Listen, listen. This is a story about paper, printing, and a book. But first, it is a story about music.
Imagine that you are standing in a private courtyard in Kumasi, Ghana, tapping your foot to a relaxed drum rhythm while voices rise in harmony over a fluid guitar melody. At the center of the performers is Koo Nimo, a Ghanaian music legend. Although he has been inspired by a variety of musical styles, including classical and jazz, Koo Nimo and his music group, Adadam Agofomma (Roots Ensemble), are celebrated for preserving Ghana’s palm wine — or highlife — music tradition. Influenced by both Portuguese guitar and the Calypso music of Trinidad, the palm wine style combines acoustic guitar, percussion, and vocals and is meant to be played in intimate settings among friends.
It is easy to place yourself in that courtyard as you listen to the recording created in July, 2009, when Koo Nimo invited a group of musicians and artists into his home for two weeks to make music. British recording producer Ben Mandelson taped the sessions direct to stereo and captured amid the music the background noises of the city — rain, roosters, taxi horns. For those who were there, it was clearly a remarkable experience. Ghanaian painter and printmaker Atta Kwami, noticed an “energy amongst the musicians” and described the atmosphere as “relaxed and reverential.”1 Mary Hark, the American papermaker and textile artist who raised funds to produce the CD, recalled the sense of elation present in the moments after a song when the audience and musicians would all burst into applause.2
I spoke with Mary Hark by phone about Listen, Listen: Adadam Agofomma, the fine press artists’ book honoring Koo Nimo that she was instrumental in creating. One of the fifty limited-edition copies of this book belongs to the Warren M. Robbins National Museum of African Art Library, and I had the opportunity to enjoy it while surveying the collection of artists’ books at the library during my internship at the Smithsonian. Enclosed in a clamshell box, Listen, Listen is in fact a collection of work on handmade papers. There are two thin, letterpress-printed pamphlets, one describing the musical legacy of Koo Nimo and the other encasing the CD that contains his music and a series of digital photographs documenting the recording session. A larger, accordion-fold pamphlet is printed with the lyrics from one of Koo Nimo’s songs in both Twi and English. Like most of Koo Nimo’s music, “Obra Ne Nea Wabo” (Life is What you Make It) uses traditional Asante proverbs to tell a story containing a moral lesson. Finally, at the bottom of the box, is a suite of three etchings entitled Sound Fabric by Atta Kwami.
In many ways, Listen, Listen is meant to showcase the thick, textured papers made in Kumasi by Mary Hark, Rita Yeboah, a graduate student at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), and Michael Adashie, lecturer in printmaking at KNUST. When Mary Hark was in Ghana on a Fulbright Grant in 2006, she and Adashie co-taught an undergraduate workshop in papermaking at KNUST. The class began experimenting with local botanicals, cleaning, breaking down, and cooking fibers by hand to make beautiful papers with different textures and colors. For Hark, an assistant professor of Design Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Kumasi is “like a botanical garden.”3 She and her students made papers from cashew, maize, plantain, avocado, papyrus, and several other fibers. At first, they strengthened their papers with kozo, a fiber traditionally used to make Asian papers. Then, after consulting the Ghanaian Forestry Department, they realized that a plant producing similar fibers was growing in Ghana. The pulp-mulberry, imported to the closed forest zone of Ghana in the late 1960s, has become a serious invasive species, and the government Forest Research Institute was only too happy to allow the Department of Fine Art at KNUST to use some of the plants for papermaking.
Funded by the University of Wisconsin, Hark was able to return to Ghana to help develop the papermaking initiative. “We had a bottomless pit of high quality free material,” Hark recalls.4 With the artists Atta Kwami and Pamela Clarkson, who have operated a 1950s snatch-proofing press from their Kumasi home since 1992, Hark founded Take Time Press to explore the creative possibilities enabled by hand-papermaking and printing in the Asante region. Listen, Listen is the first publication issued by Take Time Press. The book’s papers are made from cashew, papyrus, pulp-mulberry, and other local fibers. While the letterpress printing for the text was completed at the Minnesota Center for the Book Arts in Minneapolis, relief printing for the etchings was done using the snatch press in Kumasi.
