Alicia Henry and a student sew PHOTO: ANAÏS DALY
Nashville, TN (TN Tribune)–Drive around the Fisk University campus this month and your eye might land on something unexpected — the historic Little Theatre has been draped in dusty fabric made from hundreds of worn-out jute and burlap sacks. The patchwork material completely covers the building, like it’s a house being fumigated, or maybe a wrapped art installation by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. In reality, it’s a little like both of those things — and it’s even more interesting that it looks.
“Leaves of Grass, 2012-2021. 2021,” Ibrahim Mahama (detail)PHOTO: DANIEL MEIGS
“Leaves of Grass” is the product of a collaboration between Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama and a slew of Nashvillians, under the guidance of project curator Marina Fokidis and artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons. Campos-Pons is the endowed dean of Vanderbilt’s art department and the founder of the university’s Engine for Art, Democracy and Justice. With EADJ, she’s collaborating with artists, academics and activists from around the world — and locally, she’s producing projects like this one in collaboration with Vanderbilt, Fisk, the Frist Art Museum, Millions of Conversations and other Nashville-based organizations. The wrapped theater is what Campos-Pons calls an intervention — creating “gestures in the geography” of a site that frame ideas being discussed in the classroom.
“Black people were kept away from learning, to get instructed, to access knowledge, because we well know that knowledge is power, clarity, innovation toward the future,” said Campos-Pons at the installation’s opening on April 21. Visitors were invited into the theater to watch an interview with Mahama, who spoke about the work with the project’s curator via Zoom.
PHOTO: DANIEL MEIGS“Ghana was the largest producer of cocoa in the 20th century,” Mahama said during the interview, “and a lot of the money from cocoa was used in the founding of the country in the post-independence era after the British colonial rule. I’ve been very much interested in the decline and social development since the post-independence era … looking at infrastructure and also social life and conditions and how that is reflected within materials. The jute sack is one of those points where we can trace some kind of history and trajectory.” Mahama utilizes this symbolically loaded material with purpose — he explains the associations it has with trade and labor — to call the entire system of trade and ownership into question.
The site of the Little Theatre was part of the Union Army barracks during the Civil War. Gen. Clinton B. Fisk of the Tennessee Freedmen’s Bureau endowed a group from the American Missionary Association with the site so they could start a school, and the Fisk Free Colored School convened in January 1866. It was the first place in the area where formerly enslaved adults and children — ranging in age from 7 to 70 in its first class — could receive education.
“Leaves of Grass” is just the second of Mahama’s works to be on U.S. soil, and Campos-Pons notes the significance of Fisk as the site. In 1961, Fiskite W.E.B. Du Bois went to Ghana to create a new encyclopedia of the African diaspora, the Encyclopedia Africana. He hoped the  project, built on decades of his study as a sociologist, writer and activist, would document the whole of the African and African diasporic experience — a sort of bible of pan-Africanism.
In Fokidis’ curatorial statement, she emphasizes the importance of Mahama’s installation being in Nashville, in the American South, and in particular at Fisk. “It offers a possibility to build fresh networks based on empathy and resonance, and together provides a site from which to discuss anew the entanglement of colonialism and systemic racism.”
Says Campos-Pons in her remarks: “It was here a century ago [that] W.E.B. Du Bois dreamed about getting together information about the Black diaspora, and from here to Ghana, to start in that work. And he died there. So we are doing what we call interplanetary circularity. Bringing Ibrahim Mahama, the son of Ghana soil, to Fisk, is completing the circle of proximity and care.”
In the days leading up to the installation, students and volunteers from all over Nashville gathered on the lawn outside the Little Theatre, stitching the sacks together with various materials — from yarn to twine to tree bark. They are well-worn, covered in dirt and sweat from Ghana, which mixed with dirt and sweat from Nashville. The labor involved in the installation is just as monumental — and just as meaningful — as the finished product. The conversations, negotiations and exchanges that students had with each other from their socially distanced spots on the grass are themselves a kind of mending.
“Knowledge too is a tool of healing,” Campos-Pons tell the Scene. “Knowledge too is a tool that allows us to think and observe and conclude and to move forward. There are many, many dark forces that make [it] difficult for us to accomplish great ideas, and there are many, many light forces that allow us to really fulfill our dreams.”
The unveiling comes on the heels of an exciting announcement from Fisk University Galleries. The department has been awarded a $500,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which will be used to improve infrastructure and support the conservation for the upcoming African Modernism in America, 1947-1967 exhibition in 2022.