with such a hulking, brutalist and seemingly redundant construction? For Mahama, the answer is obvious, the huge challenges not remotely daunting – just as he did with the Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art in Tamale, Mahama was going to turn it into a cultural centre, a place where schoolchildren could realise ‘the transformative quality of art’.

The silo was built in the joyous years after Ghana gained independence from the yolk of British rule. This was the 1960s, and President Kwame Nkrumah led a postcolonial government that promised a new age of economic prosperity that every Ghanaian would see and feel. ‘He promised to build infrastructure that would lead to economic independence for the continent of Africa,’ Mahama says. ‘I would see similar buildings all the time, scattered round the country, without ever knowing what they were.’

Installation view of Ibrahim Mahama, ’Lazarus’ at White Cube Bermondsey
Ibrahim Mahama, ‘Lazarus’, exhibition view, White Cube Bermondsey, © the artist. Photo © White Cube (Todd-White Art Photography)

In time, Nkrumah was overthrown. The silo, which was used as a place for Tamale farmers to collectively store huge quantities of grain, which could then be distributed country-wide, flooded in 1966, was abandoned and left to ruin, then privatised and sold. ‘It became this ghost, just hanging about,’ Mahama says.

Entering again, 50 years after its original purpose became abstracted, Mahama found a world unto itself. Fish, snakes, frogs, birds, all manner of insects – each now called Nkrumah Volini their home. The soil had become enriched by the bodies of animals that had lived and died there. Flood water teemed like a primordial ocean. But Mahama was most taken by the huge colony of bats hanging from the building’s eaves, some the height of a child, their wingspan that of an adult. Their shit was everywhere. Half asleep, they’d often bicker and fight. When they flew to hunt, and they often did at night, it could be terrifying for the humans beneath.

How many cultural centres would let the bats stay – especially in the time of Covid?

Not many, it’s fair to say. Yet it says much of Mahama’s singularly inclusive form of artmaking that the bats were not just allowed to stay – they were made the star of the show.

Black artwork bats hang from white ceiling at White Cube, exhibition by Ibrahim Mahama
Ibrahim Mahama, ‘Lazarus’, exhibition view, White Cube Bermondsey, © the artist. Photo © White Cube (Todd-White Art Photography)

Mahama greets visitors on the day with notebooks under his arm. ‘I carry notebooks with me, and that’s how I started recording the patterns that existed in Nkrumah Volini,’ he says. ‘And I realised there was an ecology that had formed independently inside this space.’

As Mahama began the arduous process of converting Nkrumah Volini into a (bat inclusive) cultural centre, he also started photographing his winged silo mates, filing the images in his notebooks. ‘I started visiting all of the time, spending hours of time there,’ he says. 

Mahama began to photograph the bats, montaging them together with documentation of the history of the building – colonial-era maps, receipts, bank-notes, orders and ledgers – as well as his archive notes and drawings he made in the notebooks. Often, he plays with perspective, flipping a bat hanging upside down so it appears to stand vertically. The bats aren’t anthropomorphised, but their characters come through – their thin, furry bodies, their tissue-paper wings, their eyes seeming at once keen and mournful. But also their beauty; the way they can fly in seemingly synchronised formation, or the way they sometimes hang together, asleep in conjugal tranquillity.

Black and orange artwork by Ibrahim Mahama, featuring bats, at White Cube gallery
Ibrahim Mahama, ‘Lazarus’, exhibition view, White Cube Bermondsey, © the artist. Photo © White Cube (Todd-White Art Photography)

In Nkrumah Volini, with his new Chiroptera co-inhabitants, Mahama realised he had discovered his own cultural centre, even before it was formed – a space that spoke truly and authentically of the recent history of Ghana, of the country’s extraordinary spread across the world, of its civic struggles and successes, of its evermore complex relationship with its recent occupiers, of its unbound future.

‘I wanted to turn the place into a greenhouse,’ he says. ‘By allowing the bats to be co-habitants of the space, Nkrumah Volini became a place where we could rethink life in itself.’ §

Close up of wooden desks and tables with sewing machines, installation at White Cube, by Ibrahim Mahama
Ibrahim Mahama, ‘Lazarus’, exhibition view, White Cube Bermondsey, © the artist. Photo © White Cube (Todd-White Art Photography)
Large-scale artwork on white wall with black floor at White Cube

Ibrahim Mahama, ‘Lazarus’, exhibition view, White Cube Bermondsey, © the artist. Photo © White Cube (Todd-White Art Photography)

Exhibition view of Ibrahim Mahama, ‘Lazarus’, exhibition view, White Cube
Ibrahim Mahama, ‘Lazarus’, exhibition view, White Cube Bermondsey, © the artist. Photo © White Cube (Todd-White Art Photography)