by Rosie Worster, Director of Programmes at The Fair Justice Initiative
Nsawam Medium Security Prison is the largest in Ghana, located not far outside the capital of Accra. It is a place associated with utmost shame, particularly for the eighty or so women held in the female section. Crime is thought dirty, ungodly, unfeminine. Many of the detainees hide the fact of their incarceration from their families, deliberately isolating themselves to avoid that rejection. Others maintain a desperate line of contact with relatives who as the years pass change their numbers, visit less frequently, or forget them altogether.
It’s difficult to link this to the series of brightly coloured portraits in ‘Remember Me’, one for each of the 12 women serving death penalty and life sentences at Nsawam Prison. That contrast is deliberate, as part of an attempt to change the conversation around incarceration in Ghana. Rather than seeing these women as irredeemable, lesser and other, the project tells a story of creativity, hope and connection. It seeks to grant these women the validation of being remembered as people with identities more complex than their incarcerated status.
The portraits are the last stage in a collaborative and participatory art project conceived by photographer Francis Kokoroko and artist and stylist Rania Odaymat, and facilitated and supported by The Fair Justice Initiative, a local NGO. Throughout 2018, Rania and Francis visited the prison to conduct different workshops that would encourage the women to express their own aesthetics, views and aspirations. The first focused on collage making, the results of which were later used to provide direction and inspiration for the final portrait making session. A second image-making workshop using a Fujifilm Instax instant camera explored body language and expression, a way to circumvent the prison restrictions on photographing faces whilst the permit to lift that ban remained pending. Finally, permission for the final portrait session was granted. The portraits were produced within a stipulated two-hour time window with the assistance of a team of volunteers from Dark and Lovely, and from make-up artist Sandra Don-Arthur.
In each photograph, the women swap their blue and white prison garb for traditional dress, elaborate headpieces and carefully coordinated accessories. They are strong, beautiful, and smiling. These are women who want to be remembered not just for their crimes, but for being Adwoa, Abena, Agnes, Ama A, Mary, Lamisi, Ama Y, Esther, Akosua, Salamatu, Zelia and Talata.
After being shown as part of the ‘Make Be’ exhibition at La Maison in October 2018, the advocacy work of the project is expanding to new forms. Rania, Francis and The Fair Justice Initiative are working to develop a coffee table book to present to diplomats and politicians in Ghana with the power to influence policy change. The book contains both the photographs and testimonies from the women themselves on their challenges, hopes and dreams. It is hoped that a second edition and a calendar will also be produced to raise awareness through sale to the general public, and that the exhibition will be able to travel to new audiences.
Rania and Francis’ work is available to see on their Instagram pages, @accraphoto and @rania_odaymat. You can follow the development of the ‘Remember Me’ project through The Fair Justice Initiative’s social media (Instagram/Twitter/Facebook) at @fairjusticegh, and on their website www.fairjusticegh.com.
About the guest contributors:
Rania Odaymat is an artist, stylist, creative facilitator and curator. She is one of the founding members of the Beyond Collective, a Ghanaian non-governmental organisation whose aim is to promote creative awareness and education, as well as facilitate artistic exchanges and collaborations. She is also a trustee of the Fair Justice Initiative.
Francis Kokoroko is a creative and photojournalist with a keen interest in documenting the ever-evolving cultures and everyday life on the African continent. He uses his images to communicate a personal message, and believes that emotion is the most important element of any picture.
Rosie Worster is the Director of Programmes at The Fair Justice Initiative (FJI), a Ghanaian non-governmental organisation (NGO) working primarily with detainees at Nsawam Medium Security Prison. Their mission is to combat discrimination and prejudice against current and former inmates, ensure equal access to effective legal representation, and improve the conditions of confinement in Ghanaian prisons.
A note from PAC’s Manager: Though PAC typically focuses on programs and artists in and around the US justice system, when we learned about the Remember Me project, we were eager to help expand its reach. We hope you’re as inspired by it as we are.