A Street Art Festival Gives African Artists a Platform to Show the World their ‘Indigenous Esoteric Knowledge’
In Accra, Ghana, where the bright yellows, reds, greens and blues of telcos, soft drink, alcohol and beer companies light up billboards, walls, and even houses, a festival filled with self-expression stands out as uniquely different.
And that’s the point. A handful of years ago, a group of arts and cultural programming institutions came together to evolve local and global ideas of “African art” from the ages-old focus on drums, carvings, masks and painted canvases to something that reflects Africa’s modern arts’ scene, a street festival that encompasses graffiti, murals, music and theatrical performances, along with tech-infused art installations, and other, site-specific installations that use the human body, historic buildings, repurposed and recycled materials all as part of the artists’ expression of life in Africa.
For the fifth year in a row, Chale Wote welcomed into its arms a diverse number and array of talented creators. This time, artists hailed from throughout Ghana as well as Lagos, Douala, and Johannesburg, connecting vibrant but distinct African cities, creatives and influences. Each year, the number of attendees expands. Saturday and Sunday, thousands squeezed along the half-mile stretch of High Street in Accra’s historic district of Jamestown (and some side streets), thumping to live music and DJ sets, staring wide-eyed at provocative art installations, chowing down on foods and racking up new clothes and artworks.
This year, the festival revolved the theme of African Electronics — but not as in the gadgets that have become an everyday part of life in Accra. It’s the “indigenous esoteric knowledge that Ghanaians use to create the impossible,” explain festival organizers, “the grand manifestation of our most powerful creative ability as a people, the cryogenic refrigerant that has kept our technologies alive across time. It is a way out — a secret pathway to possibilities unseen before.”
In all of Accra, perhaps it could only make sense to have this festival in a place like Jamestown, one of the few spaces in the city that fully reflects an evolution from indigenous to colonial to modern creative energy. From a traditional fishing settlement to an expanded globalized center that’s harbored waves of migration — from Portuguese to Dutch, British, Nigerian, returnees from the diaspora (Tabom), Togolese and more — Jamestown is well-versed in receiving outside influences and localizing them into something functional and familiar.
Linking African diversity with this local meaning was a critical consideration for graffiti artist Breeze Yoko of Johannesburg’s JHB Massive. “I choose to immerse myself in the environment, learn about it so that I could create something that would resonate with the people around me who will be watching it day to day,” he explained, speaking of his mural on one façade of Sea View Hotel (the country’s first hotel-cum youth boxing gym). His creation: A space-bound version of the Jamestown Lighthouse, the area’s most iconic landmark. His collaborators, local graffiti artists with Nima Muhinmanchi Art, contributed their own humongous boats and fish, creating a futuristic, space-based fishing community. “The wall we painted is facing the Lighthouse… fish is something you see everywhere, in Accra, and especially in [Jamestown]…When I think about electronics, I think of things that create a futuristic kind of thought,” he said. “Electronics symbolizes a futuristic world.”
“The mural Breeze did, which he started independently and suddenly finished with a whole and collective effort — it’s an amazing piece,” said Ato Annan of Foundation for Contemporary Art, Ghana, the visual coordinator of the festival. “You see the skill involved and you realize there’s something there that [Nima Muhinmanchi Art] artists could learn something from, that whole process of working.You see how different artists approach their work and the process they bring to it.”
Los Angeles and Accra-based visual artist Kenturah Davis’ installation, a series of flags whose images were created through the repeated hand-stamping of QR codes on the fabric, introduced ideas of nationalism, identity and culture. “I wanted it to to relate to my experience being in Ghana, but also digging into my roots,” she said. Just in the ways we can make new allegiances — I feel that I’m constantly broadening my communities, my ideas about community are completely expanding because I’m living on a different continent,” she said.
Kenturah and Breeze both pointed to the ubiquitous “selfie culture” of Chale Wote festival goers and how it marked a unique engagement opportunity with their works. Kenturah said she planned for it, and incorporated it into her artwork, positioning it within a small, tucked away alley to create a “low-budget photo booth,” she explained. “To me, it felt really appropriate to make the flags interactive, these things that people can interact with… At the festival, it was so fascinating to see the selfies happening. The obsession with the phone and this tool people are using and appropriating and tricking out to use them however they see fit.”
For other artists, like Breeze, it wasn’t so much a part of their performance. He brought his work to fruition slowly over the period of the street festival, allowing festival goers to experience the mural creation as performance. “It was interesting to see so many people taking selfies while you’re working,” Breeze said, recounting instances of individuals who came up to him to take selfies as he worked, using him and his work as background to their foreground. “I hadn’t seen this before — the magnitude, it was on the next level. The selfie game here is strong.”
The selfie game at the festival was strong — of the more than 9,000 #ChaleWote2015 tagged photos on Instagram, a large number are selfies (and portraits). In a way, the selfie phenomenon made festival goers a part of the art performances being created and celebrated at the festival, and as proof they were there. It also made them documenters of the culture, following the festival’s African electronics theme, but also taking a cue from the spirit of Jamestown — no matter how foreign or different, they can still make it their own.
MORE ABOUT CHALE WOTE Created in 2011, the Chale Wote Street Art Festival is an alternative street art festival organized by Accradotalt; an alternative art and culture programming institution, Foundation for Contemporary Art, Ghana; and the Jamestown-based NGO No Limit Charity. Chale Wote means “Man, let’s go!” and also refers to the flip flops that are accessible and worn by everyone in society. In the same way, the festival aims to bring to the public alternative and contemporary art that is accessible to everyone.