Following Mahama’s large-scale interventions in various major international exhibitions—from the 56th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale (2015) to Documenta 14 (2017) in Kassel and Athens—the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi has invited the artist to Milan to carry out an urban-scale installation at a key site in the city: the crossroads of Porta Venezia. This location is one of six main gateways in the ancient city walls and stands on the same axis as previously erected gates during the Roman, medieval, and Spanish eras.
For centuries, Porta Venezia has been known as Milan’s Oriental Gateway, marking the border that separated the urban fabric of the city from the countryside. Consequently, it is a place that has historically contributed to defining the topography of Milan and the relationship between the metropolis and the outside world. Chronicled throughout the city’s history—from the arrival of the plague, which devastated Milan with an epidemic in the seventeenth century, to its description in the pages of Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed—the gateway remains one of the city’s most prominent landmarks, bordering the many multiethnic neighborhoods that surround it today.
A Friend aims to reflect on the very concept of the threshold—that place of passage defining inside and outside; one’s self and the other; the friend and the enemy.
As in the numerous public installations realized by Mahama in museums, libraries, government buildings, theaters, and railway stations around the world, the artist will wrap Porta Venezia with jute sacks. Creating a second skin, the artist generates a new identity for the two structures, underscoring their historical origins and symbolic functions as places of trade and exchange. Mahama’s temporary interventions address both the past and present of the city, and, on this particular occasion, also seem to connect with the urban projects of the artist Christo, who, in the 1970s, wrapped the monuments of Leonardo and Vittorio Emanuele in Piazza della Scala and Piazza del Duomo. At the time, Christo’s actions seemed to criticize the world of consumption, while today, Mahama’s “civil demonstrations,” as the artist calls them, tell of a more complex world of global tensions.
Through his research and the transformation of materials, Mahama investigates some of today’s most important issues: migration, globalization, and the circulation of goods and peoples across borders and between nations. His large-scale installations make use of materials gathered from urban settings—such as architectural fragments, wood, fabric, and, in particular, jute sacks—often sewn together and draped over major architectural structures. Just as the American sacks used for distributing food supplies in Europe as part of the Marshall Plan after World War II served as inspiration for Alberto Burri’s work, Mahama’s sacks are, similarly, fundamental elements of his research. A symbol of the markets of Ghana, they are made in Asia and imported to Africa for the international transport of foodstuffs (including cocoa, beans, rice, as well as coal).
Torn, patched, marked with various signs and coordinates, and with dramatic slapdash stitching, the sacks become gauzes enveloping the wounds of history—symbols of conflicts and dramas that, for centuries, have been consumed in the wake of the global economy. At the same time, Mahama’s jute sacking alludes to the hidden workforce behind the international circulation of goods, as he explains: “[It] tells of the hands that lifted it, as well as the products it contained, travelling through ports, warehouses, markets and cities. People’s living conditions remain imprisoned within it. And the same goes for the places it crosses.” In order to assemble the sacks, the artist often collaborates with dozens of migrants from urban and rural areas in search of work. Without documents or rights, they are victims of a nomadic, uncertain existence—reminiscent of the conditions to which Mahama’s objects have been subjected.