Interview of Eric Gyamfi
interviewed by Ama Asantewa Diaka
Interviewer: you categorize yourself as a photographer but your work isn’t practiced as conventionally as other photographers, from your production to your exhibitions, everything you do is peculiar to you. I’d like to know more about your practice.
Eric Gyamfi: I come from a Photography background, I’m trained as a documentary photographer, so it’s where my starting point is, but along the lines I’ve been interested in photography itself as a medium, how it comes together and where it is headed and the things that it can do or the things it can be employed to do. To better understand what it can do I concern myself a lot with how it becomes, the processes that photography goes through. What does it mean to photograph? How does an image come about? How is an image produced? Who are images produced for and how do they circulate?
How do they encounter people how do they encounter other images? How do they encounter other life forms? So it is from asking these little questions about how the photographs come to be, where it goes and what it does, that leads me to all of the processes that I am looking at that you have engaged with recently.
Interviewer: I’m curious about your recent exhibition – “The things left hanging in the air”. How did that come into being?
Eric Gyamfi: To be honest, I didn’t set-out knowing anything in advance before the project began.
The project was realized through a series of activities, conversations, encounters, chance and plans with several people, several plants, several things and an institution. Prior to going to the Centre for Plant Medicine Research, I had been doing some chemical experiments using plants, plant pigments and making images from them. That is not new, it was part of the experiments conducted at the beginning of photography when scientists were looking for ways of making colored photographs, so they turned to plant pigments in an attempt to produce color photograph. So I started from there and I changed the plants the scientist were working with to tropical plants, plants around me in Accra. Then slowly I moved from those experiments and started taking them in different directions. It was through these experimentations that I decided it was time to go into an environment that specialized in plant chemistry. I wrote a couple of letters to CSI plants, Soil, Water and co and then to the research center in Mampong.
I ended up at the research center due to chance and encounters. I would intern there for 8 months doing some research and experiments for my own practice and for the institution. The result of everything that I learnt is what I put together in the form of the exhibition “The things that are left hanging in the air like a rumor”.
Interviewer: When you started the project did you have a full picture in mind of how it will evolve? From the choices you made, the final product and the documentation process. Was there an emotional landscape you were looking at and working through?
Eric Gyamfi: there are many points from which I can come at this from.
The first thing was looking at the behavior of photo chemistry and how, if I remove myself slightly and step away a little bit to observe, I realize the way that chemicals behave in themselves is very interesting. So I became interested in that and how they behave when they combine with slight changes in the weather, air, movement and humidity, with temperatures rising and falling. They behaved almost like humans, in the way humans respond to things. I become interested in the responsiveness. There are a lot of things I consciously won’t be able to tell because I don’t know where they reside but I had a lot of conversations with different people, I would go into different departments just to observe what they were doing and participate sometimes. I picked so much that I would later bring into my work. In the same way as some of these plant chemistry will respond to the environment and to conditions that were specifically happening at any point in time, I structured myself such that I could also respond to any change in condition that will happen. So for instance, how I came to the plant that I focused on for the experiment cryptolepis sanguinolenta which is a scientific name but commonly referred to as Nibima in Twi, Kadze in Ewe, Gangnamau in Hausa, Paran pupa in Yoruba and is generally referred to as Ghana quinine. I never planned to use that plant, I was documenting thousands of herbarium specimen. There’s a department that has pressed leaves or plant parts on paper with dates, their medicinal values, where in the country they can be found, what color they are, sometimes their geographical coordinates. There are thousands of these that are housed in the cabinets at the institution that has not been documented. One of my tasks was to set about creating digital documentation to be uploaded on a server.
So through this documentation I came across the family Apocynacae which had a lot of medicinal plants within them and so that was one of the reasons I became interested in this family. But it was also through conversations with botanists that I was working with.
