The eleventh edition of the oxford dictionary defines an asylum as “the protection granted by a state to someone who has left their native country as a political refugee”. Thus, the new state serves as a sanctuary for the politically oppressed. An asylum as a homonym can also mean a place that cares for the mentally deranged. However, in Ghana asylums which mostly doubles as prayer camps, have become a place where the mentally challenged are dumped. The deranged are chained and in some reported cases beaten and maltreated 1. Thus, whereas an asylum can be a place of shelter, it is also a place of oppression as noted above. The series is full of strong imagery that juxtaposes tradition and religion as asylums that seeks to comfort yet condemn and oppress.
In the series, Eric Gyamfi plays with these contradictory yet complementary meanings to create a conceptually dense work through auto-performances that sees him play different characters. This purposefully “seeks to examine the contemporary African male sexuality against a backdrop of religion and tradition”. Thus, in Father and Sons 1 (3) (Fig. 2), Gyamfi communicates to the viewer the dire consequences of ‘coming out’; in this case not out of a closet but a traditional pot. In a contemporary society that abhors homosexuality, Gyamfi represents this idea in the picture with the image of himself as a father, topless, bent over with shears pointed to the boy-his son- with his head sticking out of the pot. In fathers and sons 1 (4) (Fig. 3), Gyamfi’s back is turned towards the viewer with a heavy sack which seems to contain a body. The pot is empty signalling the destruction of he who comes out as a homosexual. Here, the father who is supposed to be the carer of the son has now become the one who destroys him because of his sexual identity. This is analogous to the Ghanaian asylum.
It is worth emphasising that homosexuality is grossly detested in Ghana. In September 2006, the then Information Minister Kwamena Bartels was reported as retorting to an allegedly proposed conference on homosexuality in Ghana that “[t]he government would like to make it absolutely clear that it shall not permit the proposed conference of international gays and lesbians to take place anywhere in Ghana. Ghanaians are a unique people whose culture, morality and heritage totally abhor homosexual and lesbian practices and indeed any other form of unnatural sexual acts”. In August 2011, the late President Attah Mills in a rebuttal to the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair’s threat of cutting aid to African countries that abused the rights of homosexuals, he emphatically stated "I as president of this nation will never initiate or support any attempt to legalise homosexuality in Ghana" which was met with approval from many Ghanaians. The attempt to bring to the attention of Ghanaians that homosexuals deserve rights has been seen as an imposition of western cultural values onto Africans can be termed as a sexual colonialism 2.
The second part of the Asylum series, Adjuration, reflects on the destruction of the self by religion. In this part Christianity is emphasised by the visible cross that forms a part of the backdrop of the self-portrait subjects. Eric Gyamfi plays a double by being the one who redeems as portrayed in Adjuration (the asking) (fig.4) and the wretched soul, seated and clad in a traditional cloth whose only source of redemption is to take that destructive element which has been offered, the gun. In Adjuration (acceptance), the wretched puts the gun in his mouth as if to shoot himself while the redeemer merely looks on. This shooting of the self leads to a renewal of the self (fig 5) which occurs to me as hideous as Gyamfi turns his back of his naked self towards the viewer. This renewal may thus be better termed as a destruction. This non-acceptance in both the traditional and Christianity turns the wretched rebellious as in shades of impurity (fig 1) we see the wretched defiantly piss on tradition represented by a calabash. Nakedness in his series is not just an act of shame but also a symbol of social protest.
One cannot deny the contribution of religion to the development of Ghana especially in terms of educations as many of the secondary schools in Ghana are a continuation of that which the missionaries built. For example, the much celebrated Mfantsipim Senior High School built in Cape Coast, then the capital of Ghana in 1876 was done with the help of the Methodist Missionary Society in London. However, the destructive force of religion has been well documented. For Assimeng (2010, p. vi) writes that “…in addition to ethnicity and tribalism, religion is popularly seen by scholars of modernization and social development, as the worst factor of social disintegration…”. Since the self is a part of the social environment, Gyamfi accurately depicts the disintegration of the self and thus the social in the parts of Adjuration. Here, once again, Christianity which is supposed to be a place of shelter for the wretched, acts as the destroyer which is analogous to the asylum.
It has been reiterated that photographs are visual documents of the past 4 but Gyamfi’s photographs as in the Asylum series serves as iconographical insights into the future, the consequences of being trapped in an ambiguous cultural milieu. Gyamfi’s self-representational style in the asylum series are also reminiscent of Samuel Fosso's -the Cameroonian-born Nigerian best known for his style and auto-performances- portraits. In the Tati Series (1997) (see Enwezor & Okeke-Agulu, 2009: 196–197) Fosso stages himself as different characters like a highly modern lady of his time clad in an overwhelmingly colourful attire as in Liberated America Lady in the 70s (1997) and the character of a seated chief with shoes to his grasping on to a sunflower in Le Chef: celui a vendu l’Afrique aux (1997) to satire society at the time. His colourful representations however contrasts that of Gyamfi’s monochrome colours.
Asylum also records the instability of the mind of the African homosexual that eventually leads to instability. These staged auto-performances sheds light on real events. Thus what is more credit-worthy of Eric Gyamfi’s photographs is the ability to use his camera not only to capture the physical but also the inner workings of the mind.
1. Edwards J. Ghana’s mental health patients confined to prayer camps. Lancet. 2014;383(9911):15-16.
2. Essien K, Aderinto S. “ Cutting the head of the roaring monster”: homosexuality and repression in Africa. 2009.
3. Assimeng M. Religion and social change in West Africa: An introduction to the sociology of religion. 2010.
4. Enwezor O, Okeke-Agulu C. Contemporary African Art since 1980.; 2009.
Further details: http://www.ericgyamfi.com/asylum-2/