For the Accra-based artist Elisabeth Efua Sutherland, it all starts with the body. Whether through movement, dance, or performance, throughout her life she has found that she can express herself best with physicality. After all, that’s where the soul resides.
Just over five years ago she founded the Accra Theatre Workshop as an alternative space and stage to experiment and workshop material in Ghana. Since then, the theater scene in the city has grown, and Sutherland is now taking the time to refocus her attention on her personal practice.
Having done work around the feminist perspective in traditional tales and collaborated on performances like Ake yaa heko // One does not take it anywhere (2017) with the coffin maker and artist Paa Joe at Gallery 1957, Efua Sutherland is now addressing issues of gender roles and religion through sculpture.
She spoke with Whitewall about the reactive nature of her approach to artmaking, and why working in plaster feels like a productive, transformative activity.
WHITEWALL: What attracts you to expressing yourself through theater and performance?
ELISABETH EFUA SUTHERLAND: Throughout my life, I’ve been best able to express myself with my body physically. I use my body to figure out the world. And when you think about dance, you think about moving sculpture. If I had just studied fine art, I wouldn’t have had that fulfillment. That’s where your soul is, in your body.
WW: And do you find that people can better connect to performance?
EES: We experience the world on more than just a visual level. For performance, you can get something you can’t get even with film. It’s the closest you can get to life. Theater is life. The multisensorial experience is the closest art form to life itself because you’ve got multiple senses engaged. It’s not mediated through a screen. There’s something about the ephemera of performance. It’s in a moment and then it passes away and it only stays in your memory.
WW: Tell me about founding the Accra Theatre Workshop in 2013. What was the initial mission, and how has that evolved?
EES: That came very reactively out of a need for space. I studied abroad and I was lucky to have worked in different spaces, including New York. I saw how many steps people would go through in their work before showing it on stages. And here, people would just go straight to the National Theatre with a show. I found that bizarre. I have a really long research and development process, so I need a space to try things out and experiment. That wasn’t being done in Accra at the time. So that’s where the company came out of. But that’s changed a lot.
Five years last year, we’re taking a step back. There is a lot happening now; there are more visible companies here. We are seeing in this environment now what the best platform would be for young artists. We need to see what is more needed. It’s about how do we make sure this is really good on a world standard, and not just good for Ghana.
WW: How do you balance your work with the Accra Theatre Workshop with your own personal practice?
EES: Not very well [laughs]. This year I’m trying to focus more on my own self. I’ve had a show that I’ve been working on for a long time, on women’s bodies and feminism and this idea of the trickster, about the role of women and agency and religion. I’m trying to spend some time developing that and actually making the work.
WW: What was the starting point for that new work?
EES: You get into this really incredible space where you are speaking to people who think like you. You feel empowered. And then something happens on the ground that jolts you out of that. There are a lot of people who still think women are inferior and should stay in certain roles and can’t contribute in certain ways. Even though they may say otherwise, their behavior says something different. You forget that people may talk a good game but don’t follow through.
I’m Christian, and I’m having this very specific struggle with the way we speak about women in regard to the church. I’ve been trying to unpack that.
WW: How do you start a new project, typically?
EES: There’s a lot of drawing, for everything—for theater, for dance, for art. Now, I’ve been casting, working in plaster, making a lot of these plaster molds. Like of a fertility doll that people would wear on their backs when they are trying to conceive and making castings out of cement, red mud. I’m even making castings of my body. I’m working toward full-size human-scale castings in different positions.
This body of work is about the way we position female bodies and specifically looking at my body. I often work through my body as a conduit, because it’s the most available and the easiest to instruct.
The alchemy of plaster is so transformative—that’s attractive to me now. I’m looking for an alchemy of behavior. How do you take all this negative energy and solidify it into some that’s new and interesting and productive? More and more, I’m looking for something that produces a functional reaction in the people who are interacting with that. I think that’s the big question for this process, how to get a functional reaction out of people.
WW: Have you always seen your practice as an outlet for functional reaction?
EES: My work has always been reactive. I’m not terribly shy to speak about things that are problematic. I’ve spoken about issues with social media activism, with flooding, with rubbish, waste management, children, and education. And that has been my track record. I’m not trying to be overly political, but if you’re a responsible human being you can’t escape it.
I think in this century, we think that we have progressed to a certain level, but perhaps we may have regressed quite a bit in the way we think about bodies and religion and its place in our lives—or even spirituality connecting to things that are bigger than ourselves.
Part of that is everyone is too busy all the time. When people think about what kind of life you want to be living and you match that up with what you do, I think there’s a big disconnect. So, how do you redraw a freedom for yourself? How do you join those pieces in a way that makes sense and cut out the feeling of busyness? Half the time you examine your day, and it’s like, what did you actually do? It’s about encouraging people to have a good answer for that.