Paul Ninson Dikan Center

Image courtesy of the Dikan Center


On Building an Archive

Paul Ninson and Kristen Owens In Conversation

Published Tuesday, Feb 14, 2023

On the occasion of [action=query]: Black Arts and Black Aesthetics, an exhibition in Pace’s library at 540 West 25th Street in New York, Jumoke McDuffie-Thurmond (Culture & Equity Program Manager at Pace) interviewed the exhibition’s curator Kristen Joy Owens and Paul Ninson, founder of Dikan Center in Accra, Ghana. This exhibition is the culmination of a six-month fellowship with Black Lunch Table, a nonprofit organization working to build a comprehensive and robust digital archive of Black artists’ stories. Owens has transformed Pace’s library into a public reading room where visitors have the opportunity to directly engage with a selection of catalogues, theoretical and scholarly essays, and other key publications and archival materials focused on Black art and visual culture.

Paul Ninson is a filmmaker and photographer. He is the founder of Dikan Center in Ghana, Africa’s largest photographic library that holds more than 30,000 volumes. Dikan aims to make visual education accessible to everyone, promoting public awareness of photography through educational outreach, immersive workshops, online education, studios, and events.

In this conversation, Ninson and Owens discuss their respective impetuses for building archives, the intricacies of accessibility, and the Black artists and figures who inspire them.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. To learn more about the project, please visit (opens in a new window)

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Image courtesy of the Dikan Center

Paul Ninson: The Dikan Center came as a need. I started photography five years ago, and the art scene at that time (and even now) was not a big deal as compared to the US. So my dream of becoming a photographer was a struggle, there were no books, no resources.

Fortunately, I got admitted to ICP [The International Center of Photography, New York]. Whilst at ICP – a Black student, Ghanian, in a class of 25 students – the school has a library, a darkroom and I was living in New York where there are so many galleries! And I'm thinking, why doesn't this exist in my world? Where I come from, the narrative is always about the other side. It’s always the other side coming to tell the story of my own country. One day I happened to find photographs of Ghana in the New York Public Library that I've never seen before in my life. These are pictures of my country, my history. Why is it not accessible in my country?

I had to leave home, travel 10 hours, and live through racism on top of it, [to be able to see these images of Ghana]. Now my activism is how do I make these things accessible in Ghana. The curriculum [at ICP] is the history of America, I'm looking for the history of Ghana and Africans and Blacks. That's what I relate to, because if I don't know my identity, how do I become who I am? So I went down this rabbit hole of looking for African books, that's how it started. I went from gallery to gallery in Chelsea and knocked on every door until little by little until I had 300, 500 books. My apartment was filled with books. Then I started getting other donations. Howard Greenberg gave me about, I think, a thousand books.

Kristen Owens: It's interesting because mine is kind of the same story [as Paul's] in terms of my experience being a student. I originally went to graduate school to study what they call NYU Visual Culture Costume Studies, which is essentially the history of fashion. But while you're studying the history of fashion, you're really studying the history of images because you're looking at photography, film, portrait painting. 95% of the images are white European portrait paintings and things like that. I had the amazing blessing of taking a class with Dr. Deborah Willis, who's written a lot of books about the history of African-American photography.


Installation view, [action=query] Black Arts and Black Aesthetics, Feb 1 – Feb 25, 2023, Pace Gallery, New York

I had a professor tell me that I couldn't focus my research on Black people because there were no resources to support what I was trying to do. And so as a response I literally went home and created a bibliography! I think she was kind of shocked that I came back to the next class with these documents. That’s what shifted my ambition from becoming a fashion archivist to thinking more deeply about the history of images as they relate to Black life and being a part of documenting that history.

Jumoke McDuffie-Thurmond: That's incredible. There’s something that feels quintessentially Black in both of these responses. It is really impactful listening to the both of you and your insistence on engaging with these archives, finding these resources. I think that's really incredible and shouldn't be understated.

Kristen, as a curator and librarian, and Paul, as a photographer and filmmaker, I'm wondering how your interdisciplinary awareness informs how you approach archives? Do you feel like they reflect what you try to archive in your personal life, or is there a distinction there?

PN: I think for me it's more to do with the sources and influences. My grandparents were traditional rulers in a small town, so when I was little they used to tell me all about the history of our culture, but were never able to visualize it. So now that I have access to archives of my great grandparents which were taken by the British, [I can] go deeper into my culture, into what it was before [colonialism].

We currently have an exhibition called Ahennie, which means Chieftaincy. I've been inspired to ask myself, my sources, to look through the archives and go through what the chieftaincy in my culture is today. It can be very easy to bundle together Black lives and make it out that everything has to do with our skin color, but before slavery, what was there? We had our own institutions, we had our own culture, we had our own court system. We had all that. So for me, that is the source of my influence.

That’s why I built this institution, so that we could be able to access what is ours.

KO: I do think what Paul's saying about it being personal resonates with me. I think it's about having the understanding that there are so many nuanced understandings and representations of Blackness in America – that really inspires me.

In terms of my curatorial practice, I started thinking of myself as a curator when I was working in arts education. Before I became a librarian, I was working at institutions where they would do these exhibitions on French fashion in the 19th century or whatever, but there would be no real diversity in terms of the representations of voices in the exhibition. So I began curating a contemporary program series where I would fill in the gaps with my programing to bring more diverse contemporary voices into thinking about material culture.

And not doing it perfectly every time, but really just being curious about ways of having different kinds of conversations and then bringing in the people that can expand and broaden the conversation. I see myself as more of a facilitator/curator.

JMT: Paul, would you agree? Do you kind of see yourself as a facilitator/curator?

PN: Yes. I always say that Dikan is a platform. I never envisioned Dikan as mine. I built a platform where everybody can have a place. In our culture we have linguists and that's how I see myself. I'm not Dikan, I'm just a linguist. The one who facilitates, gets the information or platform for people.

JMT: I love that. And it makes me think of something that's been a through line, Kristen, in the [action=query]: Black Arts and Black Aesthetics exhibition at Pace and the work that you've done with the bibliography in thinking about Black knowledge production as a form of communal action. How does communal action play a role in how thinking about what it means to make knowledge and resources accessible?

KO: I've never seen it as just me. Even this idea of being a scholar and being in academia, it's kind of uncomfortable to me. I don't want to be the expert. I want to be in dialog with other folks and co-create things. And so with the reading room especially the idea that Pace Gallery is this incredible, international institution that has this abundance of resources in the library, that is closed off to the public, was just really curious to me. And then in thinking about the work of the two folks, Howard Rambsy and Carolyn Fowler, the impetus of both of their projects was based on community. So it just feels natural to me to include communities. I really just wanted - even if it's only for one month - to be able to, make the library space at Pace more accessible to a wider audience of people. So people can enter the space without feeling like you have to be an expert. You can just be curious and sit in the space and feel comfortable to look in wonder and imagine without feeling like you have to already know about whatever artist to enter the space.

JMT: I love that distinction. You don't need to be an expert to be in this space. Curiosity is enough. That's really beautiful and brilliant to me Kristen, thank you. Paul, do you have any thoughts or reflections on that?

PN: Kristen said it right. We try as a team to not use certain language here, so that people don't think “I need to be an expert to be at Dikan Center” or “I need to be a photographer to be there”. They just need to be curious. So now I know what tag line we're going to use!

I always say that Dikan is a platform. I never envisioned Dikan as mine.

Paul Ninson

JMT: Who are the Black photographers and visual artists, who have informed your perception and work? I'm sure there are many, but who feels present?

KO: There are so many! Well, Torkwase Dyson, who just so amazingly is represented by Pace and agreed to have a work in the reading room has been incredibly impactful to me in terms of thinking about these very deep historic memories around Blackness and Black experience. Whether it be specific things like Henry Box Brown shipping himself to freedom, literally in a box to Philadelphia, or Harriet Jacobs, who escaped slavery by hiding in this little crawlspace in her grandmother's attic. Dyson’s ability to turn these big conceptual ideas around Blackness into simple abstract forms is something that's been really impactful to me versus what I guess could be considered more representational works of Blackness.

Also Deborah Willis, I really don't know if I'd be able to think about images the way I think about them without her.

PN: I'm a huge fan of Gordon Parks’ work and the way he uses images for social justice. Deborah Willis is also one of my favorites.

I'm also a huge fan of James Barnor’s work. He’s from Ghana so he’s able to document Ghana, represent Ghana, in a way that is so beautiful. But it’s so difficult to get his work here. And thinking about how hard he worked and that he is one of the few photographers whose work is out there, it makes you question how it is possible that I have to pay $250 to get his book in my library.

