By accident, Ghana’s telecommunications companies may have actually helped catalyze public art, at least in Accra. By branding houses, walls and kiosks with their company colors, they inspired a group of artists to bring their work into public space, too.
In areas like Kawukudi and Nima, major roadsides are parades of blue, green, yellow and red. The buildings, houses, kiosks, and walls and billboards along streets serve as canvasses for each company’s raucous brand colors (bright red of Vodafone, light green of Glo, sunny yellow of MTN, deep blue of Tigo), with the accompanying logo. But by taking advantage of advertising opportunities, their marketing takeover supplants community scenery and character.
So a few years ago, the Foundation for Contemporary Art, Ghana (FCA) decided it wanted to prove that these facades and city spaces could be canvasses for art. The organization, a group of new and established Ghanaian artists, launched the Art in Public Spaces initiative to envisage ways to bring art into public and community spaces.
“It was in direct response to what the telecommunications companies were doing, just taking people’s buildings and just branding [them],” says Ato Annan, who develops and coordinates projects for FCA.
FCA’s first public space intervention was the mural at Akumajaye, a community square in Old Accra. “We saw this run-down community park that community members used for funerals and outdoorings and all that,” Annan says, illustrating the multi-functionality of the space despite its dilapidated physical state.
“Our main aim back then was to paint the mural, but in order to paint the mural we had to reconstruct it, “ says Annan. “So we were rehabilitating the space, and putting it into use again.”
The result is a brightly colored bench (more like a large, cement public sofa seat) that doubles as a mural of swirling colors, geometric shapes and local scenes and symbols. As a colorful piece of permanent furniture in the middle of the community center, it’s a magnet for the eye and for community activity. But it also serves an essential function as a spot where community residents relax, meet, socialize and play.
The finished product is the Akumajaye mural, also a community bench to support community activities and character. (Photo credit: Foundation for Contemporary Art, Ghana).
On a sunny afternoon, children dart back and forth in a game of tag, nearby vendors sell fried yam and fish, people stop and rest, others wait for their friends. A chalkboard for community news is a space for sharing information. All in all, these artists helped shape a community landmark; in renovating this structure, the artists have contributed to the community’s character and sense of “place.”
FCA staged a second intervention four hours away, at the beachside community of Busua, near Takoradi. Fifteen of FCA’s artists took another approach to public art, using new objects, found objects and recycled materials to create publicly viewable art at the beach.
“The artists started putting it together, putting in installations, and then the community members came around and through interactions joined in and helped create works of art,” Annan says. “We had an open-air exhibition showing all the things that we had been able to create with the community during the day.”
Community members of Busua (in Ghana’s Western Region) painting a canoe installation. (Photo credit: Foundation for Contemporary Art, Ghana).
Women in Busua take over the canvas. (Photo credit: Foundation for Contemporary Art, Ghana).
They did a similar activity in the city of Koforidua, in Eastern Region. In addition, every year as part of the Chale Wote Street Art Festival, FCA artists paint murals on the walls of Old Kingsway Building, a former department store that is now just a wide, open, walled space where Jamestown community members hold funerals and community gatherings and youth play football.
Bringing the community into planning
As Annan explains, artistic interventions like these always begin with the issue of access: “Who is willing to give you their building, if you would not pay them anything, for you to do a mural on it?” the FCA artists asked themselves, “and where [into which communities] do you go? It’s being able to negotiate all of that and ask, ‘How do we go about this?’”
Before any work begins, the artists would establish a dialogue with community residents who regularly use the space. “[It’s us] going into communities that we can have access to and asking questions and talking,” Annan says. “We say [to them], ‘Ok, this is what we are thinking of doing. Does this serve you? What would you like us to do?’”
Artists working on a mural at Jackson Park. (Photo credit: Foundation for Contemporary Art, Ghana).
Bringing art (for the public, by the public) into the public space
What FCA is talking about and trying to do isn’t entirely new, Annan admits. He points to the longstanding discourse on public art, but contrasts that conversation with the reality in Ghana. “When you come to Ghana, some of these things are relevant because these things are not present.”
“We have to look at different ways of doing public art,” Annan points out, highlighting that drawing from a multiplicity of perspectives – from the disciplines of art and culture, planning, environment, engineering, for instance – can enrich the result.
“It’s not just [about] putting an art piece in the middle of somewhere and then it becomes untouchable,” he says. “I think it’s also important to do certain things that communities can identify with.”
He gives the example of the statues and busts of past political figures around the city like Edward Akufo-Addo, J.B. Danquah, and Emmanuel Obetsebi Lamptey, each with their own roundabout named after them in Accra.
“Sometimes…[Ghanaians] even go around and they see some of these sculptures and they even ask, ‘Ah, who is this?’ Which means they even don’t know who they are.”
He contrasts this with his own vision for publicly accessible art: “Let’s say we could build a sculpture that could also serve as a seat where people can sit and read, or a bookcase where people can leave small books, and other people can come, pick up these books and read. Or you can build a sculpture that can serve as a makeshift store for someone to sell recharge cards or newspapers. These are some of the things that we are looking at: Creating [art] pieces that serve other purposes.”
Artists working on a sculptural installation. (Photo credit: Foundation for Contemporary Art, Ghana).
Headline image: FCA artists at work painting the mural at the community center of Akumajaye, located in Old Accra. (Photo credit: Foundation for Contemporary Art, Ghana).
Based in Accra, Ghana, Victoria Okoye is a community planner, urbanist and communications professional passionate about inserting community dialogue into the planning process. In her writings and research, she explores the dynamics of West African cities, the people in them, and how they negotiate their space. Victoria has masters degrees in Urban Planning and International Affairs from Columbia University, and has worked in Nigeria and Ghana on local economic development, cultural planning, urban transport-land use and water, sanitation and hygiene, as well as local community development projects. Connect with Victoria on her blog African Urbanism and on Twitter.
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