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Doing Sankofa with multi-media artist Bernard Akoi-Jackson: What Zwarte Piet can learn from Ghanaian symbolism


By Rhoda Woets. On a foggy morning in November, the artist Bernard Akoi-Jackson walks at a snail’s pace and courteously over the Ten Kate market in Amsterdam. His body and hair are covered in gold; a hand-made cloth, made from sown strips of different fabrics, is eloquently draped over his lifted wrists. On his feet are golden Ahenema slippers. Only the yards of red and yellow cloth that the artist wrapped around his waist offer some subtle warmth in the autumn cold. As a conceptual artist, Bernard Akoi-Jackson aims to break out of the confines of the white cube in addressing audiences in public spaces and to create work that reacts to its immediate environment. His work and performances are intended to spark off debate, and create new narratives in the dialogue between audience and artist. As Akoi-Jackson lived for a few months around the corner as an artist-in-residence of the Thami Mnyele foundation, the performance is also a farewell to the place and space where he bought food and cloth and interacted with market traders.


What did the artist try to achieve? Bernard Akoi-Jackson is aware of the present global culture of identity and authenticity in a world where people feel anxious about globalisation forces and seek comfort and safety in cultural traditions. He questions persistent understandings of heritage and identity as pure, fixed and homogeneous by creating fictional characters that, at first glance, look like an ‘African’ priest or chief, but create confusion because at the same time, they are not. These characters travel around the globe and were performed in different spaces in Ghana, India and the Netherlands. It is clearly not his intention to fall back on cliché images of an ‘African’ heritage to meet the expectations of Dutch audiences. As he insisted in an interview with the art journal Metropolitan M: “It will be thus unfortunate if interest in me and my work were only rooted in a parochial thirst for an exoticized “Other,” which I would then read as a form of repressed and eroticized anthropological voyeurism” (2013). Instead, as he told me in an informal interview where we discussed the market performance: “what I do in my art is to present things that look authentic but are inherently fake. Or rather, deliberately constructed, to push people toward questioning”.


Akoi-Jackson invites the viewer to probe an understanding of heritage and identity as fixed, essential categories. The African wax print cloth that he uses, for instance, is part of a history of colonial, global trade. In the late 19th century, Dutch and British trading companies began to successfully market imitated Java batiks in West-African markets where these imitations were modified to local taste and became known as Dutch or English wax. The cloth, characterised by bold, heavily patterned designs and vibrant colours, came to signal an African heritage and identity. Nowadays, the majority of African wax cloth prints are produced in China and are often imitations of copyrighted designs. Precisely these Chinese prints were acquired by the artist at the Ten Kate market and processed in his performance. Akoi-Jackson tries to show in his work that an unadulterated heritage is a myth. Nobody can lay essentialist claims on African wax cloth prints, as such products of global history and trade belong to us all.


In his hair rests a necklace with three brass ornaments decorated with, in Ghana, popular symbols: one of a chief’s stool and two that stand for Sankofa. Sankofa is often depicted as a bird that moves forward while looking backwards at where it came from. From the days of Independence in 1957, the state in Ghana has employed this symbol to express the need to know the cultural past in order to move forward. Sankofa served as a powerful symbol in the struggle against a perceived cultural alienation after a long period of colonisation. Furthermore, the idea of Sankofa was employed to create a shared, national cultural heritage that transcended ethnic and religious boundaries.

Sankofa symbol

For Bernard Akoi-Jackson, Sankofa, looking back to the past from the present is, as he explained during our conversation, “about retrospection, introspection and also about projection, aiming for the future”. As such, the idea of Sankofa is relevant for every culture, he argued, “it is also relevant for this issue of Zwarte Piet. If people are ready to Sankofa, or to go back to the history, peel off the layers, then they see that we have actually constructed all these things. Maybe we can rewind and reconstruct.” Some of the traders at the Ten Kate market are also involved in the process of doing Sankofa, as testified by one of them. While Bernard Akoi-Jackson walks slowly between the stalls with vegetables, bicycle locks, cloth and cheese, one trader shouts: ”Heee, a golden Piet, that is the solution!”


The interview with Bernard Akoi-Jackson in Metropolitan M (with Svea Jürgenson):

Bernard Akoi-Jackson also was a ‘global artists in residence’ in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam . His work and the result of workshops he did with young adolescents is still on display in the “Blikopeners” spot in the Museum.

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