In 2011, I wrote: “Chale Wote could soon be the in-thing on the GH street arts scene”. I should have written “on the non-existent Ghana street arts scene” – it was the very first edition of what would later evolve into Africa’s largest street arts festival. Then, as now, I was captivated by the innovative brashness of the Chale Wote Street Art Festival – the audacity to inject creativity and make arts center stage in a society that, at best, casts a lazy glance over artistry.
Accra is no Dakar, and organizers Accra[dot]alt were well aware of the fact. While I had the pleasure of experiencing Dak’Art that year – another excellent West African arts festival – it would take me five good years to actually immerse myself in all that the ChaleWote Street Art Festival is – the good, the bad, the ugly, the inspiring.
After two years of working with in-house writer Hakeem Adam to capture the essence of the festival for absentees like myself, I finally joined him, fellow writer Germaine Bombande and thousands of others at the much anticipated event. Here, our collective, yet unique accounts of Chale Wote 2016: The Spirit Robot. First timer? Check out Germaine’s insights. Veteran? Hakeem brings some nuance. Avid online follower? Look out for my excerpts. Of course, you’re welcome to read our review in its entirety, which we highly encourage.
The Open Gallery
Despite the resurgence of the local art scene and the global recognition of artists like Serge Attukwei Clottey, Ibrahim Mahama and Bright Ackwerh, Ghanaians have not bought into the culture of visiting local museums or galleries. Such spaces have remained largely unknown and under patronized. That is, until Accra[dot]Alt entered the fray.
Enlisting six of Accra’s art galleries in its Open Galleries segment, Accra[dot]Alt helped introduce Ghanaians to the vibrant and disruptive works of local artists, while unearthing the locations for the treasure they are. And yet, despite the organizers’ good intentions, we can’t help but wonder whether it missed its mark on luring festival goers into the crevices of Accra’s galleries: many were the comments and complaints about “not seeing art in the dark” during the final days of the festival.
As someone who loves museums and enjoys the languid contemplation of art, I was very excited about the introduction of the ‘Open Gallery’. For me, it quickly joined the ranks of the LABs. Between the ‘Cornfields in Accra’ exhibition at the National Museum of Science and Technology and Jeremiah Quarshie’s “Yellow is the Color of Water” launch at Gallery 1957, my pining for DC’s free museums was but a memory.
Quarshie’s use of the all-too familiar yellow “Kuffour gallons” in life-size acrylic paintings of women and girls, hit home; I recalled days of scouring Adenta for water. Bright Ackwerh’s “Validate Me” and “Fadered” installations betrayed his mastery of satirical art and socio-political commentary, tickling the sarcasm prone in digital and physical spaces. A real art enthusiast appreciates dedication and attention to detail, and nowhere was this more evident than “The Memories of Yesteryears,” a snail installation by Livingstone Amoako that literally left me in goose bumps. A pretty sight to behold, Samson Addae’s ‘Revelation of Secrets’ and creative use of second-hand underwear had me wondering whether my rejected dross (underwear) had met an equally honorable demise.
I visited the museum twice in order to do justice to the three floors of the Museum of Science and Technology where KNUST student art and imagination stood proudly on display. Each time I was drawn to Yaw Owusu’s “Back to the Future”, a repurposing of Ghana’s one pesewa coins into a beautiful tapestry; Samuel Asiedu’s ‘Untitled’ wall installation of miniature masks; and Caleb Prah’s portrayal of Ghana’s female porters (Kayayo) as saints. In writing this review, Hakeem would later draw my attention to another standout: Elvis Nsiah’s cryptic installation of mini sculpture from rusted cans called “Stop Work Produce”. One can only imagine the treasures at the Mmofra Foundation, Untamed Empire and Nubuke Foundation – all of which have exhibitions ongoing all year round.
