Sunday, August 26 — John Evans Atta Mills High Street, Accra
ART IS CHAOS — In a dense crowd of revellers, a smallish dark man and his supple paramour force their way east —toward the Bank of Ghana, where they’ll catch an Uber home. By one hand, he leads her through the forest of bodies tightly pressed against each other, squeezing her palm firmly in his, lest he lose her in the multitude. His other hand, pressed against the thigh of his khaki pants, over the pocket housing his smartphone, is a gesture in precaution against pickpockets.
On another day, the stretch can be covered in ten minutes on foot. But this is Chale Wote season, and so, it has taken them forty minutes since they left Light House, to arrive at James Fort. There’s still some distance to cover —approximately 10 minutes —before the street is clear again. In both their ears, there is residual ringing from ceremonial gunshot that accompanied a traditional leader’s procession not long ago. They will laugh over that episode in a few days —after coitus, or a meal —just not right now.
When they arrived at the festival grounds earlier in the day, a totally different air had greeted them — it was drizzling lightly, but it had been an enjoyable stroll. The street was filled with only a gentle trickle of tourists, partygoers, and art lovers wandering in both directions. They took pictures — the man and his lover —of themselves and their surroundings, marveled at giant murals at the old Kingsway Building, and at installations made entirely from old aluminum roofing sheets in front of Ussher Fort, and sampled more artwork, clothing, accessories and snacks.
But here they are, a few hours later, shuffling between the teeming swarm, hoping to make it out in one piece. Their journey back has presented everything; resounding hiplife and Afrobeats which changed after every few steps, a blinding slap from a white woman across the face of an alleged bag-snatcher, fights and near-fights, an overflow of green and brown glass bottles, jamborees at every intersection, teenage boys testing their luck on older women with crude pick up lines: “I want to be your friend.”
In its eighth year, the festival — put together by ACCRA [dot] ALT and REDD KAT in collaboration with a number of cultural outfits — has assumed international repute, drawing thousands from within the country and elsewhere. Over 200 Ghana-based and international artists exhibited at the 6-day marathon which consists art fairs, workshops, a masquerade jam, live street performances, extreme sports, film screenings, and musical concerts, cookout sessions among others.
This year’s edition had as special guest of honour, H.E Nana Akufo-Addo. That a sitting president attended Chale Wote — albeit for the first time — is testament to it’s place as a pivotal social event. This programme was also attended by Minister of of Tourism, Arts and Culture, Hon. Catherine Afeku, whose outfit supported the programme with GHc300,000.
ART IS STYLE —A photographer stalks a damsel. She sports green braids and a nose ring, sunglasses and a choker. On her hip, she balances a toddler who also wears stunners and dreadlocks. The cameraman rushes past her and then turns around — so that now, the lens of his Nikon aims at her. He clicks hurriedly and looks at the screen, evaluating his shots. The serious look on his face doesn’t change, but he’s impressed with himself, and moves on to other subjects: a man wearing a coat made from a potato sack and a hundred broken mirrors; another male, dark and hefty, draped in Masai Shuka held together at the waist by a black leather belt, two chains hanging from a band on his forehead, over his eyes.
There’s more: someone passes by with hair extensions made solely from safety pins, with which he has also designed his black button-down; a man struts around in nothing — save for a scanty fabric over his member, boots on his feet, a large hat which he has tilted to conceal his face. On the rest of his body, stripes like you would find on a zebra run across; another man with his hair bleached, complements the colour of his Newcastle United jersey by carrying a little white mouse on his head.
Many others wear bizarre hairdos, and have cuts and folds in strange places on their clothes—style that typically lives exclusively on the runway. Since its inception, the festival has served as a melting point for varying fashion influences — a true celebration of creative independence and audacity. Organisers aim to “cultivate a wider audience for the arts in West Africa by breaking creative boundaries and using art as a viable form to rejuvenate public spaces.” The fashion at these grounds pushes creative frontiers for sure, and tears down constrictions of what is “normal”.
The photographer, tall and greedy, hopes to capture as many key moments as is possible —and he does — of people in oversized sunspecs, strange masks, or in costume from movies; beautiful bare-chested men with hefty muscles, boys dressed as girls — in makeup, wigs, and their mothers’ kaba and slit, etc.
Chale Wote 2018 ran under the theme “Para-Other”, which organisers explain as “a transatlantic shortwave that transcends language and geography.
“Para-Other requires new knowledge fractals, codes, symbols, and sounds that transmit our core creative intent where imperial languages fail us. This order is an embracing of a black labyrinth and establishment of an aesthetic that captures our cessation of flight and transit into a non-contested existence,” they further explain.
ART IS COLOUR— Across the wall of an old storey building on Brazil Lane — and in Brazil House (from where the festival is run); on the asphalt covering the street; across the faces and arms of Chale Wote visitors, lavish colour reigns.
Truly astonishing artistry, the works, especially murals in the Old Kingway Building adjacent the Ussher Fort, dozens wait [im]patiently at any given time, to pose for pictures in front of a magnificent mural of Kofi Annan; or an instructive one of Kwame Nkrumah sitting next to it; or that of Nelson Mandela waving astutely; or vibrant wings that momentarily make the subject in front of them appear to be in flight. Having been taken, these signature images, created by the famed MOH Awudu, Razak Brush among others, are hastily ran through filters on smartphones, and uploaded on social media — for the sole purpose of informing friends and followers that Borga was there some.
