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Challenging The History Of Ghana Must Go Bags

With one powerful piece of work

BY Yaza Nigeria Team

Jan 14, 2021, 11:29 AM

Ghana Must Go bags are synonymous with Nigerian culture, but now one photographer is challenging our perceptions of the bag and suggesting that production stops or the name is changed.

Obinna Obioma is a Nigerian-born New York-based photographer whose most recent work, entitled Anyi N'Aga (We Are Going) sees him team up with Chioma Obiegbu, a Nigerian visual artist and designer also based in New York, and fashion stylist Wuraola Oladapo to challenge our perceptions of the iconic print.
Obinna Obioma
Ghana Must Go bags first came to prominence during the 1980s when an executive order from Nigeria’s then-President Shehu Shagari in 1983 called for nearly 2 million undocumented migrants, many Ghanaian, to be expelled from Nigeria with no notice. This resulted in entire families packing up their belongings in these canvas bags. In more recent years, they became popular at markets all over West Africa where their ability to grow inch by inch no matter how full saw them gain a new audience.

This collection sees the bags reimagined as a reflection on migration and symbolizing all that migrants carry.
Obinna Obioma
"In some of the two-piece designs, the top is heavily influenced by western fashion aesthetics while the skirt was designed to mirror a West African wrapper. There's also a gele [headpiece] which is traditionally identified as an African fashion statement," Obinna explains. And no, he doesn't have a favourite image, instead, he views each image as part of a "strong narrative and body of work."

Obinna grew up with the bags, using them in childhood to courier gifts to family and friends and later on for transporting his own belongings when he moved to the UK.

"From an early age and being introduced to the bags by virtue of my parents, I have always been fascinated by the bags and their colors," he explains, "I remember wondering how they were made - the plastic threads all woven together in such neat formation to produce the pattens  - it has always been striking to me."
Obinna Obioma
However, for Obinna the phrase and the bag are problematic in themselves, saying: "Although I had come in contact with the bags and had been using them since my childhood, I never truly understood the power of the name, Ghana Must Go, like many, and so I ignorantly went about referring to them by that derogatory name. It was only when I got older and became an artist that I learned the true, painful story behind the bags and how they could be seen as an extension of xenophobia. Of course, I do not stand for such discrimination and feel the bags - although having such an impact- should have a change of name.

"I believe Ghana Must Go can be categorized as a derogatory slur which of course transcends Ghanaian nationals. This begs to ask the question, should the name be changed, or the bags discontinued?"

Showcasing his African heritage is of huge importance to Obinna, and so when he came across the work of Chioma Obiegbu and Wuraola Oladapo he felt them the perfect team to help reflect their joint African heritage. Something Obinna describes as "the fulcrum of my artistic expression and inspiration."
Obinna Obioma
Speaking more about his commitment to showcasing his heritage through his work Obinna says: "My work is predominantly about my African heritage and my identity as a black man. I believe that as an artist, it is important to use your art to speak on issues that are dear to you. Having lived abroad for several years I have often found myself either longing for home or trying to educate people about home. This is why it is important for me to change negative narratives and stereotypes that have been painted about Africa and black culture in general."

This brings us to the topic of backlash and what the reaction to the collection has been, Obinna reveals that the reaction has been mostly positive, with people reaching out from across the world sharing their thoughts and memories of growing up with Ghana Must Go bags.

"There’s a sense of pride I feel from that and I hope my work can continue to inspire and educate people."
Obinna Obioma
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