Artist re-interprets and re-imagines royal umbrellas  

by • May 22, 2023 • FeaturedArticle, NewsComments (0)619

By John Owoo

(In Accra – Ghana)

Results of an exploration into culture, identity and history by Rita Mawuena Benissan that involved the re-imagination of customary objects including the pervasive royal umbrella are currently on display at Gallery 1957 in Accra.

Indeed, the Ghanaian American interdisciplinary artist has reinterpreted the umbrella as an emblem of Ghanaian uniqueness while adopting a cross-disciplinary approach by redesigning them through a close collaboration with traditional umbrella markers.

Gigantic and vivid umbrellas on display at the Gallery show Benissan as master technician, who has generated interest among the public with installations that are replete with history, tradition, beauty, symbolism and elegance. 

Documented as part of Asante custom since the 18th century (possibly earlier), these umbrellas depict the various hierarchies of Akan chieftaincy and are normally decorated with patterns but the artist replaces them with other motifs and human figures.

She employs an archival portrait of a Ghanaian chief dressed in traditional robes and heavily accessorized in gold. Indeed, by crafting works that are part tapestry, part sculpture, Benissan reconfigures the role of the umbrella, turning it from an object symbolic of history and tradition to an item that in itself grapples with questions of memory and identity.

During processions, the Asantehene (Ashanti King) requires seven different umbrellas in addition to an eighth umbrella that is used as a reserve. During parades, the reserve umbrella replaces a malfunctioning umbrella until it is hurriedly repaired and swiftly brought back to the formation

A film by Benissan that was screened during the opening of the exhibition, showed umbrellas stripped of the ceremonial roles – indeed they comprise astonishing shots from the famous Makola Market surrounded by hundreds of umbrellas that shield market queens from the hot African sun.

Benissan received a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in Apparel and Textile Design from Michigan State University (USA) in 2017 and graduated in 2021 from the University of Wisconsin- Madison (USA) with a Master of Fine Arts in photography and an African Studies Program Certificate. 

She has showcased her work in several venues including Arts + Literature Laboratory in Wisconsin (2021 – USA), the Foundation Contemporary of Art, Afrochella Festival (2021 – Ghana), Gallery 1957 (2022 – Ghana), Dak’Art (2022 – Senegal) and in the group show “EFIE: Museum as Home” in Dortmund, Germany.

Through her foundation Si Hene, which focuses on preserving Ghana’s chieftaincy and traditional culture, Benissan helped to launch the reopening of the National Museum of Ghana in June 2022. She was the Chief Curator at the Institute Museum of Ghana (Noldor Artist Residency) till 2022.

Titled “In the World Not of the World”, the exhibition ends on Saturday June 17, 2023. It is being curated by Ekow Eshun.

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