Portrait

Seeing Black Panther with Ghanian-American woodworker Ato Ribeiro.

By Omar J. Sakr.

Artist Ato Ribeiro

Ato shows me his hands, palms up, with the kind of tenderness of a man about to hold a baby for the first time: “My calluses have calluses on them.” Or a man wounded: “I’m killing myself. It’s all kinds of fucked up.” He talks with grim satisfaction. His jeans and shirt are covered in pale dust, his cornrows and beard threaded with silver, though he is my age. He has been sanding wood by hand for days in order to feel every groove, where it dips and rises. He doesn’t use gloves, or moisturiser, despite repeated suggestions. Instead, he stares with wonder at the damage done by the art he’s creating, as if to impress upon his body the weight of his actions, the cost of his work.

“I’ve just gotta push through it,” he says. “Even when it seems impossible, because then I can look back and go, ‘Damn, I did that.’ ” Born in America and raised to adolescence in Ghana, Ato Ribeiro is a recent graduate of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. Following a residency in Berlin, he is now in residence at the Santa Fe Art Institute, sculpting hundreds of scrap wood pieces into “quilts” inspired by kente designs. It is difficult to describe because there is nothing like it, no language for it, and there is a sense of that in the work itself, each discarded end grain a word, a verb or noun that needs to be found first with the saw and then shaped into being to bridge the divide between his cultures.

The materials involved in his work have never been cheap, so he learnt to innovate with his classmates’ cast-offs. “I was like, ‘Well, I’ll just salvage what they’re wasting,’ ” he says, puffing on a cigarette. We’re standing outside the studio in the winter cold, a snow-speckled mountain on the horizon. “This whole country is like that, drowning in what it doesn’t know how to use or make room for.” When he’s done with the smoke, we head back in. As we go, I talk about how much I’m struggling with my anger and frustration in response not just to everyday acts of racism but also to the unprepared and oblivious actions of well-meaning progressives who so often miss the mark.

“I feel sick with it, like it’s a poison,” I say. “It’s killing me. How do we get past this?” Later, I will think on how often I’ve heard this phrase, this killing of the self, come out the mouths of my friends, other artists of colour constantly pushing back against bigotry or going the extra mile to educate people who don’t want to be educated, especially by us, and I will feel a sense of despair.

Ato shakes his head. “The power of positive thinking is real and, you know what, we’re out here doing shit, figuring it out. It’s happening, slowly, but I can feel it.”

Back at the sanding table is one of his small quilts, which are untitled. The medium-sized pieces are called Homecoming and the largest is Home Away from Home. Each of them is a dazzling interlock of different woods, a small forest painstakingly put together. These titles enact a summoning: a nameless beginning, followed by a return, and then a vast absence that is somehow both mournful and joyous. It says I have found a way to live in-between and that life will not be small, will not be ignorable.

“Is it my imagination or is this one more colourful than the others I’ve seen?” I point at the pink threads that keep drawing my eye.

“Nah, yeah. That’s aromatic cedar,” he says, pointing out teak, and a finger of multicoloured wood that he’d found that way. I look again at the pink. Lebanon is famous for its cedar trees. I hadn’t recognised the wood when it was in front of me, in pieces, and yet I had. To be of a diaspora is to cling with desperation to anything that echoes the connection you feel. To be of a diaspora is to thrum with longing every day, and to feel foolish in the face of its enormity. I leave Ato to finish his work, and go get ready. We’re seeing Black Panther tonight.

In my room, I look up the word “kente” and see a suggestion that in the Ewe language it derives from “ke”, meaning to open, and “te”, meaning to press, both referring to the weaving method used to make kente. Over the past few weeks I’ve seen Ato pressing, again and again, on wood, pressing edges into his palms, pressing hard to meet an upcoming deadline for his show in Phoenix. He’s afraid that if he stops before the end he won’t be able to start again. I wonder if I have seen him open, if that is what his quilts are spreading over white walls.

Later, we head to the cinema, which is strangely empty on a premiere night. We watch a brilliant movie about an African–American boy willing to do anything to come home, a man who refuses to be anything other than royalty, to be at one with the heritage denied to him, but who lacks the guidance to fully understand it; we watch the Black Panther test his body, push to the limits, press up against even heaven and refuse it to come back and right the wrongs of the past. Afterwards, standing out in the car park, Ato’s eyes are shining bright, as open as any of the stars above. “Man, seeing T’Chaka wearing his kente in the afterlife, those symbols, that was everything – that was speaking my language.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 3, 2018 as "Pressing hard". Subscribe here.

Omar J. Sakr
is a poet and writer. He is the author of These Wild Houses.