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Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Ghana: An artist returns to his roots to help reconsititute a “lost” kingdom

For centuries the Abudu and Andani clans, named after two sons of the ancient Dagbon king, Ya Naa Yakubu I, cordially rotated their reign over the kingdom. But when King Yaa-Naa Yakubu Andani II was assassinated on March 27, 2002, it was as if the gods of anarchy had descended on the once-stable kingdom. Now an artist who remembers the time before the family feud is reminding society of the important cultural icons and traditions it stands to lose if it cannot find its way back to peace.

By Zubaida Mabuno Ismail, bird story agency.

Jaleel Issah, 40, has fond memories of growing up in his hometown, Tamale, in northern Ghana. He remembers a scenic region in the heartland of the once-glorious Kingdom of Dagbon, a region that had existed in relative peace and stability since the 11th century.

The founders of the kingdom were the Dagomba, a proud and closely-knit community, defined by adherence to and preservation of, its rich culture.

Armed only with a paintbrush, scalpel and chisel, Issah, a Dagomba, and an inhabitant of the traditional kingdom who experienced deep cultural immersion from an early age, has taken on the initiative. He has learned the traditions, which were passed down across generations through rich music and folklore, stories and recitals.

During an interview with bird, Issah is literally transformed into a trance-like state as he narrates the history of the Dagomba, a people rich in the intricate musical and oral tradition that has preserved their history and origins in a unique form—‘dance-drumming’.

This is the richness he and his generation want to reclaim and preserve, perhaps as sedative to dull the pain of the 2002 crime – the assassination of King Yakubu Andani II – that changed the proud history of the community and destroyed its identity and heritage.

What ensued afterwards was years of succession battles and sibling rivalry that has become the scourge of arguably one of the oldest traditional constituencies in Africa.

In the aftermath of King Yaa-Naa Yakubu Andani II’s murder, houses were razed as the conflict raged for the soul of the kingdom. The conflict forced civil society organisations, businesses, and developmental initiatives to depart the region, leaving years of cultural projects in ruins.

As things spiralled out of control and the kingdom, once a beacon of culture and unity, started to resemble a war zone, many in the community lost their voices – including artists like Issah – for fear of retribution.

Today, he and others are reclaiming their voices through art and are determined to help preserve the cultural heritage of Dagomba.

At the Centre for National Culture in Tamale, Issah is busy making a sculpture of a woman carrying a pot of water. This piece, once completed, will have been one of his most difficult, despite his 20-year career as an artisan and painter.

Jaleel and his colleague turning a log into artwork. Photo: Zubaida Mabuno Ismail. 

Issah uses recovered authentic Dagomba materials gathered either by himself or brought in by his clients. From logs, stones to seashells he produces artefacts that not only embody but tell the story of, northern Ghana, with a deliberate emphasis on the Gbewa lineage of the Dagomba community.

How did it all start?

“I had chosen to study general arts at the senior high school but my technical skills teacher at the Junior High School encouraged me to study visual arts. I joined my brother Acheampong’s Art shop for a while. I didn’t apply it (artwork) after school because I was doing some other jobs,” he told bird.

After graduating with a degree in Graphics Design, Issah looked around for a job, but there was this irresistible urge deep in his soul to marshal his talent for a greater community good.

So he did. From paintings to carvings, the self-taught and driven artist began churning out pieces on the Dagomba culture, which have become a hit with people in his community.

Currently, he has 50 different artworks in a gallery located in the Tamale Centre for National Culture, called Sunrise Gallery.

Oil on canvas artworks by Jaleel that tells the story of Nothern Ghana. Photo : Zubaida Mabuno Ismail.

“I used to make artefacts and come and sell to people here (at the Centre for National Culture),” he said, adding that his focus is now is wider and more community-centric.

Through his paintings and craft, Issah catalogues his ethnicity succinctly. This includes domestic activities, trees, musical instruments and animal parts, using screen-prints, canvas, jewellery, and even mud huts as means of expression.

Artwork on display in Jaleel’s art gallery. Photo: Zubaida Mabuno Ismail.

At the Sunrise Gallery, a client needs no historian to understand the untold and intriguing story of the north.

“These mud houses… have been fading out. We’re not preserving them and it’s just wise to bring back them to life. You hardly see mud houses in Tamale now, the chief’s palaces are preserved but they’re just the only ones,” he said.

He has also captured the African slave history on canvasses and T-shirts as well as carvings of animal species found in the Mole National Park, one of Ghana’s national parks.

In the middle of the gallery hangs a carving of an African elephant, embellished with a touch of snail shells.

Artwork on display in Jaleel’s art gallery. Photo: Zubaida Mabuno Ismail.

“It tells the story of the Mole National Park. Tourists who visit the park will always want to carry its memories back home,” he said. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, those tourists are largely domestic tourists and the stories of the region help educate Ghanaians from across the country.

The gourd tree grows only in the upper regions of Ghana, making it a key element in the stories he tells through his art.

Artwork on display in Jaleel’s art gallery. Photo: Zubaida Mabuno Ismail.

He carves earrings, purses, ashtrays, lamp holders among other artworks from the calabash that were often worn by his people. His motivation is to change the gloomy and troubling narrative that has captured much of his region and ethnic identity – and believes there is no better way to do it than through his artworks.

“There’s a lot of inspiration in producing artwork. I could do other jobs but I love the arts. I used to paint on canvas and now I choose to do calabash painting which is very old fashioned – though I have modernised it,” he said.

Issah revealed he desires to see younger generations keep the narrative positive and alive. That may be the only way to reclaim the peace and security of hundreds of years of tradition.

“I have gone to non-governmental organisations to teach them how to work with some materials around us like tree branches to make something out of it during their lunch hours, just for fun,” he said.

On 18 January 2019, a new king, or Yaa-Naa, Abubakari Mahama, Naa Gariba II, was chosen in Yendi by the Dagbon state’s kingmakers, after a peace initiative by the Committee of Eminent Chiefs, headed by Asantehene Otumfuo Osei Tutu II. He was enthroned (or, “enskinned”) on 26 January 2019 in Yendi.

To many, the end of the dispute was marked by the consequent celebration of the Damba festival, possible again after a 17-year break. But there is still plenty of work to be done and the narrative presented by artists like Issah will need to be heard clearly for traditions to once again be passed down from generation to generation.

By: Zubaida Mabuno Ismail / Bird Story Agency/ Ghana.

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