I’ve been to several Gallery 1957 exhibitions since the galleries opened, but none of them have impressed me as much as Whispers Down the Lane, a solo exhibition by Araba Opoku, who is, in my opinion, some sort of prodigy. After seeing the exhibition once, I was so impressed by it that I had to memorialize my experience of it in writing and see it a second time.
One of the greatest things about Whispers Down the Lane is that it is intentionally designed to be a truly immersive experience. It is too unique to resort to the usual experience of walking through a white-walled room to look at a collection of paintings. As a matter of fact, this exhibition starts even before you walk into the gallery.
Just outside the exhibition space, there is a green chalkboard that has become almost a more iconic backdrop for me-too-I-saw-the-exhibition-some pictures than the paintings themselves. The chalkboard is not only a title poster but a mind map showing, presumably, the thoughts that went into the conception of the project. Because I’m a sucker for lexical scrutiny, I notice a few typos in the mind map, like “cobrebs” for cobwebs, and the word corrugated, spelled with only one “r”. Surprisingly enough, what these misspellings give me is a sense of authenticity. These are the sorts of mistakes one makes when one is in a creative frenzy, trying to write down as many ideas as one can, as fast as they can, without sparing much thought for correctness. The chalkboard makes me feel like I am looking at a copy of the real, deliberately unedited sheet of paper on which Opoku penned down her very first ideas. Besides which, it is just so aesthetically pleasing, from the hand-drawn aesthetic to the green-pink-white color scheme, to how it is framed with palm fronds on either side. The sprawling, spider web arrangement of the map feels well into the exhibition’s surprisingly coherent, though large, set of themes.
Entering the exhibition space feels like stepping into a fluid, surreal, possibly underwater universe. Nowhere in sight are the classic white walls of modern museums. Instead, deep green drapery serve as the backdrop to all the paintings, and hang from the ceiling in billowy, inverted pleats. Begging for a visitor’s attention as soon as they walk in is a screen, directly opposite the entrance, on which a short film plays on a loop, made even more inviting by the small arrangement of velvet green beanbag chairs a short distance from the screen. Or at least, I think it’s a screen. It isn’t until my second viewing of the exhibition, when I really take my time to go through the list of paintings on the exhibition’s QR code-linked webpage, that I realize the “screen” is itself a painting listed in the exhibition: I Saw a World Without a Moon, acrylic on canvas. Indeed, on closer inspection, I discover that the irregularities on the “screen” which are reminiscent of the tiles at the bottom of a fancy pool, are painted and deliberate. This blows my mind.
Before allowing myself to become too immediately enticed by the film, I insist on exploring the installation tucked away to the left, near the entrance of the exhibition space. I can’t lie, I am astonished to find a whole sink inside an exhibition space, but it is so appropriate and so artfully done that I have to respect it. (A certain owner of a certain social media company could take notes, shade intended.) An arrangement of potted plants beneath the sink gives a sense of the outdoors, even in the air-conditioned gallery, further complemented by the basin, buckets and empty gallons around the sink. Simultaneously subtle and obvious, the installation speaks more to the theme of water in a way that feels remarkably grounded in the Ghanaian context. Behind the sink installation is another green chalkboard, which contains words from the exhibition’s curator, Katherine Finerty, bookended by snippets of a poetic passage presumably written by Opoku herself. This chalkboard is also loaded with themes that prime you, orienting your mind to properly absorb what you are about to see: midnight and the moon; water scarcity in Ghana; sci-fi and fantasy TV; dreams; a childhood whispering game; upside-down orientations and rotation.
Whispers Down the Lane has probably the most cohesive set of paintings I have ever seen in an exhibition. Each painting is remarkably similar to (although quite distinct from) the next one, because of the consistent colors and swirling brushstrokes, and the common elements and objects in the paintings. In each one, I see a creepy forest at midnight. The most identifiable elements, for me, are brown tree trunks, predominantly green-blue-yellow foliage, dark-feathered birds, and black stars. Nevertheless, each painting is abstract enough that two people can interpret the same paintings completely differently. The ambiguous swirls and blends of shapes and colors really do reflect for me what dreaming feels like: the conscious part of your brain knows that this is too surreal to be reality, but according to dream logic, and the specific context of the dream (or, in this case, Opoku’s speculative universe), everything makes sense. At the same time, the swirls and blends remind me of the distortion of objects and reflections caused by rippling, swirling water in the real world, especially in the nighttime, under the illumination of the moon.
If you move through the exhibition too quickly, it could feel dizzying, as though you are seeing the very same painting over and over again, but slightly different each time. The same scene of the woods at night, reoriented; turned upside down or sideways, or spliced into pieces and reassembled in a different configuration. Although the explanation for this is written plain and bold in chalk, it takes me until my second, more unrushed visit to understand what Whispers Down the Lane means. Because I didn’t grow up calling it that; I grew up calling it “Chinese Whispers.” Picture a group of children in a line. The first one comes up with a phrase and whispers it into the ear of the child beside them. The child whispers what they hear into the next child’s ear, and on and on, until the last child has to say aloud what they heard—often an incredible distortion of what the first child said, phonetically similar, yet absolute gibberish. Now, instead of a group of children in a line, picture a group of paintings, and there you have Opoku’s collection of paintings.
For the record, my favorite painting is the one called On a Voyage into Blue’s Euporie (one that several others are automatically drawn to, if the pictures I’ve seen online are any indication!), and a close second is The Pillars of Galilea.
The exhibition’s accompanying film, directed by Christine Boateng, is slow and meditative. The narrative—two sisters waking up at dawn to fetch as much water as possible—is at once mundane and beautiful, a poetic representation of a practice that is a quintessential part of the modern Ghanaian resident’s experience. The theme of water scarcity is not explored as a tragedy but as a nostalgic, dreamlike, collective, and bonding experience. The sense of nostalgia, in particular, is heightened by Claudia Owusu’s poem, narrated by the director, Christine, in lines such as these: “There was a time the water came, and we filled buckets into neat lines. Elbows locked and knees set to life and carry all that came with it.” I can’t help thinking about the experience of fetching water before sunrise in boarding school and some of the severe water shortages we experienced in those times. And indeed, there’s a sense in Claudia’s poem that flowing water is the exception rather than the norm. In the film, Opoku and her sister fill an almost absurd number of buckets, which, I think, is part of the commentary: you never know when water is going to be flowing again, so you might as well milk every drop you can, now.
Like everything else about the exhibition, the film is loaded with themes and a distinctive atmosphere. Everything that occurs in the film feels like it is happening in a dream, even the most regular, real-life things, like clothes drying on a line, or a Polytank running out of water. Some of the more out-there elements, like Araba submerged in a full tub of water, give visuals to the idea, planted by Claudia’s poem, of dreaming as submersion: a literal metaphor, very similar to how it feels to be in the exhibition space itself. There are a few editing elements that make me smile, like how, in the beginning of the film, the sound of almost every single drop of water coincides perfectly with Araba blinking herself awake.
By the time the film ends, I feel a sense of warmth, not only from how the film is paced and edited, but because of the beautiful, unspoken camaraderie between the two sisters, and how, in settling back down around sunrise for a morning nap, they give off a sense of satisfaction from a necessary job well done. I, too, after watching the film a handful of times, finally leave the gallery for the second time, satisfied at the wholesome, immersive experience of Whispers Down the Lane.