—of sunlight on a performer’s face; of gold glitter on that of a muscular man who’s carrying a vintage television — what is left of it; of the boat in front of Light House, near which fishermen are weaving their nets with dizzying nimbleness to the admiration of passersby.
—of bicycles, 20-feeter unicycles and poles, and the experts maneuvering their feet on them; of a mouse scurrying about on a boat; in the indigenous dance routines by cultural troupes; in the ambitious poses of first-time attendees.
While Saturday August 25, and Sunday August 26 constituted the main festival, Chale Wote 2018 also saw other key activities throughout the week, such as the Shika Shika Art Fair at Brazil House, “LAB” sessions (workshops across film, poetry, music, photography with with Danielle Kyengo O’Neill (South Africa), Karen Lee (Canada), EL Warcha (Tunisia), Justice Collective (South Africa), Cleo Lake, and Elikplim Akorli all as facilitators), movie screenings and a masquerade jam at Kukun (Osu), and the National Theatre.
ART IS CULTURE — Chale Wote is held in Jamestown –Accra, in the month of August, following the Homowo festival by Ga people — who are original settlers of the area. A fishing community which is also famed for producing boxing and soccer stars, as well as originating Azonto, the town also houses key relics of Ghana’s colonial past—mainly forts.
Accra’s oldest district, Jamestown, and neighboring Usshertown, offer via Chale Wote especially, a look at a troubling aspect of the city’s identity, with a chilling tour of these trading posts which also served as a prison for slaves until their perilous exodus to American plantations.
Chale Wote processions don’t only involve street artists —they also see marches by traditional leaders of the area, clad in regal attire and sunny smiles. A path is cleared for them by zealous aides, and their gait is characterized by majestic deliberateness, flaunting an enormous heritage.
In the James Fort yard, Nana, a fetish priest, fluent in English, and brandishing a smartphone, receives people from all walks of life. His face is hidden behind a mask, but the soles of his bare feet are visible. The room in which he holds his consultation sessions inspires unique awe, and frightens many kids. The smell of incense, held by his assistant (the same one who hands out fliers containing his boss’ details —Whatsapp number and all, to onlookers) wafts about.
There are green leaves all over the floor of his corner, potions in little bottles, horse tails, masks, and sculptures possessing spiritual fire. At the entrance, there are also many pairs of footwear, removed before entry to the shrine.
Back at High Street, more men, dressed like Nana, in costumes that recall traditional worship, emerge here and there, their faces doused in powder, trotting about like they’re under the influence of a higher force. Centuries ago, before missionaries introduced western worship to African people, these oracles served as the lawful interpreters of the spiritual.
Not only is Jamestown a unique perspective into the nation’s past, but for nearly a decade, has also become an iconic cultural hub, inspiring art movements in other parts of Ghana.
ART IS NIGHT— Music booms everywhere, and dance is very much alive: at Mantsɛ Agbonaa Park (which serves as a food court and concert grounds, at the Old Kingsway Building (converted into a grand disco at night), from the ground beneath; vendors’ stands centimeters apart, and in bashes at every junction, bursting with the effervescent display of the latest dance steps —Shaku Shaku, and Akwaaba. Cigarette smoke ascends into the sky above, and a hundred beer bottles are emptied every minute. A couple — half drunk— is canoodling in a corner at Bible House adjacent.
An Afro-haired woman in bright sneakers and shorts made from batik, holds a phone to her ear, and attempts a call in futility —the network is jammed; for all of Accra has assembled here. A batch of excited youth chant along with nostalgic thrill, lyrics to a Tinny record, or an Obrafour one, which they have not heard in years, galloping like worms from rotten pepper. Sweaty damsels sway in the tight grip of sweatier lovers —their waists twirling with superior expertise.
For vendors, business is thriving. Balls of kenkey —which normally sell for ₵1.00 or ₵1.50 are going for ₵3.00 (in Jamestown!) — and they’re selling fast too. Palm wine, gizzard, pork, kebab, sobolo, brukina, fried yam and chicken, Coke, and bottled water are all being consumed rapidly.
Old schoolmates reconnect for the first time in years, yelling out aliases they picked up at 15. They embrace excitedly, recounting juvenile escapades amidst belly laughs.
ART IS, WELL, ART— Expression. Liberty. Impulse —and everything between: riveting performance works by mud-smeared artists questioning brutality and injustice in the very dungeons that held their forefathers captive; a snake dangling from the neck of a nervous wearer, whose face is covered in a masking smile; a thumb-sucking baby on the back of her mother, unkempt children engrossed in a street boxing performance, or begging for alms.
At Chale Wote, inhibitions don’t exist. Eccentricity is not only permitted— it is highly recommended. Whatever happens at the grounds stays there — well, as long as it doesn’t end up on Instagram or Snapchat.
The petite dark man and his ample mistress have made it out the grounds, but the party is just beginning — and the crowd behind them, will disperse properly around 3 the next morning. Their Uber, a Kia Picanto chauffeured by one John, arrives in a few moments. Overall their Chale Wote experience has been gratifying. Next year, they’ll show up again, like they’ve done for the past three years, along with something like thirty thousand other patrons, for the annual art Hajj — maybe together, maybe with new partners. When their ride arrives, they slide into the backseat, the man’s hand now around his lady’s shoulder. She’s slightly cold from the night breeze being shed by the sea nearby. Everything is falling in place. Anadwo yɛ dɛ.
See more mages courtesy Eben Yanks/ ENEWSGH