Paper Ship and Eric Awuah’s artistic journey

Rebeca interviews Eric, a PhD candidate and the writer, choreographer and director of Paper Ship.



YouAlberta is written by students for students.

Rebeca (she/her) is a fourth-year philosophy and political science honors student. Originally from Mexico, she retains her culture through cooking traditional Mexican dishes, trying new vegan recipes and making her food extra spicy. Rebeca relishes exploring Edmonton’s river valley hiking trails. Passionate about connecting with under-represented communities and telling their stories, she plans to pursue a career in journalism.

Can you tell us more about yourself?

I am a PhD candidate in the anthropology department. I have been practicing my art as a dance maker, choreographer and researcher since 2008. 

Can you provide us with an overview of your journey as an artist? 

From 2006 to 2010, I attended the School of Performing Arts - University of Ghana to pursue drama. My encounter with dance was not a random occurrence; rather, it was a deliberate arrangement by the architect of the universe for me to undergo a profound transformation.

After university, I enrolled in a master's degree program in Europe on a scholarship known as "Choreomundus: International Master in Dance Knowledge, Practice and Heritage." The program's mobility structure enabled me to study in Norway, France, Hungary and the UK. 

My artistic motivation is rooted in my responsibility towards my people to tell the stories from my embodied perspective, as they have been passed down by my ancestors through music and the movement systems. 

Can you tell us more about the play Paper Ship?

I must share that this is not the first time I have overseen a project like this. As an artist, I have choreographed on the national stage in Ghana. My creative process starts with prayer. I dreamed of this idea when I learned about how the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion office was planning the just-ended Pan-African Symposium in February 2024. 

Paper Ship is a choreographic odyssey of struggle and liberation, an exploration of the struggles of African people who were taken from the continent and sold into slavery. For this, I decided to tell a story. Having grown up in Ghana, storytelling has always been an integral part of our culture. Our heritage is not documented in writing but rather passed down orally, brought to life through performance. 

Although I am the choreographer and writer of the performance, each person on the stage contributed to the overall storytelling and its performance; I didn't bring all of it to life myself because it was fully collaborative. From my experience, no one person is an embodiment of all knowledge. Working with different talented people is always a joy to me because it makes the journey fulfilling. 

A huge shout out to my co-choreographers: Dr. Kofi Anthonio from the University of Ghana, who came all the way to Edmonton to support; Dr. Emmanuel Cudjoe from St. Olaf College; Dr. Mustapha Braimah from Goucher College and Mr. Prosper Ablordey (Gasco), who is still my teacher and the lead drummer of the whole performance. When I enrolled at the University of Ghana in 2006, Mr. Prosper was already there, and he trained and taught all of the Ghanaian dancers on the stage. He's a legend to us.

The idea behind Paper Ship is that we get paper from wood and wood from trees, obviously. The African enslaved people were transported from Africa in ships made from wood. After gruesome years of wicked, unbearable conditions, they created opportunities for us today to build on and thrive. This emancipation of Black enslaved people was signed on paper made out of the same natural element that was once the means of transportation to their demise in the West. In this context, the natural element of wood served as a symbol of oppression and freedom. 

Paper Ship taking place at the U of A is monumental. Universities are known to be places of intellectual enlightenment, where you write and publish. Before the era of computers, writing and publishing happened on paper. Your "emancipation" as a scholar depended on your written output on paper. For Black people, most of the time, due to structural barriers to development, the education certificate on paper is not enough. This paper has become a tool of emancipation for the 21st-century African, Black and Caribbean people going through some of these structural challenges. "Education" is the key to emancipation, the key to enlightenment and the key to mobilization. 

What are some key highlights of Paper Ship??

The idea of the play was to have one continuous narrative, starting with the scene where African communities thrived with their own traditions, culture and scientific knowledge. 

“Although the colonizers could physically suppress the African people, they could not suppress the music and the dance. They have outlived them!” 
- Paper Ship

Enslaved people were extracted from various regions across the African continent, resulting in linguistic diversity among them. However, all of them understood music and movement and bonded through art. Music and dance emerged as forms of resistance. The only thing that sustained most of my enslaved ancestors was dancing and music-making. Slave masters sought to cancel music and dance gatherings because it was through these gatherings that the spirits or the gods came to inspire the enslaved people to rediscover their true selves and rebel. We often talk about the abolition of slavery or emancipation without much talk about the role that music and dance had in elevating the consciousness of the oppressed to stand against oppression. In Paper Ship, we observe how the actors working on the plantation would break into music and dance. When they danced, the slave master would come and stop them, but later, they would go back to dancing again. 

At the end of the performance, the dancers tear down the paper from the ship on the stage. Only the frame of the ship is left. The idea is that the frame of the ship and the remnants of the structures of oppression are still present. In the last part of the performance, the dancers pass on the music and the dance to the next generation, the kids in the performance. We may have shattered oppressive structures, but the struggle persists. We must pass on this battle and understanding to the next generation. This message is reflected in the scene where the kids point forward with their hands. This symbol is akin to that of the statue of the first president of Ghana and prominent Pan-Africanist, Dr Kwame Nkrumah. He made a statement in 1957 where he said that we must always fight forward, we can never fight backwards. 

How does Paper Ship connect you to the U of A community? 

This project has continued to open me to the U of A community in fascinating ways. Ever since I came to the anthropology department, I have received nothing but massive support. My supervisor, Dr Marko Zivkovic, has been very supportive of my journey and has encouraged me to employ embodied practices as scientific sources for the construction of concepts and theories for my own research. 

I have also received support from my PhD committee, including Dr Michael Frishkopf, a prominent professor of ethnomusicology who studied in Ghana. In my PhD journey, I have met people who have been very supportive of my talent, including the Office of the Student Ombuds. Similarly, Janita Frantsi from the KSR Faculty invited me to give guest lectures in her Dance 200 class "The Spectrum of Dance in Society." I have given dance lectures in the Edmonton community and received massive support from the Edmonton Arts Council, African, Caribbean, and Black (ACB) communities, the African Center and the Ghana Friendship Association-Edmonton, who have engaged me in many different capacities to bring my talent to the community mobilization efforts. 

Presenting this performance at the U of A is a full-circle moment for me. The university and my supervisor thought that my thesis proposal was good to be considered, which marks the initial sign that this institution is open to incorporating diverse viewpoints. Having the opportunity to create such a choreographic piece is indeed a testament to the U of A's commitment to diversity and inclusion.

What piece of advice would you give to young or aspiring artists?

I would urge young people to experiment with ideas that drive them. It might not be for a career, but it might open doors for you to connect socially and have an impact. As a dancer, one of the key elements that have helped me integrate with other people is my sense of observation, which has been unlocked because of dancing. I would say find a message behind your motivation: I found mine in Pan-Africanism.  

In 1961, in a speech called: "The African Genius," Dr. Nkrumah shared that it would be a crime to forget our history and live as if we did not come from somewhere: we must integrate the past and make it meaningful to the present. My ancestors have set me up through the indigenous knowledge forms of music and dance to manifest my genius each time I move to music and teach others. The understanding that as an African person, I have an embodiment of "genius" has transformed the way I perceive myself and how I interact with people. Aspiring artists should find their truth and stand by it, invest prayer and hard work into it. It will bear fruits. "A man's gift opens doors for him, and brings him before great men" (Proverbs 18:16).