A huge component of the ethos of Chale Wote has always been the proximity and access to the artists themselves; not just their work. Allowing you to be present as they actively create or perform, the festival fashions an immersive experience beyond the white walls, wine and lofty artist statements of traditional gallery spaces. Introduced during the African Electronics edition of the Chale Wote Festival, the LABs are a series of conversations and mixers that bring artists and art-enthusiasts closer. Oozing through each LABs session this year was the inebriated feeling of watching murals emerge from lines of paint or the voices of filmmakers breaking down motifs.
There was a subtly expectant feeling this year. As a frequent visitor to the festival, the LABs are always one to look forward to as they give a good sense of the artists present and what they will be adding to the weekend’s splendor, zest and excitement. More people turned up than before to watch screenings of over 20 short and feature films from across the world. The most eye-catching of these was the visual and thematic spectacle, Diasporadical Trilogia by musician turned filmmaker, Blitz The Ambassador. Originally unveiled on YouTube as a three part series, the short film received a marvelous reception in Accra. With pristine images of blackness highlighting the nuances of the African experience both in the diaspora and on the continent, Diasporadical Trilogia probed the shared joys and anxieties of surviving as a black person. Rolling to a hip-hop inspired afro-beats score, the film managed to churn out powerful images with African motifs signifying spirituality from three settings and timeframes – Accra, New York and Bahia. The mirrored and deep-seated issues of gentrification, independence and spirituality were shared not just by the film’s locales, but also by the audience as Blitz the Ambassador answered their burning questions about his very open-ended and dreamy film.
Finding by Ghanaian fashion icon and house DJ Steloo was also eagerly anticipated and positively received. The short film illuminated the meticulous process Steloo goes through to piece together his “uniforms”; dandy-inspired jackets, leather boots, striking jewelry and badges from Kantamanto, Accra’s biggest second hand goods market. Shot in monochrome with a deep afro-house score, the visuals contrasted his colorful appearance and pulsating music. Autumn Knight and Lisa Harris’ experimental film and opera performance Children of the Lost pushed boundaries on the visual power of filmmaking. Telling the story of gentrification, displacement of life and accompanying memories in Houston, Texas, the artists blended vocal performances and oral storytelling with the help of the audience.
Film can be a powerful medium for storytelling and the transmission of ideas. But filmmaking can be expensive and is more often than not a venture which requires private sources of funding. Perhaps nobody was more aware of this fact than first-time filmmaker Mandiaya Sumani Seyni, creator of documentary film The Forgotten Ancient Kingdoms. A native of Northern Ghana, Seyni went on a personal journey to rediscover his roots and in the process realized the dearth of information on the origins of Northern Ghana’s kingdoms. Although low budget, his debut film captures insights from key personalities and chiefs in Northern Ghana, mapping out an interesting but complex history which extends from Ghana to Burkina Faso and beyond. A Northern Ghanaian native myself, it was both refreshing and insightful to hear more about my ancestors and to see the overlaps with other ethnic groups in terms of language and culture.
Accra Power. A film by Sandra Krampelhuber and Andrea Verena Strasser capturing stories about the often ignored dynamics that separate the haves from the have-nots. That elixir of influence and otherworldliness that too many a (wo)man gets drunk or overdoses on. And who better to tell it than Ghana’s small, but growing community of eclectic and unconventional thinkers and doers? From Wanlov’s sarcastic humor to Poetra Asantewa’s masterful wordplay, and Serge Attukwei Clottey’s unapologetic imbuement of Captain Planet’s “The Power is Yours”, the enthralled Kempsinski audience was left with a lot to ponder about what it means to powerful. Between the folds of political and individual power, Gospel Scientist Edward Ohemeng Oware demonstrated, between chemical mixtures and incantations of the name “Jesus”, exactly how science and religion co-exist, while Mary Yaa Konadu danced the question before our eyes: What is your power? Light as a butterfly, but not to be taken for granted, female boxer Abigail Quartey jabbed away at any remaining misconceptions about just how powerful women can be. And at the end of it all, dumsor notwithstanding, DJ Steelo reminded us that the most powerful thing you could ever do is to simply be yourself.
