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Ghanaian Artist Elisabeth Sutherland on Theater, Traditions and Technology

ACCRA, GHANA—Elisabeth Sutherland is descended from cultural royalty here in Ghana. The 25-year-old artist and theater director is the granddaughter of Efua Sutherland, one of Ghana’s best-known playwrights and children’s authors whose best-known works include “Edufa” (1967) and “The Marriage of Anansewa” (1975), and who also founded both the Ghana Drama Studio and the Ghana Experimental Theater. Ms. Sutherland’s studio now is on a corner of the property that her grandmother owned—which not only included her home and library but also the house of African-American photographer Willis Bell—and also happens to be the place where Ms. Sutherland was born.

The property, now smack dab in the middle of city life with car horns and street noise filling the air, used to be filled with trees and shrubbery, a place perfect for Ms. Sutherland and her cousins to run around, play and use their imaginations. It’s obvious as she sat in her studio, which is more of a wooden shed than a permanent space, that this land is special and an inspiration to her to this day. “This was the fun place,” she said, smiling as she surveyed the landscape.

In her relatively short career, Ms. Sutherland has packed a lot in: she co-founded the Accra Theatre Workshop in 2013 along with director Emelia Pinamang Asiedu; they not only do theater production and arts advocacy but also run an arts education program, Drama@Nubuke, at the Nubuke Foundation— a space that promotes local visual arts, culture and heritage— for 10- to 14-year-olds from some of Accra’s neediest neighborhoods. Last year, she was busy not only completing a Masters in contemporary performance making at London’s Brunel University but also took part in the two month residency program 89plus—co-curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist (artistic director of London’s Serpentine Gallery) and Simon Castets (director of the Swiss Institute) —at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris.

This April she will be debuting her original piece “Ananse’s Wife, Kwaku’s Daughter”—a performance and digital installation that is based on Ghanaian folklore –at the new permanent space of non-commercial art gallery ANO in Accra. Meanwhile later this summer she will again be doing a residency—this time at the Boghossian Foundation in Brussels. Ms. Sutherland, said ANO founder Nana Oforiatta-Ayim, “is an inspiring young theater artist bravely merging the forms of theater, technology, dance and narrative.”

With one grandmother the doyenne of Ghanaian theater and writing, another who was the wife of one of Ghana’s ambassador’s to Czechoslovakia and parents who were architects, it was little wonder that Ms. Sutherland ended up an artist. “My grandparents had books everywhere in their homes, in this free environment with women who were decisive of whom they were, and had massive exposure to life,” she recalled. “Having that influence and background I was all through school inclined to arts.” Though she was good at science—a subject she enjoyed and was initially being pushed into at her international school in Accra—she decided she wanted to study theater and hoped to go to arts school.

But her parents were insistent she went to a “proper university” so when she got a scholarship to DePauw University in Indiana, which has a respected theater department, she decided to head to the Midwest for her training. “It was a massive culture shock,” she said. “In terms of identity, I never thought of myself as black. I am light-skinned as my paternal grandfather was African American/Native American mix, so people here in Ghana always challenge me with, “where are you from,” which has worked its way into my work.”

She spent a lot of time studying off campus—both in Morocco and spending time working with the 52nd Street Project in New York. That experience led her to funding in 2012—while still in college—the Summer Shakespeare program in Accra, a performance-based program for young people. Initially funded by a Howes Grant, and then by an IndieGogo crowdfunding campaign, she had volunteers from DePauw come and help with program. Though the program is suspended at the moment due to lack of funding, Ms. Sutherland is hoping to resurrect both the project and the collaboration with DePauw University in 2019.

The Drama@Nubuke program uses theater-based games to educate children on everything from how to be a good citizen, to learning about West African Adinkra symbols and aspects of Ghanaian culture. “They learn to express themselves through writing, they direct and perform their own stories,” Ms. Sutherland wrote later in a follow-up email. “They learn about respect for your work and your peers, and to take control of a situation and to guide a group of people towards a common goal.”

In terms of the partnership between Ms. Sutherland and Ms. Asiedu and their Accra Theatre Workshop, it has been, “absolute magic” said Ms. Sutherland. “It has been such a good partnership as balance each other out well as she is more into traditional theatre but she has this very adaptive mind. I am just up in the air with concepts and she is like, “okay, great, but…” Their first show – a collection of short plays called “An African Walks into a Psychiatrist’s Office”- debuted in November 2013.  Currently they are working with a doctor on a performance piece based on the brachial lexus, which is network of nerves controlling the movement of the arm that they will debut later this year.

During 2015 and 2016, Ms. Sutherland took a sabbatical from her work in Accra to attend Brunel, which she said was an amazing experience to learn how to incorporate software into her work. “I started getting interested in interactivity and software in general as a backdrop to performance and it is an interest I am trying to refine because right now I want to learn everything,” she mused. Her performance piece at ANO, which she will perform for the entire month is looking at the Ghanaian folk tales of Kweaku Anansi, who often takes the shape of a spider and whose wife is always on the sidelines. “So it is looking at these mythological tales from the wife’s point of view, putting her at the center,” said Ms. Oforiatta-Ayim. The piece will include video projections that, depending on where you step, will go on and off. Ms. Sutherland, while on her Paris residency at Google, also created an app that will also be launching at the same of the exhibition.

Visitors will be able to download the app and as they walk around—with a special Google Cardboard headset (imagine something akin to modern-day View-Master) –they will trigger 3D scanned images of Ms. Sutherland playing the wife, and visitors will get to hear different parts of the story. These days she said she feels most comfortable calling herself an artist because using specific terms—director, curator, actor—can be limiting. “They all blend into each other,” she said. “Leveling it to an artist helps reduce that confusion for some people, and even for me. Calling it just theater is reductive, as I am doing all sorts of things now including painting. So I want to leave it open.”


by Ginanne Brownell Mitic


1st and 2nd photos courtesy Elisabeth Sutherland; 3rd, Ginanne Brownell Mitic

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