USE YOUR HEAD

Use Your Head is a collection of portraits accompanied a by short film, taken around Ghana between June and September in 2003.

Use Your Head opened at the House Gallery in Camberwell (South London) in July 2005. Reviewed by Hannah Watson from Londonart.co.uk for the Funds Europe magazine on the July/05 issue: ‘an artist with a commitment to revealing the truth and beauty of ordinary lives’.  Photographic prints are available to purchase through the Use Your Head collection at Saatchi Art.

Carrying things on the head is a common practice in many parts of the world, as an alternative to carrying loads on the back and shoulders. People have carried burdens balanced on top of the head since ancient times, usually to do daily work, like carrying buckets of water and bundles of firewood, but sometimes in religious ceremonies or as a feat of skill, such as in certain ceremonial dances. Early evidence of using the head to carry objects can be found in the Book of Proverbs 25:21-22: ‘If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you’. The verse uses a metaphor of an ancient Egyptian ritual of repentance which involved carrying a basin of burning coals on top of the head. According to the account by the ancient Egyptian writer Cha-em-wese, a thief returned a book stolen from a grave carrying such a pan of hot coals on top of his head, to show his consciousness and attitudes of shame, remorse, repentance, and ultimately correction.

In Ghana, women who migrate to the capital to work as head porters, are called Kayayo. Typically, Kayayo are young girls and women, generally from Northern Ghana, who migrate to the southern part of Ghana to work in cities like Accra and Kumasi. They tend to work in major markets where they help carry heavy loads of shopping done by market patrons.

The Kayayo phenomenon began in the late 80s when young out-of-school women began to visit Accra and Kumasi during the dry season (when there was little to do on the farms) to work for some income. The girls often returned to their villages before the next rainy season. However, in the early 90s many seasonal female workers began to stay for longer periods and trying to make homes for themselves in the streets of Accra. In 1996, youth organisations began to express concerns to the government and during the next 17 years all sorts of government and international aid programs were set up around the Kayayo phenomenon, which still remain one of the most visible pedestals of resistance to harnessing the productive power of women in Ghana. Between 2010 and 2012, the Kayayo phenomenon hit the international press, attracting numerous photo journalists advocating for child and women rights.

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The film was reviewed by Ben Blaine on Shooting People in February 2008: ‘Perhaps I am a cynic. Perhaps I’m missing the point. Is two women crossing the road in Camberwell so different from a bunch of people walking past a static camera with stuff balanced on their head, which is, I warn you, all that happens in ‘Use Your Head’? Is it only the exoticism of Ghana when compared to Camberwell? No. I think it’s the humour. In David’s best films you can feel him grinning from behind the camera, it is a grin that, Chesire cat like, infuses every edit.’