Despite having the high school grades to pursue medicine and please her Ghanaian family, Elisabeth Sutherland chose to go down the volatile artistic path. However, the 24 year old didn’t have to look too far for inspiration, as her grandmother, Efua Theodora Sutherland, was a playwright, director, children’s author, poet and dramatist. “She was actually one of the pioneers of theater in Ghana and West African literature,” Sutherland says. “I’m often associated with her because I write, I’ve worked with kids, and I’m starting to be politically active.”
Working across theatre and performance, Sutherland’s practice has a firmly feminist outlook. Often creating myths for female emancipation, she’s deeply concerned with the way culture shapes individuals and nations, and how these form perceptions of gender. Born in 1993 and based in the Ghanaian capital of Accra, Sutherland began writing narratives influenced by the West African literary canon, especially the works of Nobel Prize winning author, Wole Soyinka. Later, she began incorporating technology. “I first experimented with projection in the US,” she says about her BA in theatre at DePauw University, Indiana. “After I moved back to Accra, I used [projection] almost as a glorified PowerPoint presentation, but I also saw so much potential, especially when interfacing with bodies and environment.”
Her evolving project, “Anansi’s Wife/Akua’s Daughter”, is testament to this experimentation. In this performative installation based on the famous Ghanaian folktale trickster, Anansi, the artist rewrites the traditional tale from a female perspective by spotlighting Aso, Anansi’s spouse. “In the folktales Aso is always a sort of second character, so I wanted to give her a voice,” she says. Originally actors would perform this folktale alongside musicians, urging participation from their audience. But in the Sixties, Sutherland’s grandmother modernised its dramatic structure by borrowing from Western literature conventions. “So what I’m doing now is taking it a step further again by adding technology and restyling the movement even further,” she explains.
Through this process, the artist has created several versions of the show, sometimes using non-professional actors, sometimes casting herself, but always supplementing every iteration with new tech. “Currently I am playing around with very basic sensors that respond to body stimuli,” she says. “There’s also a video collage projected onto the wall that responds to body heat and motion speed.”
“Performance and oral based culture has a very direct way of speaking to people, and that can be very powerful and healing”
Last year Sutherland completed an MA in performance at London’s Brunel University, while continuing to support the Accra Theatre Workshop, a program she co-founded to stimulate new and young talent in Ghana. And although her studies have taken her far and wide, it is in her home country that she first made her mark. In 2014, Simon Castets and Hans Ulrich Obrist invited her to take part in their group show, ‘Filter Bubble’, in Zurich, as part of their 89plus project promoting artists under-25. “It was very unexpected. We met at a gallery where I was working Accra, and they got really interested in some of my work.” Their collaboration culminated in a residency, which Sutherland concluded at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris at the end of 2016. During it, she made a 3D scan of herself, which she will use to punctuate her next solo performance of her on-going show. However, technology is not the focus of “Anansi’s Wife…”. At fore of her piece is the concept of storytelling as a means of collective-psychotherapy, a way of recontextualising national mythos by emphasising the experience of a female Ghanaians as figures with agency, rather than mere passive accomplices. “Narrative is really important [in terms of] cultural identity, especially when we look back and rewrite history,” she says. “Performance and oral based culture has a very direct way of speaking to people, and that can be very powerful and healing.”
There seems to be no end to Sutherland’s progress; every new version of her show adds more layers. Sometimes, she even introduces last minute plans, seamlessly combining form and content in a manner that seems to enact the way in which she’s re-appropriating stories from West Africa’s cultural archive for social change. “I do have very strong ideas,” she says. “[But] to me the concept and process are the most important things.”
“Anansi’s Wife // Akua’s Daughter” is on display at Ghana’s ANO until 13 May 2017