Nii Kotei Nikoi is a Ph.D. student, graphic designer and photographer from Accra. Here he shares his perspective on the best highlights of CHALE WOTE 2016.
The CHALE WOTE Street Art Festival happens every August in James Town, Accra.
One may argue that James Town has become the expressive hub of Accra over the last five years. Through the annual CHALE WOTE Street Art Festival, artists from multiple disciplines and geographic locations across the world descend on James Town, meet and exchange with Ghana-based artists and audiences to create and exhibit new works.
Every August, excitement fills the air as the streets of downtown Accra become packed with attendees, artists, and community folk. The streets of James Town are literally turned into a canvas as artists and young people paint the asphalt into diverse interpretations of the yearly festival theme. Spirit Robot, the theme for CHALE WOTE 2016, represents “a constellation of art, energy, and passion that signifies our united capacity to create meaningful change in our communities and shift our realities into a more livable world for all.”
Last year’s theme, African Electronics, served as the prologue to 2016 with an emphasis on Pan-African circuitry to generate the currency or charge for the Spirit Robot to form. For me, the festival works to de-bourgeois the consumption of aesthetic work by bringing “art, music, dance and performance out of the galleries and onto the streets of James Town, Accra.” Many times, the consumption of art has been used to demarcate class boundaries. CHALE WOTE helps to erode exclusionary borders and create a broader space for interaction, exchange and engagement.
As such, the festival provides ample space for James Town residents, Ghanaian artists and audiences, as well as international artists and visitors to engage, participate and connect through the experience of art together. CHALE WOTE not only makes contemporary African art accessible to wider audiences but also provides a platform for artists to showcase their talents.
One of the highlights of the festival for me was The Labs, a 2-day mix of film screenings, artist panels, workshops and performances on August 18-19. I really enjoyed the sessions where participating artists would share their interpretations of Spirit Robot and how the theme related to the works they were bringing to the festival. The last discussion of The Labs was quite informative. Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah (writer, Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women) and three other women writers (Paula Akugizibwe, Olutimehin Adegbeye , Nana Akosua Hanson and Akwaeke Emezi) discussed “Spirit Women”, the power of divine feminine consciousness and how this force manifests differently in their individual experiences of womanhood and writing in and about Africa.
Another festival highlight for me was Serge Attukwei Clottey’s performance with GoLokal, entitled “Practical Common Sense” – a call for recollection and recontextualization of indigenous beliefs and practices.
Satirical artist Bright Ackwerh’s installation, “Validate Me,” attracted many onlookers who laughed and gasped, puzzled by some of his provocative political illustrations. I listened in as Bright would engage his audience, gladly answering questions about his creative process and how he chose his subject matters.
The yoyotinz “Robosapiens” project space was also fyah and featured surprise performances from Blitz the Ambassador, Jayso and Scientific and emerging artists Freda Rhymes, CJ Biggerman, Memorable Guys, Kula, Abladzo Kwam and Elom 2oce (Togo). Popular music artists Worlasi and Akan graced the stage as fans were heard loudly reciting the lyrics to their hit tune, “Helebaba”.
At Otublohum Square, Kwame Boafo’s performance art piece was a critical commentary on state and social surveillance. He interacted with the audience, catching many off guard, as he invited some to participate in the piece.
Huge installations from Elolo Bosoka and Yaw Owusu were mounted on the walls of Ussher Fort and Franklin House and prompted passersby to closely examine concepts of nationality, history, distribution of power relations, trade and manufacturing within Ghana.
In my mind, the artists who participate in CHALE WOTE represent resistance, in the sense that they unsettle conventional knowledge systems and ways of being. They color outside of the lines and question what we’ve been taught to believe. One example for me is Steloo who recounted an experience during The LABS with the front entrance security at Kempinski Hotel (while attending the Wednesday film screenings @ CHALE WOTE).
Steloo was stopped by security and asked to remove his rings. He declined and was held at the door for some time before eventually being let in. This was certainly not Steloo’s first confrontation with security about his chosen mode of dress. This performance of resistance is precisely what CHALE WOTE encourages – a persistent questioning of the status quo, social norms and forms of civil order. By hosting CHALE WOTE in James Town, an economically strapped fishing community in the center of the city, the festival unsettles harmful representations about this community and its inhabitants as attendees move through the streets and structures and interact face-to-face with the lived reality of James Town.
Another highlight for me was the sense of community that is formed throughout the production of the festival. The organizing team is comprised of James Town residents and Ghana-based artists who engage community workers, students, city authorities, cultural leaders, service providers and emerging entrepreneurs to create a unique space that taps into the wonder and potential of African art and performance. Through creative collaboration, a network of people coalesce around a common ambition of transforming everyday James Town into a site where art produces the possibilities of artistic innovation to reshape our lives in more inclusive ways. More importantly, these creative collaborations lead to long lasting professional and personal relationships, specifically the transnational and transdisciplinary projects and relations that are engendered between Ghana-based and visiting artists and audiences who meet at CHALE WOTE.
On the street, Moh Awudu’s live paintings also attracted many onlookers as they watched him turn human bodies into canvas by blending colors and symbols into artwork that extended onto the street. Following the festival, graffiti artists Moh Awudu (Ghana) and James Shields (U.S) painted a public mural work in Nima, Moh’s homebase.
It’s clear that organizing a festival like CHALE WOTE involves immense expenditure of physical and psychic energy. This currency of imagination, will and determination shows that art can create new kinds of conversations and lead to solutions about how to make our societies more responsive and inclusive, especially for marginalized communities.
Story and images by Nii Kotei Nikoi.