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A few years ago I went to Morocco, my first trip to Africa. On my second flight to the Continent – a year ago – the man sitting a row in front of me said, “yeah, but that’s not really Africa.” The sentiment is so common that even I, a foreigner, shrugged when I said “Morocco” as if to confess the crime before even being accused. The flight was to Ghana. The trip was to Kokrobite, a town just west of the capital Accra, and the Kokrobitey Institute, run by Renée Neblett – Auntie Renée – an irrepressible woman with the charm of a million charmers and the style to match.

Renee Neblett walks the grounds of the Kokrobitey Institute in Accra, Ghana

Renee Neblett, director of the Kokrobitey Institute in Accra, Ghana

My goal for the three weeks at the Institute – my first artist residency – was to produce an editorial photo shoot for Unarmed. I gave a lecture, mentored young creatives on the staff, and experienced my first taste of Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Kokrobitey campus is filled with buildings designed by the celebrated architect Alero Olympio, who died in 2005 and whose pioneering use of natural materials pervades even the Institute’s new construction. I learned about laterite bricks, which can be made from local soil, and about their advantages in construction vs. concrete.

The Institute’s campus lets out to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s easy to get lost in thought attempting to grasp the incomprehensible horrors associated with its crossing by Africans on their way to America. And Ghana is its own thriving, obstreperous place right now, demanding thought, comment, engagement. There were too many tastes, smells, and moments to list why they were remarkable – such as when I got a burn and someone stepped out into the courtyard, snapped off a stalk of aloe, cracked it open, and handed it to me for my wound.

The campus is a serene paradise. The challenge is to use the space it provides to produce creative work. In several trips to Accra I gained an appreciation for the rhythm of the place, its hustle. The shoot would need to have spark. It would be better to cast models from the street, to shoot in different locations. And could we find some ballplayers? A motorcycle?

Although I consider myself dangerous with a camera in my hands, it was important for me to hire a Ghanaian photographer. Morris Frimpong and I hit it off right away. And over the course of several meetings we discussed locations for the shoot, casting, lens choices, time of day. One of my first times as the client. Then we went out and did the shoot. Morris delivered and I couldn’t be more proud of the images.

My one regret from the trip was not printing enough of these books.

Nearly a year has passed since I returned. Unarmed has grown. One of the layouts has a heading that is both a command and a cooing voice in one’s ear: Return to the Port of No Return.

Unarmed presents: Inna Ghana.   Creative Director: Raafi Rivero.
Photos by Morris Frimpong. Photo Assistant: Abdul-Wasiu Ayariga. Models: Caleb, Rahim, Blinkss, Humble King, Star. All models were paid. Jerseys manufactured by Shirts & Skins. Special Thanks to Renée Neblett & Marita Rivero. Editorial produced with the generous support of the Kokrobitey Institute.

© 2006 – 2024 Raafi Rivero.