Rita Mawuena Benissan takes a “big tent” view of family and culture. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say “big umbrella.”
Benissan, 26, is a photographer, a cultural curator at the Noldor Artist Residency in Accra, Ghana, and a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin’s Master of Fine Arts program.
She was born in Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire, to Ghanaian parents, came to Michigan as a baby and was raised in a Ghanaian American household by an aunt and uncle, whom she also calls Mom and Dad. When she moved to Madison in 2018, Benissan found another Ghanaian family of honorary aunts, uncles and cousins.
When one of Benissan’s adopted aunts came to Benissan’s Master of Fine Arts show at Arts + Literature Laboratory this past spring, she was struck by the massive umbrellas Benissan had designed. Made of what Benissan called “fake velvet” and ash wood, the umbrellas were inspired by those used by chiefs and queens in Ghanaian festivals.
“My friends who grew up in Ghana or visited Ghana … they were like, ‘Oh, my God, we finally see these here. We’re so used to seeing them from far away!’” Benissan recalled. The umbrellas, used at funerals and celebrations, are “always high up in the sky, and it’s very crowded.
These are essential tenets of Benissan’s art practice: connecting to a royal African history, personally and culturally, and making that history immediate and accessible. Benissan spoke with The Cap Times about discovering her own Black aesthetic and her dreams for Si Hene, a growing Instagram archive that could one day be a physical museum.