A friend of mine called Yaw gave me a book called Bitter roots: the search for healing plants in Africa by Abena Osseo-Asare. Inside that book, there’s a whole chapter dedicated to The Centre for Plant Medicine Research and to the plant ‘Indima’
During that time COVID was spreading, a team from KNUST came and took samples of this same plant and conducted some tests, and found that it had strong microbial activity against COVID 19, and so the food and drug authorities approved for the medicine or decoction derived from this plant to be rolled out for clinical trials to be tested against COVID or to be used potentially against COVID. So for me that was a second check, I thought to myself, not only is this relevant to this institution as one of the plants that they’ve been researching for the longest time, it is also relevant in the world relating to this pandemic. Upon researching further, I realized the roots had a strong yellow pigment that has a history of dying good leather within this country. So at this point, I’m like, I’m done I’m finished, this is winning.
It ticked all of the boxes for me.
So I decided to focus on it, or at least use it as a starting point to think around photography and what it can do, and every other means we can use to produce a photograph that is potent and relevant and is alive and can function in ways that my documentary background wasn’t affording me or wasn’t affording the photographs I was making.
You’ll realize that there’s a lot of note taking. A lot of documentation as to how things are coming together, what the weather conditions are, how they’re changing, where I’m finding the plants. And I felt like working in this way opened the work up so much that one didn’t have to necessarily come to it with an understanding. You could come at it with curiosity, and pick ingredients and attempt to make something from it as you go. And anytime you encountered the work or the work encountered you, the work itself could make something or take something from you. An example of that would be the petri dishes. The first day that we brought them, for some reason they attracted fruit flies. This wasn’t human beings bringing fruit flies, this was the work itself generating a force that could pull other living things to it. So these fruit flies laid a lot of eggs on the petri dish and some found their way inside the petri dish and they hatched new fruit flies who were then trapped inside. These are interesting things that I couldn’t have anticipated in advance, couldn’t have willed into being. These are the cause of the material that I’m working with, with the light forms themselves also acting and calling things to them and changing and influencing it. And so this opening up and leaving control became something I became obsessed with – in what ways can I allow for other actors to come in, affect the work or stir the work in a direction that I couldn’t have anticipated, and that in my view goes against what photography is at its core, which is crystalizing, making permanent, fixing things, making things unchanged. I wanted to use photography and its steps and processes and arguments to produce something that goes against the very foundations and basis of it, that can now become alien to the very medium that I’m using itself. So to answer that question about how the work comes together; its chance and reflecting on the chance, and developing something from it and leaving it back to chance to act on it, then allowing for it in those kinds of iterations.
Interviewer: why the name “the things that are hanging in the air like a rumour”?
Eric Gyamfi: It comes from chapter 4, paragraph 2 or 3 of a book by José Esteban Muñoz called Cruising Utopia, and he writes queerness in the varied forms and the entanglements that they take and I really like that line – the full line says something along the lines of “queerness and evidence don’t usually go together, and the heteronormative evokes evidence as a way to push queerness to the background”. And he says if you want to talk about evidence for queerness, you cannot look at evidence as we’re used to, you have to look at rumours, you have to look at gestures, you have to look at the remains, the things that are uncertain, that are not set yet, the things that are left hanging in the air like a rumour. And I really like the idea of things that are not set, things that are not fixed, things that are not realized quite yet, things that are passing. And if one has to consider them, it means that you have to consider everything. It means that everything has a potential to have a certain effect. You cannot just consider what is established, you also have to consider the things that just float around, the gossip, the air, the microbes – everything has to be relevant or everything has to be taken into consideration. It means you don’t take anything for granted. It means everything is pertinent, you have to scan everything to be able to make any informed decision. Even in terms of rethinking what queerness is – simply as going against the grain, I thought that my processes or the means with which I was arriving at my so-called photographs were queer means. So simply, that quote resonated with me, but also it sounded beautiful. The first time I read the book it caught my eye and my attention.
Interviewer: you mentioned using queer means to develop your photographs, and one of the things I really loved about your exhibition was the way that the end-product, – or the things that were being displayed, weren’t displayed through the only conventional ways in which photographs / photography is typically displayed. What informed your decision to use those unconventional displays – for instance the window pane, petri dish and fabric?
