Accra’s annual street art festival was as brave and bold as ever for it’s 2017 edition

Accra’s annual Chale Wote Street Art Festival is a riot of art, music, food, dance, film and fashion, sprinkled with a large helping of preschool pugilism. Based in the ancient James Town district of Ghana’s capital, the festival was started in 2011 by independent cultural network Accra(dot)Alt. It sprung from a wish to cultivate a wider audience for the arts in West Africa, transcending the boundaries of museums and galleries, while harnessing the power of visual arts to rejuvenate public spaces. More than 200 Ghana-based and international artists take part in the event every year, with 2017’s edition believed to have well exceeded 2016’s visitor count of over 30,000 from across the globe.

This year’s Chale Wote (meaning ‘Man, let’s go!’ in Ga) in August took as its theme Wata Mata (West African pidgin for water matter) and saw artists engaging with themes of rebirth, rejuvenation, energy and environmentalism, in relation to Jamestown’s own coastal setting. Trawling past artists scrawling graffiti murals, extreme sport displays, sizzling food stalls, and rails of Ghanaian clothing, Chale Wote feels like a festival for the millennial generation - one that needs a little of everything, preferably all at the same time. Come night time, DJ booths and camera phone torches turn the Accra suburb into a blasting block party.

“Chale Wote has put Ghana on the map”

A highlight of this year’s programme was housing art exhibits at James Fort Prison for the first time. A dilapidated building closed since 2008, the prison remained inaccessible to all until it’s reawakening by the festival. Within its austere and unsettling walls, performance works, masquerades and installation pieces all nestled together. Accra-based crazinisT artisT’s chose to writhe in a swamp of mud with fellow artist John Herman for their collaborative performance, which ended up down by the water’s edge. The work proved that performance art in Accra continues to push boundaries (crazinisT’s last exhibition at the city’s Gallery 1957 saw him act out his complete ritual for transforming into drag).

Just down the road in Ussher Fort, a poignant installation by Latifah Iddriss involved the artist transport one day’s worth of washed up rubbish from a nearby beach to within the fort’s walls. Idriss also participated in one of the many satellite art happenings at the nearby Nubuke Foundation. The exhibition marked the very first cross-cultural artist exchange for the Black British Female Artist (BBFA) Collective. Working very much in the spirit of Chale Wote, the exhibition paired Ghanaian artists Iddriss, Samira Saidi and Dorothy Amenuke with British artists Enam Gbewonyo, Adelaide Damoah and Arlene Wandera. Reflecting on their experiences as women artists, whilst also considering issues of globalisation, migration and the effect of living and working in the diaspora, their work showed how Accra’s dynamic arts scene is transcending borders.

Speaking to Gbewonyo before the festival was up, she explained how Accra had offered them a freedom not afforded in London. “There's no limits to what you can do, both in terms of the work you create and the opportunities you can make happen for yourself,” she explained. “To an extent, there is no such thing as a glass ceiling in Ghana.” And what role has Chale Wote taken in the process? “Its success has really put Ghana on the map.”

Photography Nii Odzenma

Published on 04/09/2017