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Bearing witness to slavery

A sculpture’s trans-Atlantic passage from Ghana to Alabama

Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo’s sculpture depicting slavery is on display at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. Three of its seven figures are shown here.
Brynn Anderson/AP
Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo’s sculpture depicting slavery is on display at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. Three of its seven figures are shown here.

ACCRA, Ghana — When the e-mail came from Alabama, Ghanaian sculptor Kwame Akoto-Bamfo was furiously preparing for an ambitious installation at Cape Coast Castle. The so-called “slave castle” on the Ghanaian coastline was where enslaved Africans were held captive in underground dungeons in the weeks before their trans-Atlantic migration to the New World, and a life of servitude — and worse.

It’s now a living monument and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Akoto-Bamfo was in the midst of sculpting 1,300 heads, cast in concrete, representing the multitude of Africans who were imprisoned there.

Now, out of the blue came a random e-mail from a place in Montgomery, Ala., called the Equal Justice Initiative. It was puzzling. Not only had he never been to the United States, but he’d barely ever been outside of Ghana. “Except Togo,” he said in an interview. “Maybe Burkina [Faso].”

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The e-mail came from the office of Bryan Stevenson, the prominent civil rights attorney and the organization’s founder. EJI was creating a memorial dedicated to the legacy of black victims of racial inequality in America. It would explore the country’s history of slavery, lynchings, segregation, Jim Crow, and the modern era of police violence and mass incarceration. Art and sculpture were key elements of it but they needed a sculpture to depict slavery. Would Akoto-Bamfo consider doing it?

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Swamped as he was, he didn’t hesitate. “I was really excited. I still am,” Akoto-Bamfo, 34, said, interviewed in February in the Ghanaian capital. The day before, his completed installation — representations in resin of seven enslaved people, including a baby — had left for the port, bound for Alabama in its own version of a trans-Atlantic migration.

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The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, set on a six-acre stretch of land, opened to the public in April. So did its counterpart, the Legacy Museum, which is nearby on the site of a warehouse that once held black people about to be sold. Through text, artifacts, photos, and new technology, the Museum tells the story of the domestic slave trade and its aftermath.

There is much about the memorial and museum that astounds and horrifies. There’s the “soil exhibit” at the museum — rows and rows of glass jars filled with soil gathered from lynching sites.

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There are the 800 weathered steel monuments at the Memorial, one for each county where racial terror lynchings took place; the names of victims and the day they were murdered are engraved on them.

There are the epitaphs mounted on distressed wood backdrops which evoke the frame of wooden gallows.

“Ballie Crutchfield was lynched in Rome, Tennessee, in 1901 by a mob searching for her brother.”

“John Stoner was lynched in Doss, Louisiana, in 1909 for suing the white man who killed his cow.”

“Mary Turner was lynched, with her unborn child, at Folsom Bridge at the Brooks-Lowndes County Line in Georgia in 1918 for complaining about the recent lynching of her husband, Hayes Turner.”

And then there’s Akoto-Bamfo’s constellation of Nkyinkyim sculptures, a grouping of seven shackled figures — three males, three females, and a baby — who are connected to one another, yet still seem alone. Streaks of red and copper rust from their chains flow down their bodies, like blood.

Kwame Akoto-Bamfo’s sculpture, viewed from another angle, at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
Brynn Anderson/AP
Kwame Akoto-Bamfo’s sculpture, viewed from another angle, at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

It’s not the only work of art at the memorial, nor even the only sculpture. There is Dana King’s installation dedicated to the women behind the Montgomery Bus Boycott. A work by Hank Willis Thomas evokes police violence and mass incarceration.

But Akoto-Bamfo’s is the one that greets you at the entrance to the Memorial, establishes the tone, and grounds you in the narrative. If ever there were an argument for the power of art to stir emotion, it would be Nkyinkyim. (The word relates to a proverb about resilience amid the twists and turns of life.)

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The sculptures reflect “the pain of everyday people,” said Akoto-Bamfo, who believes that slaves represented in art tend to lack individuality and humanity. His sculptures even have names and stories.

They include “The Lost Guardian,” a man of about 28, who wears tribal medicinal and spiritual marks on his sad face. “He turns away from the mother and child that he can no longer protect,” Akoto Bamfo wrote in a document he sent to EJI in the early stages of the project. There is the “Broken Man,” age 32, who is riddled with scars and whip marks and accepts that his resistance will be futile.

The teenage “Daughter of the Royal” — distinguishable by her hairstyle — is outraged and unwilling to accept her status because she’s not a commoner. The 29-year-old “Uncle’s Brother” is the “ordinary guy who may not have been extraordinary by our standards but was also a human being nevertheless.” There’s a “wise spirit woman,” who at 45 is older than most enslaved people and thus not destined for labor, Akoto-Bamfo said. He guesses she was captured to “break the spirit” of the people she leaves behind because they’ll lose her knowledge and spiritual gifts.

