Mah Rana: Between Remembering and Forgetting

Article  /  Artists
Published: 26.01.2006
Mah Rana: Between Remembering and Forgetting.
Augustus Casely-Hayford

Mah Rana is an archaeologist of memory. She has excavated amongst the prosaic silt of throwaway-life, to sift out the overlooked treasure.
I was once told by an old Northern Ghanaian diviner that everything remembers. He passionately believed that if we knew how, we could draw memories from deep within the fabric of objects. He had built his highly successful divining practice upon the conviction that we charge everything we touch with memory. He argued, that every object emanates fading echoes of its past; and in turn, every object that touches us, somehow remains with us, percolating its essence down through our flesh into the fabric of our bones, where its record stays frozen, forever. Ultimately, he posited, the only thing of value we could leave behind would be the memories we activate in the people and possessions that we truly touch. As I left him, he whispered a Dagaaban* proverb, ‘people are just like autumnal dew drops, the sun will come’. The beguiling power of those words came back to me when I first saw the work of Mah Rana.

Mah Rana is an archaeologist of memory. She has excavated amongst the prosaic silt of throwaway-life, to sift out the overlooked treasure. She has unearthed everyday objects that have been elevated from the ephemeral by the way in which they seem to have become engorged with powerful personal history and meaning. Many of these orphan-objects are devoid of corroborable biography, but they are somehow bristling with an inferred history that is etched into their physicality. The zodiac is a perplexing arrangement of found-objects; a crushed thimble, a fragment of black and white china, a thin strip of yellow plastic. But in the hands of Mah Rana, they become the constituents of an oxymoronic horoscope; a collection of astounding, but ordinary objects that foretell, not the future, but our forgotten histories. They somehow foresee the past; predicting who we once might have been, by reactivating the dying and desiccated memories that lie in the void between remembering and forgetting. It is within this space that Mah Rana’s archaeology really goes on. She has found a way of conjoining consciousness; creating objects that can re-animate memory for each of us, objects that create a sense of co-reminiscence.
Toknot is a length of string; an ostensibly simple object, but it is encoded with a series of suffocatingly tight knots, which turn a neutral object into a potent and powerful vessel for someone’s memories. As delicate and intricate as a swallow’s nest, yet heavy with someone’s worry; - like so much of Mah Rana’s work, Toknot hints persuasively at our past intimacy. We may not really know these things, but they somehow really know us.

Like a diviner Mah Rana can institute exquisitely evocative new vessels for us to invest our memories in, or she can reconstitute old objects by intuiting their past. She has used that insight to re-activate rescued foundling objects to make us aware of how we charge our possessions with meaning through utility. She reminds us how a memory-trace lingers like a scent upon our possessions long after they are lost and decontextualised, creating a kind of retroactive interference, that evokes an uneasy sense of proactive inhibition in whoever stumbles upon them. These are cocked and loaded objects and Mah Rana’s utilisation of layers of internal conceit, each based upon memory, make that unease even more powerfully intimate for each of us. In Before the mirror, a leaf-shaped brooch, she twists and inverts the same haunting themes, to create a piece that is personal and particular to everyone. The brooch is altered by whoever it reflects, making it an artificial, yet disconcertingly immediate talisman. Its mirrored surface retains only memory of the present, yet ironically it is a nostalgic present. Before the mirror reminds us how we bring meaning to our possessions, just like we bring what is reflected in the mirror. Without us the mirror is empty. Without us, our personal possessions are empty of cogent meaning. It is our consciousness that gives these objects real potency. This work consciously contrives to suggest that an artwork is like a mirror, it (ex)poses the relationship between viewer and viewed. And at the mirror/artwork’s surface, reality reverses and somewhat uncomfortably we become both viewer and subject.

This relationship is at the heart of all of Mah Rana’s work. We the viewer, by interacting with an object, can become the subject. In Out of the Dark, a series of black and gold pieces, she constructs a metaphor for the actual process of grief. As our mourning dies, so the external crust of blackened pigment is slowly sloughed away from the gold. Memory and pain are cast to the high winds to become part of the ambience; - dust to dust, - death is dissipated and diluted by the prosaic processes of life. This is perhaps what Mah Rana leaves us with, she believes, somewhat like the diviner, that ultimately, all that is left is gold, memories and dust.

*The northern area of Ghana where the Sahel gives way to the encroaching Sahara.

© Augustus Casely-Hayford 2002


From the catalog Jewellery is Life, Text Augustus Casely-Hayford, Frances Lord, Mah Rana. Published by Fabrica, 2002

© By the author. Read Copyright.

© By the author. Read Copyright.