The Spirit Robot Panels
The over turned crates and laid-out rugs at the premises of Untamed Empire made for yet another cozy invitation to share. From the fantasy in To Catch A Dream to historical documentary Agbako, audiences were treated to select independent and collaborative films. Through films like Clown and Dragon Parade, it was clear the Spirit Robot was present, yet it would be during the Q&A sessions that followed that the interesting theme of this year’s Chale Wote Festival would be tackled head-on: The Spirit Robot Panels.
Under the trees at the W.E.B Du Bois Centre and Accra’s Untamed Empire, artists, activists and audiences debated the ambiguity of the festival’s theme, “Spirit Robot” and how this concept reflects in their work and lives. The range of responses and interpretations of the theme Spirit Robot were diverse. From an audience member’s analogy of the spirit being an operating system to the robot being our physical form unearthed, the different nexuses that each person brought emphasized how much art, and indeed Chale Wote, can be uniquely perceived yet sentimentally shared.
Through various segments of the program, the cozy Untamed Empire audience was invited to probe into the nuances of festival culture that are rarely discussed. A ‘Cultural Encyclopedia’ led by Ano Ghana highlighted the role of gender in relation to traditional rule and questioned generalized patriarchal narratives of African cultures. As they say, no good gathering is complete without food and in this case, the role of staple foods in festival celebrations across Africa was served hot, as was the juxtaposition of sexuality and spirituality where chiefs, priests and priestesses are concerned.
Drawing examples from Ghana, participants explored the past, present and future of the celebration of festivals as evidence of the dynamism of African culture. Personal experiences on the commonality of the different festivals, as well as the diverse and varied experiences of individuals were shared and will later become fodder for entries in an actual cultural encyclopedia.
Under the shroud of coziness at Untamed Empire, Spirited Women Nana Akosua Hanson, Akwaeke Emezi, Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah, Timehin Adegbeye and Paula Akugizibwe shared lessons learned from embracing their womanhood in its in entirety. In essence, the nuances of the modern day African woman asserting her liberation in what remains a patriarchal society. Being an interactive session, everything from career ruts to the importance of discussing our sexuality as women was briefly touched on. Emezi cited the liberty and self-acceptance that comes with not guarding her space and not compromising on her values – even cutting negative people off. This tied in perfectly with sentiments shared in Hanson’s reading titled “Ethical Sluts” and Timehins’ reference to dance as a hobby she enjoys purely for the sake of fun; as women we are entitled to take pleasure and own our own narratives. All these ideals and ideas were captured in the readings will also be available on the Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women blog.
The moment I saw the promotional images for this year’s Chale Wote Street Art Festival, my interest was piqued. Spirit Robot. Why Spirit Robot, I wondered to myself. What does it mean? I was curious, but not too surprised. It was Chale Wote afterall – the greatest permission ever granted to Accra’s residents to accept their weirdness, the African version of Coachella or AfroPunk as someone on Twitter put it. And so more than anything else, my biggest question was how – how artists, festivalgoers, and Jamestown residents would interpret those two words: Spirit Robot.
And boy, what a range of interpretations there were. Between Avatar-inspired body art to technology-ridden art installations and performances, the link between the traditional and the modern was clear. But the most spot-on description came during the Spirit Robot panel at the Dubois Center between artists Yvette Tetteh, Maimouna Jallow, and Soul Science Lab duo Asante Amin and Chen Lo: “We’re all #SpiritRobot -that unseen intelligence trying to find balance…Spirit is the highest technology.” Basically, while we may look or act differently on the outside, at the end of the day, we seek similar things in life and are connected by the mere fact that we are all human. By tapping into our histories and using storytelling as a medium for expression and knowledge sharing, we shape our ‘spirit robot’ experience.
“It was Chale Wote afterall – the greatest permission ever granted to Accra’s residents to accept their weirdness, the African version of Coachella or AfroPunk.”