And then there’s the baby, whose future is uncertain because he will grow up without a father to teach him his family’s ways, Akoto-Bamfo said. He may find it hard to go back to his people, just as modern African-Americans feel alienated amid racism and injustice, and just as African-American children who grow up without fathers because they’re incarcerated.

There is also a symbolic eighth figure dubbed “Gone,” represented by an empty shackle.

He had only a few months to create the sculptures, working with a small team who modeled and helped him with casting. “There were a lot of sleepless nights and days.”

Kwame Akoto-Bamfo
Michele McDonald for The Boston Globe
Kwame Akoto-Bamfo

Akoto-Bamfo is a slight man with Afro twists, wearing a traditional batakari, a Ghanaian smock. He has a sweet, engaging manner despite being tight for time, sandwiching an interview between finalizing logistics for the sculptures’ imminent voyage to Alabama, and a meeting at the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences.

He grew up in Accra with a single mother and his sister in a traditional compound. They lived simply — “people share pots and spices” — and he spent a lot of time with his grandmother, who nurtured his appreciation for African traditions.

His mother couldn’t afford books, so he drew, constantly. “It became obvious around age 4 that I was going to be an artist,” said Akoto-Bamfo who went on to study art at university, to teach, and to launch his Ancestor Project, to promote African heritage through art, music, and performance. His mother hoped he would be a “gentleman artist who would bring prestige to the family.”

But the gentleman artist part never happened. His passion was depicting African culture and slavery. His grandmother had shared what she knew about the kidnappings. He’d seen and touched shackles and chains that had been passed down through families.

Sculptor Kwame Akoto-Bamfo created heads of enslaved Africans for an installation at Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle, where enslaved Africans were held captive in underground dungeons in the weeks before their trans-Atlantic voyage to the New World.
Michele McDonald for The Boston Globe
Sculptor Kwame Akoto-Bamfo created heads of enslaved Africans for an installation at Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle, where enslaved Africans were held captive in underground dungeons in the weeks before their trans-Atlantic voyage to the New World.

Still, “slavery is not something people enjoy talking about [in Ghana,]” he said. It’s too painful. Also, “there are those here who feel it’s offensive to white people and they don’t want to offend white people because they’re tied to their income earnings,” he said. “This is the Third World. People are trying to make a living. They are also in some form of servitude, if I should put it that way.”

As for Akoto-Bamfo, there are days when he feels as though all he thinks about is slavery.

He started by making 100 heads of enslaved Africans for the Cape Coast installation, but it didn’t seem like enough. He increased it to 1,300, and he’s planning hundreds more over several years — more heads and more sculptures about African history and culture — to be exhibited around the country. There will be thousands of them, he said.

“It’s melancholic,” he said. “One moment you feel like a slave yourself, and the next minute I’m counting heads, so I’m the slavemaster.”

No two heads are alike. “It’s almost like he knows them one by one,” said the show’s curator, Daniel Dunson, a Chicago art historian and former Fulbright scholar in Ghana.

“Many of the sculptures showed people at the moment of being captured. There are some whose hair was half-groomed. Maybe they were grooming themselves when they were captured? There are those whose expressions say it’s the moment directly after the capture. And those who seem to be anticipating it will happen.”

A closer look at Kwame Akoto-Bamfo’s sculpted heads of enslaved Africans at Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle.
Michele McDonald for The Boston Globe
A closer look at Kwame Akoto-Bamfo’s sculpted heads of enslaved Africans at Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle.

Implausibly, it was this subterranean installation that caught the attention of the Equal Justice Initiative. Akoto-Bamfo was trying to raise money for it through an online funding platform and by selling his art work.

Meanwhile, EJI was casting a wide net for a sculptor whose repertoire included slaves.

“The only sculptor I knew of was in Zanzibar, and it wasn’t a good fit,” Bryan Stevenson said. “We kept looking at every sculpture we could find, anywhere in the world.” That’s when they found Kwame’s work, on a crowd-funding site.

Numerous sketches, 3D renderings, videos, and Skype conversations later — not to mention one hiccup that got the sculptures hung up in customs — they arrived in Alabama. “I was completely blown away,” Stevenson said. “I’d been seeing images of it, but once it was on site, and I saw up close the face of the woman with the baby, I lost it.”

The second time he went back, he was sure it wouldn’t have the same impact. This time he looked beyond the sculptures — actually, through them — and registered the hazy image in the distance of the monuments honoring the lynching victims.

“I kind of lost it again,” he said.

An enslaved mother and her baby depicted in Kwame Akoto-Bamfo’s sculpture at the the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
Brynn Anderson/AP
An enslaved mother and her baby depicted in Kwame Akoto-Bamfo’s sculpture at the the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

Linda Matchan can be reached at linda.matchan@globe.com.