Brick by Brick: Ghanian-Canadian artist creates imaginative artwork using LEGO elements

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In the 14th century, Abu Bakr II set out from the west coast of Africa on an epic voyage to parts unknown, commanding a fleet of 2,000 boats.

He was the ninth ruler of the medieval empire of Mali and the predecessor of Mansa Musa. He abdicated his throne for the voyage. According to legend, the contingent made it to the Americas more than a century before Christopher Columbus arrived here. Only a vague outline of this voyage has been officially documented – it made its way into recorded history thanks to a Moroccan writer who chronicled Mansa Musa’s dictation about his predecessor – but it nevertheless became the starting point for Toronto-based Ghanian Canadian artist Ekow Nimako’s Building Black Civilizations: Journey of 2,000 Ships, currently on exhibit at Glenbow at the Edison until May 19.

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“While the entire exhibition is largely speculative, what it’s based upon – the actual expedition and the person – is real, a historical figure,” says Nimako, in an interview with Postmedia. “It was 100-some-odd years before Columbus’s so-called expedition. It really attracted me because there is a common association when we think about the west coast of Africa – like Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal –  which is the trans-Atlantic slave trade… I don’t mean to say when we think about the countries that’s what comes to mind, but when large sailing vessels are depicted centuries ago, then that is often what comes to mind because that’s what has been propagated, that the west coast of Africa didn’t produce people who were sea-faring so that’s what we think about. It was very important for me to change that narrative and bring that magnificent journey to the forefront: To bring 2,000 ships and to bring sailors and warriors and artisans and families and bring all of that culture with them and they never returned. So it’s a mystery as to whatever happened to them.”

The exhibit features more than a little imaginative speculation by the artist, who offers an Afrofuturistic take on Black civilizations with a series of stunning sculptures completely comprised of black Lego bricks. That includes the work-in-progress Bay of Banjul (The abdication of Abu Bakr II), based around the capital and fourth-largest city in Gambia and part of the Malian Empire. This is where the artist speculates the epic journey may have begun, on an island where the Gambia River meets the Atlantic Ocean.

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The exhibit’s centrepiece, Asamando, derives its title from the Akan land of the dead, the underground dwelling place of the nsamanfo or ancestors. This serpentine city – the Akan believe snakes are vessels for the spirits – is where the artist speculates Abu Bakr II and his massive fleet ended up.

“I can only imagine having that many vessels and take that many people and leave the kingdom of Mali at that time must have been pretty miraculous, shocking perhaps but miraculous nonetheless,” Nimako says. “So it just became this perfect well of mystery and mythology for me to start building speculative works. OK, let’s just say they did leave, so what if they went here … what if this happened when they were out there?”

Ekow Nimako
Ekow Nimako, Asamando, 2022. cal

Bay of Banjul used 120,000 Lego elements, while Asamando required 200,000. In total, Nimako’s exhibit is made up of more than one million black Lego elements. The artist has made the popular interlocking plastic bricks central to his work for more than a decade. Other artists, including Douglas Coupland, have used Lego as part of their artistic practice in the past, but not to this extent or in this manner. Nimako takes a monochromatic approach to his work and material because he specifically didn’t want it to be associated with the bright colours LEGO elements are known for.

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“The rare thing is for someone to be using the material as a way to deal with a kind of subject matter that I deal with,” he says. “It rarely gets the chance to escape its own iconography. Some of the artists who have used it use it in a way that it is identifiably Lego. I try to defuse the Lego myth. I approach it as an artist first and a Lego-building second, so the Lego material, Lego elements become secondary from my perspective. While there are, of course, people who are enthusiasts and the only reason they are interested is that it is made of this material that they are so fond of but, for me, it’s important that the artistic perspective is what is centre, the subject matter and, of course, the formal qualities of the work.”

Ekow Nimako
Ekow Nimako, Bay of Banjul (The Abdication of Abu Bakr II), 2022. Banjul is the capital and fourth largest city in Gambia. Considering this region was part of the Malian Empire, it was chosen as the site for the grand departure of Mansa Abu Bakr II and his fleet of 2,000 ships. The piece is part of the exhibition Building Black Civilizations: Journey of 2,000 Ships, until May 19 at Glenbow at The Edison. cal

Born in Montreal, Nimako has exhibited internationally and received high-profile recognition for his artwork. While the Lego angle has certainly provided a tantalizing hook for those writing about the artist, his body of work has focused on imaginative and often provocative themes. Building Black Civilizations: Journey of 2,000 Ships is connected to the exhibits Building Black Mythos: Divinities and Building Black Amorphia: Spiritual Starships, work focusing on Black culture.

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“Building Black Mythos explores mythological entities and narratives, with Spiritual Startships the focus us taking West African mask-making traditions and incorporating interstellar vessel into that shaping process,” he says. “The idea there was that a lot of the science fiction I grew up watching and consuming and being inspired by was not particularly diverse and inclusive. At the same time, a lot of these universes steal from other cultures but the people from these cultures are often absent from these stories. Take Star Wars, for instance: taking the garments from Cambodian royalty to make their characters feel more authentic and exotic perhaps and otherworldly, but they are not putting the people that those cultures come from into those films or into the culture.”

With Journey of 2,000 Ships, Nimako focuses on an “intrepid, Black Muslim monarch that left his throne in search of discovery, in search of trying to quell curiosity.”

“Normally when we hear about these voyages, it’s often for god and country and capitalism and not without colonial interests, it’s not without just brutal genocides,” he says. “All these stories, especially that I learned about in history class, are European history, but don’t go deep into what happens in African history and how there is much to be learned from those stories. When they are going out into the world, it’s not to colonize, it’s to build relationships, fellowship. That’s usually the common thread, it’s about expressing and exploring untold narratives.”

Building Black Civilizations: Journey of 2,000 Ships will be at Glenbow at the Edison until May 19.

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