Eric Gyamfi: So I settled on the waiting area of the institution because I thought – I like waiting areas, it’s a good place to people-watch. And the way that time functions in waiting areas, you literally get a sense of the passing of time. It’s usually still, you long for some kind of stimulation, or something to break the shifting of seats. And I thought it a very fertile period to engage people through whatever means. So that was one reason. I also thought the waiting area did something – in terms of the kind of people it invites to the institution, these are people who are not prepared to engage art necessarily. And that space is not necessarily hierarchical, in terms of what class of people come there, able-bodied or non-able-bodied people, gender, sexuality, it doesn’t really matter. Anyone can come into the space and has almost equal chance to engage with the work. So that was enticing for me as an artist. I also made certain decisions that saw to it that no matter who you were, once you enter the institution, you lose something and you gain something. One of the ways in which I did that was excluding subtitles from the film that was on the table. So you have parts of the interview in Twi, English, Pidgin, French and sign language. Depending on which parts of it you had access to, you could either experience it or not. That also means that you have to look at it for other things, I like the way that the sun rolls from the side of the window pane, where the louvre blades are, and the kind of light that it casts into the space very early in the morning. Which is peak period for waiting in the clinic, usually between 6:30-10am. After 10 the crowd starts to dissipate and the place starts to empty again. It also meant the work could be experienced in other ways, it could be experienced as light on the floor, as a passing light on your body as you move to the waiting area. Or something that didn’t mean that you stood in front of the work, put your hand behind your back from the “I am engaging with art pose” and look at them. And just also the way in which the table brought people together to engage. If you look at the waiting area there’s a bench, there are benches on one side, then there’s a considerable gap in between, and then there are benches on the opposite side. And the table came to sit in between, without the table, it’s hard for people to communicate across, and I thought the table could be a meeting point for people, even outside of my work to engage when they would otherwise not engage with each other. I also liked the screens that they had, the consulting booths where people sit to have their blood pressure taken. I thought it would be nice to take their screens off and replace it with work that I had made about some of the plants that the people coming in would be coming to consume. It also meant that you didn’t really have to stand in front of it. By virtue of sitting inside the booths you would engage with the work somehow, by your skin would brush against it as you move, or that you see it. Or in some other way. I was interested in blending the work with the space such that it didn’t stand out. So you realize that the blue of the chair, tables, of some of the hospital things were the same shade of blue. These were some of the little decisions I was interested in. I was looking for multiple ways of engaging without it necessarily being something for the eye.
Interviewer: On working with the different displays and mediums, was that a challenge? Was that something new to figure out?
Eric Gyamfi: I had already worked on glass a lot, and I thought the windows would be an interesting way of bringing back my glass work without making them stand alone to be looked at specifically. The windows were already there, all that I had to do was take them to the studio and treat them with the plants and my chemicals and fix them back. I wasn’t changing so much about them but I was also changing them at the same time. I was changing the way in which the place would be coloured, I was changing the way in which light could filter into the waiting area, and a few other things that I may not even be aware of. But also the way in which it became part of the building and not necessarily a standalone project. I think I like the idea of being able to experience a photograph as light, because light is such an intrinsic part of making photographs, and to be able to experience it simply as light as opposed to a figurative something that cannot be read, to experience it just as light felt poetic.
Interviewer: a lot of your process has been taking the elements of photography and creating something that is akin to it, what has the reception been to your process and work from your peers, fellow photographers and artists?
Eric Gyamfi: From direct engagement – it’s dope. But I don’t know what people are necessarily thinking outside of what they see. I think Francis Kokoroko spoke about contamination. He said that everything that I had done had been contaminated by something. And I really like the idea of contamination because it implies a certain external influence or something that doesn’t necessarily want external influence. And I like the idea of photographs that are not fixed, photographs that are permeable, photographs that can change or that can respond to the environment, and so this idea of contamination or something coming to affect something and change its state became very interesting for me as feedback. And that’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot and finding ways to incorporate into my writing or work. Another comment – someone called me and he said “your work is nice but I don’t like that you don’t have labels on them. I don’t know what I’m looking at”. And offered that if I wanted, they would help me label all of the works. I think some photographers find it hard to orient themselves, or find it hard as to how to position themselves in relation to the work, or how to engage with it. And I think in part, that disorientation makes me happy. Because it means that you start to reorganize or reformulate what a photograph is or what it could be or what it can do. Which is something that I am interested in, and something I am reorienting myself to as a person. And so if there’s another feedback beyond the one on contamination it would be the one on reorientation. I like that because it also implies, or it suggests contingency, it suggests that you constantly have to weave yourself or rearrange yourself in order to experience something and this is very much what I am interested in, making photographs that respond. Meaning that whatever engages with the photograph or whatever the photograph engages with, also has to respond. It’s never fixed so you cannot be here, and be across the street and get the same thing. You have to change yourself because the thing keeps changing.
