Chale Wote Street Art festival in James Town, Accra, Ghana
The Chale Wote Street Art Festival held in James Town, Accra, Ghana was celebrated once again this year. Its inaugural year was in 2011 but the festival has already become Africa’s foremost and most popular street art festival bringing street art, music, photography, dance, street performance and fashion onto the streets of James Town, Accra. The festival activities spread along the major arteries of James Town, from James Town’s famous lighthouse, Mantse Agbonaa which is the forecourts of the Royal James Town Chief’s or Mantse’s palace and along some of the town’s pavements and residential walls.
An independent film maker, Mantse Aryeequaye and Dr. Sionne Neely, a researcher and writer, both of co-founders of Accra [dot] Alt Radio, are the folks behind the Chale Wote Festival. The event is produced by Accra [dot] Alt Radio annually with support from a growing list of artists, performers and other organisations.
Not too long ago I visited James Town with a Greek friend of mine who had never been to Africa. Yes a Greek of all nationalities, the folks who gave the world Parthenon, the Acroplis museum and the Delphi Theater. No pressure then. Undaunted, I was keen on showing him the “real” Ghana or at least in my view what I saw as authentic, away from the scarily postmodern villas and hyper mansions of East Legon and its surroundings areas in the East of Accra, where I reside and where my friend spent most of his time. On that day our first port of call was to visit the Kane Kwei carpentry workshop in Teshie, a town a few miles away from James Town, where we hanged out with Eric Anang an internationally renown “arty”coffin coffin maker.
It was certainly fascinating to see coffins made in the likeness of airplanes, fruits and other objects.
We then got into a tro tro to make the journey to James Town where, drawing on the knowledge that had been passed down to me, I became an on the spot tour guide for my friend. I do, however, have ancestral links to James Town and was determined to show the town off like no one had ever done before! My Dad after all was born and grew up in James Town and so was his Dad and relatives before him.
Alongside it’s neighbor, Usher Town, James Town is the oldest “Europeanised” neighborhood in Accra. They became communities back in the 17th century under colonialism. Both towns are referred to more popularly as “Ga-Mashie” by the indigenous Ga people who mostly inhabit Accra. Once the center of old Accra, James town is now a somewhat overly populated area but boasts some of the most authentic historical relics of old Accra.
It is, therefore, a thing of immense pride to see so many Ghanaians and tourists turn up each year to celebrate and to take part in the Chale Wote street art festival. “Chale” in Ghana parlance by the way, as some of my Nigerian friends call me, is slang for “mate” in English cockney parlance or just “friend”. It is a term of endearment usually used amongst close friends. “Wote” simply means “Let’s Go” in the Ga language. “Chale Wote”, therefore, simply means “Mate, friend or buddy let’s go”
In the past year or so I have been blown away by street art in London and street art in Istanbul and other cities. To know that my own city, Accra is just as serious about punching above its weight in street art fills me with great joy.
But there is something else.
Something far more exciting than the art on show. That something is the people – young, mostly creative and hip influencers on social media clearly proud and excited to be associated with this festival and indeed James Town. These folks tend to reside in some of the plushest areas of Accra and attended some of the most expensive fee paying private schools in Ghana, however, for the duration of the Chale Wote festival James Town becomes their home too. The town becomes a potpourri and a melting pot of the haves and have-nots, the supremely creative and the conservative, the indigenous Ga and all others, Christians, Moslems and traditional worshippers, Ghanaians and tourists and white and black.
I’ve always lamented on the lack of patronage of “Ghana made” things – products, events or art by Ghanaians themselves. It is not unusual to hear about Ghanaian creative groups like the master drummers, “Kakatsitsi” make waves in some of the world’s most famous festivals like Glastonbury and yet be totally unknown in Ghana. This festival has changed my perception somewhat. There is light at the end of the tunnel and that light burns brighter with the current generation of well-travelled Ghanaians who have seen it all at the very least through the magic of the internet and perhaps are coming to the realisation that talent, compelling art, eye catching fashion and style, sumptuous street food, bold street art and jaw dropping street photography and music are not too far from our own door step! After all James Town and its neighbouring districts gave birth to Azonto, arguably the biggest dance craze the world has seen in the last 10 years.
Chale Wote Featured Artists
Poetra Asantewaa at the CHALE WOTE Street Art Festival at Brazil House and at Oblatsoobi Market
The Nima Muhinmanchi Art (NMA) collective at Chale Wote
Nana Ama Oforiatta
Writer, filmmaker, and ethnographer and founder of ANO.
Va-Bene Elikem Fiatsi (crazinisT artisT)
Exploring slavery themes and “African Electronics” at the Chale Wote festival.
A graduate of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology Ghana, in Painting and Sculpture at Chale Wote
If you are a street art festival junkie like I am and you will travel the world to see the latest in art and other festival activities or perhaps just an enthusiast then do keep Chale Wote in mind. Even though this festival has been held at different times of the year, it is now likely to be held a week after the traditional Homowo (August) celebrations in James Town (which in itself is a centuries-old cultural highlight of the people of James Town and Accra).
By Nii Thompson