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The rebellious spirit of Chale Wote

The 2016 Chale Wote Street Art Festival procession that ran through John Evans Atta Mills High Street in James Town, Accra, on 20 and 21 August was a mix of carnival and parade.

This year’s Chale Wote, which was themed ‘Spirit Robot’, was a carnival in the sense of its regularity over the past five years, along with the huge crowds that it gathered for two eventful days. Yet it maintains a rigorous, parade-like structure that includes a set of thematic processions, so that in the thick of it exists a push and pull between chaos and order. The carnival, which is defined by its annual regularity, is more ceremonious than the parade, which appears highly structured.

In this sense the festival has a mix of the planned and the spontaneous. While the catalogue lists about 20 planned art projects – such as Benjamin Adjetey Okantey’s ‘Onuu Onaa’, a large installation of empty water sachets, and Yoyo Tinz’s ‘Robosapiens’ hip-hop salon, both in the Old Kingsway Building, the self-organised parades were spontaneous in their approach. A group of bodybuilders paraded through the street bare-chested, looking like a cross between a chain gang and a Mr Universe beauty pageant. Similarly, the young children’s boxing match – the exception given that it had a place on the programme – appeared to be a local phenomenon. When I passed by the match, which had been surrounded by a small, cheering crowd, one of the kids had been knocked down and was preparing to go back into the open-air ring. For almost the entire day, seated at a high table, another child, who was an arm-wrestling champion, took down one opponent after the other.

Accra is a concrete jungle; kids learn to fight early. When Austrian anthropologist and filmmaker Sandra Krampelhuber watched these boxing matches at last year’s Chale Wote, it provoked her reflections on the subject of power. Accra Power is her film about ‘an eclectic mix of perceptions of power in Accra’ and the city’s long-standing power crisis. Her film interview with artist Poetra Asantewa revealed the everyday struggles of a woman poet and how power lay in words themselves; in poetry’s ability to captivate and arrest listeners. In another film interview, musician Wanlov of the FOKN Bois explained that power, for him, was in the mystique of his persona: that people were drawn to what they did not fully understand.

The growth of Chale Wote Street Art Festival over the last five years has also provoked a conversation about power in artistic spaces – which quickly become fodder for capitalist intervention.


A conversation about power

The growth of the Chale Wote Street Art Festival over the last five years has also provoked a conversation about power in artistic spaces – which quickly become fodder for capitalist intervention. Power is demonstrated in how easily corporations assume the role of ownership of cultural and artistic spaces through guerrilla advertising. This aspect of power appears in the work of Bright Ackwerh, whose art project ‘Validate Me’, a series of satirical illustrations, was displayed on the walls of James Fort.

The artist’s suggestion that the successes and failures of African creatives trapped inside ‘an alien machine that was not designed to include them’ was echoed by a hand-held banner during the main procession on Sunday, 21 August, which read, ‘Artists’ Lives Matter’.

I was quite interested in a second display of his work along John Evans Atta Mills High Street: Three drawings depicted a dog, a young man and middle-aged woman, all peeing on corporate products: a bottle of Bel-acqua mineral water, a can of Red Bull, and Vodafone SIM packs, among others. This work was an elaborate ‘fuck you’ to the industrial complex.

The satirical illustrator Bright Ackwerh shows that the lawlessness of capitalist intervention warrants an angry and vulgar response

I was drawn to the work because its mode of address vulgarised the command ‘Don’t urinate here’. This is a well-known city regulation. By depicting these characters urinating on well-known brands, Ackwerh employed colloquial vulgarity in the act of urination. His depiction of vulgarity echoes the mannerism of those oppressed by a postcolonial autocracy.

While such expression might be better suited to countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burkina Faso or Cameroon, given their history of dictatorial politics, Ghana is not immune to such colloquial and vulgar expression. While the National Democratic Congress, Ghana’s ruling political party founded by Jerry John Rawlings in 1993, is commended internationally for democratic governance, the satirical illustrator Ackwerh shows that the lawlessness of capitalist intervention warrants an angry and vulgar response.

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The highlight for me was the début of Blitz the Ambassador’s three-part film, Diasporadical Trilogica, at the Kempinski Hotel on Wednesday, 17 August. The three films are scored by Blitz the Ambassador, who performs as a rapper and has recently taken up filmmaking.

The film is the story of a woman who lived mysteriously on three continents: North America, South America and Africa. While she is a middle-aged woman in Bahia, Brazil, she is a young girl in New York, USA. The film interlinks a Black diaspora spread across these three continents (albeit not inclusive of Central America, India and Southeast Asia) in ways that recall the Afrofuturism of early 1960s musicians in the US, such as Sun Ra, who believed that he was born on another planet.

The filmmaker’s inclusion of symbolic imagery, such as two doves and the masquerade dancer, bring to mind Afrofuturism’s marriage of various belief systems: Christianity, Oshun and the metropolitan identity. Diasporadical Trilogica’s notion of time travel and music as an embodiment of spirituality perfectly echoed the festival’s theme: ‘Spirit Robot’ indeed.







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