In northeastern Ghana, the Gurensi people have a long-standing tradition of elaborate geometric and representational wall decoration known as bambɔlse. For centuries, women adorned the walls of their compounds to show love and dedication to their husbands, to build a positive reputation, and to impress their visitors. Ultimately, the murals were linked to important social values and were considered an important form of social and cultural capital.
The process of creating wall murals is expensive, time consuming, and physically intense, and the result, while beautiful, has negligible functional importance and lasts for only a few years. As such, the existence of the decorations is heavily dependent on their benefits outweighing the significant hardship that characterizes their production.
During the late 1980s and 1990s, shifting cultural values caused the murals to lose much of their social importance. Simultaneously, changes in trade routes, weather patterns, building trends and schooling requirements made the cost of the murals difficult to justify.
In response to the decline in the mural production, the Sirigu Women’s Organization of Pottery and Art (SWOPA), a community-based non-profit women’s empowerment organization, was founded in 1997 to revive the wall painting tradition. Through tourism, the wall murals in Sirigu, which were once entirely separate from the commodity sphere entered a larger cycle of commodification. While the murals remain affixed to local walls and cannot be purchased, in recent years the symbolism found on the murals has been transposed onto portable canvases and tourists can pay to take painting workshops, take photographs and go on tours of local painted compounds. The case study of cultural tourism in Sirigu provides a new direction for sociological/ anthropological work in this field as it highlights the impacts of cultural tourism when economic impetus is not a direct factor.
My research in Sirigu, which was completed during two trips to the region over the course of two years, reveals that commodification of culture can allow for the continued existence of cultural traditions, which without tourism would have disappeared. Cultural tourism can help to defray costs, emphasize old values, and infuse new ones, and in the process, stimulate a revival of local traditions.
In Sirigu, the recognition of the wall murals on a global scale through tourism has led the community to assign new value to the murals. This includes spurring interest in wall decoration among new social groups, who were previously uninterested. Importantly, the new values linked to painting did not displace the values associated with painting in the past.
The success of cultural tourism and the wall painting revival in Sirigu can also be attributed to cultural negotiation by SWOPA, where SWOPA addressed the major threats to wall painting by minimizing the hardship surrounding the production of wall murals while also silently funding paintings in prominent tourist areas. In this process, SWOPA created a staged experience for tourists, who believe they are experiencing an authentic village when in fact, the experienced has actually been fully set up for their consumption.
The case in Sirigu contests previous research that argues that the revival of cultural traditions is based on a direct commodity transaction. Instead, it reveals that reviving a tradition is more complex, as through cultural tourism, new types of value, established by tourists, can to take hold in communities. When these new values, pre-existing values and the direct and indirect potential for financial gain exist in tandem, increased cultural production occurs. Importantly, this cultural production which comes out of cultural negotiation carefully staged and constructed for the primarily Western encounter likely only allows for a certain degree of artistic freedom and possible social change to be realized.
(for full text of Bambolse as Commodity: The Revival of Wall Murals in Sirigu, Ghana (2014) please see http://wesscholar.wesleyan.edu/etd_hon_theses/1251)