EARLIER this month, Ghanaians had some news to celebrate and be proud of when it was announced that writer, Nana OforiAtta Ayim, had been appointed to the Advisory Council of the University of Oxford’s Cultural Programme.
While it was definitely great news, there were quite a number of people who may have wondered who she was since her name was not easily recognisable on the local scene.
However, for those who know her and her work, this was not surprising because Nana OforiAtta Ayim has always been a trailblazer whose work over the years has been focused on creating change by shifting the stories we tell about ourselves and clearly deserved her seat at the table.
Nana is a woman who wears many hats; she is an accomplished writer, artist, art historian, filmmaker, public speaker among others and told Graphic Showbiz in a recent chat why she chose to use arts and culture to change the narratives about the continent.
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Nana OforiAtta Ayim speaking at the launch of her novel The God Child at the Serpentine Gallery, London, UK
“I was lucky enough to study when studying in the UK was still free, so I could really pursue my passion, which at the time to the puzzlement of many, was Russian literature and Politics. I already spoke quite a few languages and realised that the more languages I learnt, the more I understood different kinds of people, different realities.
"At the time, I really wanted to go into politics, I spent my teens working in youth advocacy for a charity called Youth Ending Hunger, I joined when I was 13.
“After university, my job at the UN was to research and create policy propositions, largely on conflict situations, in Chechnya, Azerbaijan etc, I thought it was a continuation of what I had been doing as a teenager, but what I learnt there was quite disillusioning, that politics only had a limited capacity to affect change, because there was so much compromise and in a way, lack of accountability.
“I moved into the arts, because everything I had done had always been powered by them, by books, films, art, music; they were what transformed me, taught me about the world, about myself, about others.
“I figured that if I could play a role in shaping the narrative of how I, as a young African woman, and of how my place of provenance, Ghana, and Africa, which were still portrayed as largely negative, were perceived, then that was where real change, real transformation could happen,” she said.
Nana is a founder of the ANO Institute of Arts and Knowledge through which she has pioneered such projects as The Mobile Museum and The Pan-African Cultural Encyclopaedia; curating exhibitions such as Ghana's first pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2019.
Nana with some of the children from local schools that regularly visit her Institute
As a writer, she has contributed to publications including Frieze, ArtNews, African Metropolitan Architecture and her first novel, The God Child, was published by Bloomsbury Publishing in 2019.
“Writing has always been my first love, my way of making sense of the world. I published my first novel this year, which is the most vulnerable thing I’ve done so far. It fictionalises aspects of mine and others experiences, in particular, one struggle I had of growing up as part of this big dynasty or legacy, which, on the other hand, I’m proud to carry.
Nana OforiAtta's first novel, The God Child, was published in 2019
“A lot of my Phd research has been researching the history of my family for the last 700 years or so, and how that history was passed down. And on the other hand, trying to find your own path, your own way within it. Even though I grew up largely abroad, I could feel the voices of my ancestors, and this pull, this obligation towards serving my country, that felt so much bigger than I was.
“I would hear the stories of my great-great grandmother Nana Dokua, of my great-uncle JB Danquah, of my grandfather Nana Ofori Atta I, I would come home and three of the Big 6 on the banknotes were my family members, and it was exciting, but also daunting.
“How do I give of myself to this legacy? How will I be good enough, smart enough, strong enough? How do I not fail? I’ve learnt through time and with experience that failure is very much part of the process, and that you can only at all times do your best, and hope and trust that it is good enough,” she said.
Nana OforiAtta Ayim has made several films; a cross of fiction, travel essay, and documentary, that have been shown at museums like The New Museum, Tate Modern, and LACMA and she explains her venture into filmmaking.
“I started making films when I realised writing was not enough, a lot of what I was documenting was musical, performative, and films were an easier way of communicating more widely.
"I am just about to release a documentary series on Ghanaian TV; I’ve been documenting the arts through film since around 2005, so it will be about what the arts can tell us about our country, our surroundings,” she stated.
She has spoken on cultural narratives and institution-building in countries like Ghana, Senegal, the UK, US, Germany, Holland, Denmark, France and Brazil; and is scheduled to speak at both Harvard and Yale.
Nana has a MOMA Curatorial Leadership Fellow this year, which follows her starting an ANO Cultural Leadership Fellowship for others in Ghana last year.
Speaking about the fellowship programme she started, she explained that, “it allows me to pass on support to people on the ground. It’s supported by OSIWA, and helps me to facilitate training, opportunities and mentorship for six young people every year, so that they can hopefully go on to be leaders in their own fields.
“The greatest privileges that were handed to me from my parents were: love and support, further education, and mobility. Their love and support meant that I believed in myself; the education they worked so hard to provide me with gave me the capacity to always support and to further myself.
“And the facility of mobility between different kinds of people, and also places, enabled me to learn so much, to see so much, to understand so much; and it is these privileges that I would like to be able to pass on to as many people as possible, because they’ve done so much for me.”
Nana OforiAtta Ayim studied Russian and Politics. She has a Masters degree in African Art History.
She is the recipient of various awards and honours; she was named one of the Apollo ’40 under 40’; one of 50 African Trailblazers by The Africa Report; one of 12 African women making history by Okayafrica; and a Quartz Africa Innovator.
She was also given the 2015 the Art & Technology Award from LACMA; the 2016 AIR Award, the inaugural 2018 Soros Arts Fellowship, and was a 2018 Global South Visiting Fellow at Oxford University.
On what’s next for her, Nana OforiAtta Ayim has been given a leadership role in the OSF fund for African Cultural Restitution.
She is working on how the return of objects to African institutions, and the creation of new institutions “can help us create spaces for ourselves in our countries and in the world, that are open to and inclusive of all, and that give us the foundations from which to grow from.”
She’s also continuing to work on her cultural encyclopaedia and mobile museum projects; on more films including helping to produce the works of others, on more books; and most importantly, “creating a family, which might just be my most important project to date,” she said.