The debate also explored the place of Africans in an increasingly global and modern world that rests essentially on Western and Anglosaxon ideals. An audience member cleverly likened today’s African to an iPhone running on an android system: it does not compute. In addition to emphasizing the importance of knowing ourselves and our histories as Africans, the panelists raised key questions for consideration: how are we being socialized? What prejudices do we take on by virtue of where we are born or where we live? Who is programming the robot?
The Chale Wote Street Art Festival
The Chale Wote Festival – a segment of a whole, but for many, the raison d’être for trudging to Jamestown; a locality of Accra previously associated solely with poverty, kenkey and fish. The weekend event is single-handedly the most attended artsy affair, not just in Ghana, but across Africa. With the people in their thousands, the grime walked hand in hand with the glory. From the poor lighting and threat of pickpockets, to careless motorbike riders parting crowds like the red sea, and the countless glares of plastic bags, discarded khebab sticks and what-not, the Chale Wote Festival certainly had its shortcomings. Was the festival a success? In terms of numbers, definitely: the people came, saw and refused to leave. In terms of art made available – probably. In terms of how many actually indulged in and appreciated the art versus just meeting up with friends for instance – debatable. But one thing was clear: the Spirit Robot is what you make it.
Despite the successful expansion to a whole week of activities and the increasing buzz around the festival, the organizers can certainly do more to enhance the appeal and experience of the festival. Many festival goers I spoke to on Saturday and Sunday sounded excited, but kept wondering where places like Franklin House and Brazil House, art sites for the festival, were located. Even though Accra[dot]Alt produced a 51-page brochure and put up various signposts on the ground to direct visitors to where what was going on, everyone seemed to be concentrated on the High Street and Mantse Agbonaa, where the food stands were located. A healthy number still made it to Brazil House where various installations were held; including a technology and music ‘augmented reality’ installation by hip-hop group Soul Science Lab and The Salooni Project by Kampire Bahana and Darlyne Komukama, a makeshift saloon documenting the history of African hair practices. With previous years, copies of the program were printed. However, this did not happen this year. Accra[dot]Alt should find a way to make the program accessible before and during the festival to help all visitors understand and follow the event properly. In addition, festival goers should take an interest in discovering more than the colorful murals and other obvious projections happening at the festival.
It took me five seconds to realize that my t-shirt and jeans weren’t cutting it; most festival goers unapologetically tapped into the vibrancy of African colors and silhouettes. Body art; henna, face painting and body piercings were many people’s choice of flair at the festival. Bantu knots made a sweeping comeback, with several people opting to add some more bold colors to their hair. For a first time goer I was struck by the familiarity that existed between festival goers. Many people I spoke to seemed to have been attending the festival as a group since its first celebration. I definitely elicited the Which-Rock-Have-You-Been-Living-Under look every time I mentioned that this was my first time attending. The number of familiar faces I saw also implied that the festival drew out a lot of the youth. Perhaps the festival will encourage the younger generation to patronize more Ghanaian festivals.
“For a first time goer I was struck by the familiarity that existed between festival goers. Many people I spoke to seemed to have been attending the festival as a group since its first celebration.”
Brazil House was the go-to spot for spoken word and poetry lovers with Ehalakasa and Rainmaker Ghana’s Poetry Museum as well as Nando Kwabena Nkrumah’s vivid photo series “Into The Light”. So poignant was the allusion to the scramble for Africa in The “Scramble for Black Gold” procession that it rendered most of its immediate audience silent. In watching several other processions, there was an undeniable but silent reference to the theme of “Sankofa”, the Adinkra symbol that implores us to get in touch with our past in order to grasp our future. More intimate set ups like that of The Deo Gratias Studio allowed people to go back in time with one of Ghana’s oldest photographing families.” It also indicated that every off-shoot from the main street from the lighthouse to the Ussher Fort Prison would indeed hold an entirely different but equally intriguing experience for festival goers.
