In August, while working on my own contribution to a festival on the streets of Brooklyn, I ventured to the land of my birth Ghana to witness, for the first time, the Chale Wote Street Art Festival. Now in its 5th year, the festival is described as an alternative platform that brings visual art, music, dance and theater out of the walls of institutions and onto the streets. The vision of the festival aligns with elements of processional art forms expressing human conditions around the world. Like Carnival, it is community-based, interactive and can’t be contained within institutional walls or behind a 4th wall.
This was my first time at the festival. Ghanaians I talked with spoke proudly of the fact that each year it has grown progressively larger and this year featured more than 200 Ghana based and international artists. The festival also expanded to several days of activities and culminated as usual on the streets of Jamestown, Accra on August 20th and 21st. Before the final weekend, I was able to attend one of the labs, the Spirit Women Panel at Untamed Empire, and two of the affiliated spaces, the Cornfields in Accra Exhibition and the Mmofra Foundation Children’s Place, all of these activities were a wonderful introduction and backdrop to the multi-faceted mix of art forms and people on the streets of Jamestown.
Chale Wote in the Ga language means: ‘man, let’s go’. And boy to do you feel like you are on the move. From the minute you encounter your first artistic experience on High Street, you enter a transformed space where art can be seen, heard, experienced, and created with each shift in perspective. Music blasts from every corner and as you walk through the space, the sounds transition in musical genre. I even heard a Soca tune, connecting the land of my birth with the land of my upbringing.
The work of a few specific artists stuck out for me. After already hearing about Serge Attukwei Clottey, it was an amazing sense of fulfillment to happen on Practical Common Sense a piece he performed live in collaboration with a large group of men and women. While visually shocking, experiencing it made me grateful for the opportunity to think more deeply about the purpose of processional street art and the need to challenge the hierarchical validation of western contemporary art over geographically and culturally informed ways of meaning making.
Practical Common Sense by Serge Attukwei Clottey
Also memorable was the work of Yaw Owusu, who uses the old Ghana Pesewa coin to create this flag.
As the day rolled on and the crowd grew larger, it became harder to distinguish the Jamestown folk from the crowds of people who had landed in their community. Earlier, the sea of children running from space to space was striking. They danced, they painted, they observed, they participated with curiosity and open spirits. As the crowd grew I remember being struck by a man carrying a heavy load of firewood on his head. He was on his way to where he was going, navigating the crowd and undeterred by all the commotion around him.
Seeing the children and adults like the firewood carrier, made me think about the people that live in Jamestown, one of the more economically disadvantaged neighborhoods in Accra. What is it like for them to have this festival? How are they included? How do they choose to participate? My questions do not yet have answers, but they led me to consider the juxtaposition of all this art not too far away from a patchwork of wood and galvanized structures precariously constructed to protect the families from the seaside elements on the sands of the nearby beach. I am sure the organizers have thought of this and there was a strategic reasoning behind the choice of Jamestown for the festival. The reasoning, however, was not evident to me and something I wished was made more visible.
I did learn about the Universal Wonderful Street Academy, founded in 2012 by Ghanaian artist Louis Wonder. The academy was created to provide education to the children of Jamestown who are not formally enrolled in the Ghana school system. Next to the well-publicized Brazil House, but off the main street of Chale Wote activities, the children made their contribution to the festival by performing a reenactment of the transatlantic slave trade with a focus on the return of free slaves from Brazil to Jamestown. While they took their artistic work very seriously, you could see the joy and pride in their faces as they acted, danced and transitioned from scene to scene. The audience was mainly other children and unfortunately missed attracting the sea of people just steps away from their space. I only knew to look for it because my aunt is part of the Brazil Heritage Foundation, which collaborated with Street Academy on putting together the performance.
I wondered about the more purposeful inclusion of organizations like the Mmofra foundation and the Street Academy in future years of the festival, while it is an art festival, it is in a specific community that I am sure is already full of its own artists and young people eager to articulate their artistic voice. I am interested to see how that could be explored more deeply in the future.
Overall, my first experience of the Chale Wote festival was overwhelmingly positive. I hope to return again and maybe someday participate as an artist and/or coordinator of student art.
To learn more and/or provide support please visit the following websites:
Mmofra Foundation, founded by Ghanaian writer Efua Sutherland:
Universal Wonderful Street Academy:
More about Chale Wote by Festival Organizers:
Some video footage from Chale Wote 2016: