Tamale, GHANA – Abdulai Adam does not know his age. When Adam stands, his eyes sweep over his shoulders. His hands hug his backside, standing at ease as if he is a scout boy. He surveys his presence, making sure he does not cross an invisible line that he has set for himself. He is being introduced as one of the photographers showing in the Northern Ghana Life photo exhibition.
Adam’s skin is strained under the weight that this life affords. He wears a well-trimmed moustache and sideburns. In his youth, as he came of age, he was sent to the fields to tend his father’s cattle. Cattle-rearing became his life. Or his life was cattle-rearing. He had to forgo formal education (he later learnt writing and reading from his school-going friends). But he would discover photography along the way. And for nearly fifteen years, between the 1960s and the 1970s, he photographed people in and around his home village of Wantugu.
Often, the history of indigenous photography in Ghana is recounted from the coasts of the south. It is the story of the Fredrick Grants. Of the Bruce-Vanderpuijes. Of the James Barnors. Of the Felicia Abbans. Of the numerous anonymous photographers of the Basel mission. When it comes to the north, there are sympathetic witnesses such as photographers Willis Bell and Paul Strand. But more importantly, a local witness is largely missing. Adam’s presence is redemptive of ghosts, of fragments, of traces.
Adam’s photos selected for the exhibition are re-photographed pieces. They are composed in both monochrome and colour. These photos are undated and the subjects, largely unknown. It is said that James Barnor introduced colour photography to Ghana in the 1970s. If that is true, we could speculate that the photos were taken before and in/after 1970s.
Photographs from Ghana as a part of the colonial and missionary enterprise suffer majorly from double anonymity disorder that is unknown photographers and unknown subjects. But in Adam’s case, we know the photographer but not the subjects. He makes an attempt at identifying them nevertheless. Wantugu teachers. Super Boys. Specific names of women. Yet in the final selection for the exhibition, the curator Marc Prust does not present these handwritten notes.
Adam’s photos are environmental portraits. Environmental and studio portraiture are not mutually exclusive in these photos. Adam uses the environmental portraiture as a way of imitating the studio. In southern Ghana, there have been traveling photographers who hawk for customers with their own costumes. When the photographers find the customers, they make them up and improvise studios. Adam does none of these. He photographs them in their own costumes and environments. But his photos maintain a studio sense.
Adam’s subjects seem to cut across society. From families to chiefs, we learn of the lives that Wantugu once inhabited. Their faces are like puzzles to be solved, like crime cases handled a detective. Apart from the chieftain adornment and police uniform, it is even difficult to speculate the status of the subjects. It is with this sort of ordinariness that we begin and depart from our learning.
But Adam loses a certain grit in his colour photos as compared to the black-and-whites. The compositions of some of the colour photos are unbalanced, giving way to many distractions. In those photos, the background comes into a sharp focus with the objects of focus as accessories. These present curatorial dilemma of populating the abundance of absences or deciding for aesthetic value with regards to selecting photos for the exhibition. It seems the decision was made for the former.
These photos are worth coming to. Sometimes, certain moments pass before we realise the present was all history. Here is one. Do not let it go.
Northern Ghana Life is on view till 15th, November, 2018 at the Tamale Centre for Photographic Research and Practice (Formerly State Printing House, Opposite Alhassan Hotel). This exhibition is part of the first Nuku Photo Festival Ghana.
Credit: Photos of the Abdulai Adam archive re-photographed by Peter Dicampo for the exhibition. Photos re-photographed at the exhibition for this publication by Gyamfi Eric.