After much anticipation, there I was in the midst of the festival. Being there confirmed what I had long suspected: it’s unlike any other. I was equal parts fascinated and tired out by the crowds. But what I enjoyed the most was the birds-eye view of proceedings from the Jamestown Lighthouse and random sightings of familiar faces I hadn’t seen in a while. Surreal. And then there was the elephant in the room everyone and no one talked about: the absence of professional Ghanaian photographers and cameras. Apparently the result of an audacious move by the organizers to instate media, photography, and accreditation guidelines and fees, the incident brought up an equally interesting debate.
While some sided with the boycott on the grounds that the photographers helped give the festival the visibility and regard it now enjoys and should have been excluded from paying fees – or at least consulted on the guidelines – others considered the boycott “childish” and lamented yet another story being told by the “foreigners” who came, professional cameras in hand. And the masses? Well, they were too busy snapping the festival away on their mobile phones. For me however, the boycott brings up a time-old question: just how much do we value art and how far are we willing to go to collaborate while setting standards? True, the festival needs photographers who excel at their craft. In the same vein, photographers need uber creative events like Chale Wote to capture their subjects. So what’s the middle ground? I don’t know. But I hope both sides will come to the table and iron things out before Chale Wote 2017, because this is bigger than any and all of us.
The Chale Wote Street Art Festival has grown in leaps and bounds and each year holds promise of something new, fresh and thought provoking. That said, with growth comes pains. Unless the organizers – and festival goers – are willing to address the negative, logistical and organizational elements, the festival that has undoubtedly become a fixture on the Ghana and Africa arts calendars risks a plateau. Below, our conclusions on the highs, lows and ways forward.
Hakeem: Festival Veteran
This year the roll out of the films was much better as they were well illuminated on a TV screen. However, both days of the LABs seemed to open much later than advertised and the films were not shown in the same order as they were advertised. Yet this did not dull the experience or take away from the awesome content jammed into those two days. Chale Wote is more than just painting and pictures. It is an opportunity to connect, interact and learn with the power that uninhibited and ungovernable street art resonates. The Chale Wote LABs certainly feel like it is here to stay in the festival’s programming and can even serve as a possible alternative to the main event at the weekend for anyone looking to avoid the crowds, rather than a mere anticipatory session to drum up interest.
Germaine: First Timer
Score: 7 / 10
When I was no longer overwhelmed by the huge crowds, I was floored at the sight of many Ghanaians participating in an event that was so culturally and artistically invested. As a first time goer, I do compliment the organizers on bringing the wow-factor into the festival’s fifth celebration. Because the curation of art and cultural experiences were central to the idea of the Spirit Robot, I wish that organizers had provided more information on the art events during the actual weekend celebrations. Apart from the displays at Brazil House, it was difficult to get the names of artists and basic information about the various processions and displays. Although it did take a little away from how festival goers assimilated the art, it most certainly did not take away from the impact that the festival is having on how Ghanaian art and culture is perceived and promoted.
Jemila: Avid (Online) Follower
Score: 8/ 10
Chale Wote is becoming an entity in and of itself. As with most transitions, the challenge will no longer be growth in numbers, but growth in terms of depth, content, and ultimately impact. In it’s fifth year, the Chale Wote Street Art Festival is at its peak. With the sustained brilliance of the LABs and the addition of the Open Gallery, the offerings are diversifying, as are the perspectives around what art is. That said, the two-day Chale Wote weekend festival which is at the heart of the annual event risks getting left behind unless issues around security, cleanliness and conduct are addressed by both the organizers and festival goers. Having always considered Chale Wote to be a “craft your own experience” affair, it was a bit disappointing to receive the final program a mere day before kickoff or to arrive for one event and find it replaced by another. It would be advisable to make such details available early on – say a week in advance – especially if the festival is to retain its attractiveness to art enthusiasts coming to Accra from across the globe.
“With the people in their thousands, the grime walked hand in hand with the glory…But one thing was clear: the Spirit Robot is what you make it.”
Did you attend this year’s festival? What did you love? What could be better? What do you expect next year? Leave a comment, let us know.
Written by Jemila Abdulai, Hakeem Adam and Germaine Bombande. / Photo Credit: Jemila Abdulai, Hakeem Adam, GHinHD
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