Ghana’s cultural policy is largely stuck in the past, with the state steadfastly centered on promoting historical tradition. Much of the public holds the same perspective, says Ato Annan, project officer of the Foundation for Contemporary Art Ghana (FCA), a non-profit organisation and network of Ghanaian artists. “Most Ghanaians are set in what they perceive as art – what they are thinking of (for example) are the masks that they can see people carving at Art Centre (in Accra), the stools or the kente (cloth).”
This is regurgitated in the capital, where the creative space is dominated by traditional art forms or mainstream music and entertainment. Ghallywood movies, hiplife music or azonto – an emerging dance and music genre developed in schools and drawn from indigenous influences – are ubiquitous. Outside of these, there remains little room for unconventional art forms and artists.
But organisations in Accra, many headed by young adults, are aggressively working to change this. In June 2011 Accra[dot]alt launched the Chale Wote Street Art Festival, a first-of-its-kind event in the historic Jamestown district. The festival served as the stage for alternative, local creations by the young with the city’s buildings as canvasses for expression. The walls of the Old Kingsway Building (a dilapidated coliseum) became brightened murals, and inside its four walls bicycle stunt artists, thespians, dancers and poets performed. Ussher Fort (a former prison) became a gallery for repurposed art paying homage to the community’s fishing tradition. Mantse Agbona (the palace and courtyard) served as a concert hall. High Street (the major thoroughfare) was lined with graffiti artists, and street vendors sold wares and food.
In the 2012 edition of the festival, the street also served as the performance route for the Marseilles-based street theatre company Générik Vapeur. The festival is a collaboration between art programming organisations, local artists, and community schools and youth. “It went surprisingly well…(and) I think that’s what got people’s attention,” says Mantse Aryeequaye, co-founder of Accra[dot]alt, who estimates that between 3,000 and 4,000 people attended in 2012.
In Nima, also in Accra, similar activities are afoot. Like Jamestown, Nima is a historic and low-income neighborhood that has continually missed out on urban investment and infrastructure development. So the community has always been forced to informally better itself. Launched in July 2011, Nima Muhinmanchi Art (NMA) blends art with community development to foster art appreciation and nurture young talent. The organisation facilitates weekend painting and photography workshops, stages exhibitions to showcase youths’ art and mobilises its young artists to beautify community spaces. Nima is typically cast in the light of its designation, as a slum, but where others see blight, NMA sees untapped artistic potential, says Robin Riskin, NMA project director. “There is so much creativity, so many artists…We’re looking to foster that.”
But the struggle still remains in building recognition and appreciation for alternative, contemporary art. The creatives that Annan represents employ canvas and paint, repurposed materials, graphic design and digital media, installations, and performance art. And Accra[dot]alt, say its founders, was always rooted in a need for a different system for artistic expression. “(We) young people are also creating art based on the set of tools available to us, and we want it to be seen as art,” says Annan. Funding from government “does not exist at all”, which means groups must develop alternative networks. “Most comes from foreign missions – embassies or UN agencies.”
In spite of these challenges, these organisations are thriving. And, most importantly, they are marking a distinct break from the past and mainstream; forging a cultural renaissance that holds exciting prospects for the city’s creative future.
Victoria Okoye is a Community/urban planner and media professional based in Accra
This article is part of Urbanafrica’s reporting project
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