Atta Kwami and his wife, Pamela Clarkson, are painters and printmakers who live in both Ghana and the United Kingdom. Black and Red, Kintampo, and Zongo, the three etchings that comprise Sound Fabric, resemble Kwami’s painted abstractions, which combine flat swaths of color in vivid, textile-like designs. Distinctively modern, Kwami’s art responds to the visual environment of Kumasi, the artistic center of Ghana, where bright, hand-painted signs mark shop fronts and patterned kente cloth is sold in street stalls. His work is also influenced by music, especially traditional Ghanaian music and jazz. For Kwami, the music of Koo Nimo “conjures images of colours, shapes, and patterns.”5 The Sound Fabric etchings are derived from Kwami’s earlier series of acrylic ink and watercolor drawings of the same title made on Xeroxed copies of musical scores from his father’s music books. Pamela Clarkson ground the black ink for the etchings by hand. The limited color scheme of black, yellow, and red is unusual for Kwami’s work, but makes the fine parallel and intersecting lines forming the flat, geometric surfaces much more evident. Kwami writes, “To me, the lines, texture, structure and grids with fluid-pattern embody the style of Koo Nimo’s music. It was a play on musical form as well as notation.”6
Take Time Press aims to celebrate the unique culture of the Asante region of Ghana and to support international collaboration among artists. Although Hark, Kwami, and Clarkson spearheaded the publication to honor Koo Nimo, Listen, Listen was in fact made possible by what Hark terms “a partnership” between dozens of individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds and experiences.7 Record producers and musicians, student artists and translators – each contributed their own perspective to the project and “brought something to each other’s work.”8 Hark is optimistic that future projects of Take Time Press will continue to foster these kinds of partnerships. “I’m hoping we’re creating a space where things I couldn’t even imagine could happen,” she told me.9
Chloe Barnett is a Smithsonian Institution Libraries intern. She received an MA in art history and an MSIS from the University of Texas, Austin and recently accepted a job as arts and humanities librarian at Bucknell University.
List of References:
“An Artist’s Sense of Place: The World of Atta Kwami at Nicolas Krupp Gallery in Basel.” Art Daily. Accessed August 4, 2011.
Brown, Jennifer Spears. “Atta Kwami,” in The Poetics of Cloth – African Textiles, edited by Lynn Gumpert, 64. New York: Grey Art Gallery, New York University, 2008.
Clowes, Jody. “Mary Hark’s Paper of Substance.” Surface Design 35, no. 4 (2011): 8-13.
Court, Elsbeth. “Atta Kwami.” Griot, 8 (2000): 151-158.
Hark, Mary. Listen, Listen: Adadam Agofomma, a limited-edition, fine-press book by Mary Hark. Publisher’s advertising pamphlet. Minneapolis: Take Time Press, 2011.
Hark, Mary, et. all. Listen, Listen: Adadam Agofomma: Honoring the Legacy of Koo Nimo. Minneapolis: Take Time Press, 2011.
Hark, Mary. “Report from the Field.” Surface Design 35, no. 4 (2011): 14-19.
Kaye, A.L. “Up-Up-Up and More Up.” Rakumi Arts International. Accessed August 4, 2011.
Picton, John. “The Picasso Bar, Kumasi,” in Kumasi Junction, 8-12. Llandudno : Oriel Mostyn Gallery, 2002.
1 Atta Kwami, e-mail message to the author, July 28, 2011.
2 Mary Hark, interview by the author, July 29, 2011.
5 Atta Kwami, e-mail message to the author, July 28, 2011.
7 Mary Hark, interview by the author, July 29, 2011.