Interviewer: what about the audience?
EG: the audience always have something to say because there’s no label, there’s no description as to what is happening. I’ll give you an example, there’s a scene in the film where there’s a lot of blue butterflies, and some of them are dead on the floor. And one of the security personnel is so convinced that there are some trees growing around where the butterflies are, which feeds the butterflies and gives them life but also takes their lives at the same time. And I have in turn grown curious enough to want to go back and examine the tree. Because on my first encounter I didn’t examine the tree, it was on my way to something that I saw that and made a short footage of blue butterflies because I thought they were interesting and I like blue. And now based on the information he has given me about something I have done, I’m curious to go back to investigate some more. So I’ve had several of these interactions where I have done something but it is people who are engaging with the work who are teaching me what I’ve done and I like this way of working because it prevents me from being an authority, and it means other participants can shape the work and that has been a good takeaway
Interviewer: you document a lot in your own work, and I personally enjoy that part of your process, but a lot of photographers don’t document their process. But your documentation is so vast that it ends up becoming part of the work. I’m curious to know if that is you defining what it means to be a documentary photographer or if that is particular to your temperament as a person.
Eric Gyamfi: I think it’s recent and it stems from not knowing exactly what is happening, and a certain quest to understand what is happening to be able to go back and say “oh I didn’t know this is what was happening but I have this note here, and I have that note here, if I combine this and that, it means this is what is potentially happening based off of a different note that I have in comparison”. So the note taking counts because I am unsure and I don’t know exactly what or where things are going to lead, and so I need to make notes, I need to document, in order to look back, to be able to reflect, to be able to assess or evaluate, to be able to move forward. It has very practical value. So you realize my notes tend to be very encompassing – I have the recipe I’m making for food, I have a receipt for the condoms I’m buying, I have a note about phone calls … because there’s so much, people are talking to you and you don’t always know where you’re getting your information from, sometimes you like to think that we are creating magical things from the clouds, but it could’ve been a phone call or a leaf that’s causing a chemical reaction in your brain that’s stimulating something, you know? Things have a lot of cause, encounters have a lot of cause. It’s not exhaustive but it’s my attempt at being able to look back at how certain things have played out and picking out what has been influencing it. If not even for me, for other people to make the connection as well. Again it’s also an attempt at relinquishing control – recognizing all the actors – human, nonhuman, air, plants, food, things I’m eating, watching, listening to – that could come back to affect the work that I have done. All of these things that are there, to be able to acknowledge them as forces that affect the things we create, it’s not just from us. We are taking things in, and sometimes we acknowledge them – we acknowledge the teachers, and in this case it would be like how some of my education in KNUST has played a role, with Dr. kąrî’kạchä seid’ou also being my supervisor/lecturer that has taught me a lot. And my photography classes from Sudan with Akinbode Akinbiyi, my apprenticeship with Nii Obodai Provençal– all of these things have affected my work. All the music that I like so much and listen to – they do something to my sensibilities as a person, how I approach work and make my work. So it’s also a way of recognizing all these actors and understanding their role in my process and not to see my work as a new thing or something that is fresh or absolute or self-enclosed. To recognize my network to all of these things. There is a photographer called Dayanita Singh, he’s an Indian photographer and he speaks about photographs as hyperlinks. I really like the idea of photographs as hyperlinks because it connotes a chain, – a network of films.
Originally published February 6, 2022