JMT: Kristen, your work in Pace's archives and exploring this genealogy of Black artistry that has been present over a 60 year period. I'm wondering what were some of the things that surprised or intrigued or maybe concerned you as you're looking through these archives?

KO: It was amazing. I started the process with this intense document that Pace has of their entire exhibition history over the past 60 years. It was frankly overwhelming so I began by researching every artist on the list to try to figure out where I wanted to go from there, if something stood out to me. But what was amazing during the process was being able to see how many books Pace has about Black artists that aren't necessarily connected to the artists they represent. Just from skimming the shelves there are books in there about Alma Thomas, Malick Sidibé and other amazing artists that I didn't think they would have. So at first I was trying to grapple with how do I include those books on those folks as well. But then it got too big, so I just focused on the exhibition list. But yes, it felt nice to see that they were collecting in some other areas too.

Dikan Center

Image courtesy of the Dikan Center

JMT: Paul, I know that you were also informed by Pace's archives in thinking about the Dikan Center and so wondering if you could speak to some of the things from Pace that informed that space, but also some of the key distinctions that you were thinking of when you were thinking about Dikan Center and what you wanted for it.

PN: I'm a dreamer, I dream! I had sketches of the building I wanted to build even before I got all my books. I had a clear vision of what I wanted. So I was looking online and looking at buildings and Pace Gallery in Chelsea is so beautiful, it has all these compartments, all these spaces that are really well built. Pace was one of the only galleries around which had this white, giant wall with a big table and they had this office right there. For me, apart from my city library, that was the only library which was different. And I thought 'wow!'.

JMT: When you think about spaces like galleries or libraries, because they don't have the admissions fee, there's no initial cost or barrier of entry. But I'm wondering what else is needed to make an institutional space accessible?

PN: I think it depends on how the space is designed

KO: I was going to say the same thing!

PN: The Dikan Centre building is a house. The garage is converted to the gallery. The living room is the classroom. The master bedroom is the library. The outside has a bench and trees and the offices are at the back where the boy's quarters were. Because my idea, which started from day one, is community. A home.

And my team, when everybody comes here, they always say 'thank you for coming, is there any way I can help you?'. And now the library is becoming a hub on Saturday morning and Sundays for people. Sometimes when I come by on Sunday people are having interesting conversations which are not related to just the books! We're averaging 200 to 300 people a day. I'm not trying to control anything. I'm just trying to build community and whatever they tell the place to be, that is the joy.

We are trying as much as possible in terms of accessibility. We are trying to get donations of iPads and computers for the library. That way we can use technology to share research like your project in Pace Gallery’s archives. So when somebody comes, the person will have that same feeling or that same access that somebody entering Pace Gallery has. That is accessibility. That is what you do to build these communities and say “I am in Dikan Center, but I feel like I’m at Pace Gallery's reading room”.

KO: For me, it's the same thing. Even as someone who's curated in galleries, I still have moments where I go to the Met or whatever and still don't completely feel comfortable. And I think that the environment does have a lot to do with it, which is why my intention from the very beginning when I was telling Pace what I wanted the space to be, I said I want it to feel like a familiar space, like a living room. I want people to feel like they belong, I want people to feel like they can sit for a while. That was really the intention behind the couch and the chairs and the plants and all of that, to make it feel more like home space.

JMT: Something that's been so enriching and moving for me about this conversation is thinking about the implications of both of these spaces, both of these archives, for diasporic audiences. I'm wondering for both of the projects that y'all have been working on, what is the impact that you want? What do you want it to prompt for us?

KO: That you belong anywhere that you are or anywhere that you want to be. That we belong wherever we are. And just to encourage people to keep creating and to keep imagining and to continue to keep being curious.

PN: Talking from the perspective of non-accessible places like Ghana, you can only dream or you can only be curious when you see them [archives] or you have access to them. If you don't, you don't know what is there. You don't even know what is possible. I had to come to New York to know what is possible in Ghana. When I was in school I did 42 courses! I was going to school every single day. I was like a kid in the candy shop because I don't have the same resources here. And that's why I'm so heavy on making visual education accessible. That's my mission.

JMT: Yeah. I think that's a beautiful place to end. Thank you both so much. This has really been such an enriching conversation. And I am looking forward to possibilities of future collaboration.

(opens in a new window) Watch the full conversation between Paul Ninson, Kristen Owens, and Jumoke McDuffie-Thurmond here.
  • Essays — On Building an Archive: Paul Ninson and Kristen Owens In Conversation, Feb 14, 2023