Accra’s Chale Wote Art Festival is West Africa’s largest annual street art and performance art festival. For the past 8 years, it has grown from a small local event to a global platform attracting an audience of about 50,000 people.
Founded in 2011, the festival began as a one-day event in the streets of Jamestown, the city’s oldest district. It was founded by artists who wanted to give new meaning to some colonial-era buildings that define the area — particularly, the 17th century British James Fort and the Dutch Ussher Fort.
This year marks the fair’s largest edition to date, with over 160 Ghana-based and international artists exhibiting their work across 10 sites, during an 11-day program.
A platform for change
Performance art has always played an important role in the festival, and this year more than ever before, with a dedicated week-long programme.
For this edition, performances at Chale Wote were curated in collaboration with Ghanaian artist Va-Bene Elikem K. Fiatsi, also knows as crazinisTartisT, a self-described gender-nonconforming multidisciplinary artist and director of the perforcraZe International Artists Residency (piAR) in Kumasi.
“It is really hard, especially in Ghana, for unconventional art practitioners like my kind to display some provocative works in public or use certain spaces for their works,” explained Fiatsi in an interview at Chale Wote. According to Fiatsi, being included in an art festival setting creates an opportunity: “It gives the freedom to express, explore, exploit and discover their own limitations and possibilities.”
Fiatsi’s collaboration with John Herman, titled “Table of Negotiation” was one of the most popular performances this year and, at four hours’ running time, also the longest performance in the festival lineup.
In the piece, both artists were bound in chains and suspended above the audience in a monumental replication of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Vitruvian Man drawing. Exploring notions of masculinity — Herman’s body is labeled as disabled due to an amputated leg, and Fiatsi is gender non-conforming — they pushed their bodies to their limits in a tug-of-war of sorts.
Individual forms of activism and artistic demonstrations for social change are not unusual during the festival. As Fafa MacAuley, Digital Publicity Coordinator for Chale Wote Art Festival explained in an interview at the festival, “Chale Wote was founded in 2011 by Accra[dot]Alt’s as an experimental platform for bringing art, music, dance and performance out of the galleries and into the local Ghanian community.” She continued: “It has always been a space for artists to freely express ideas that challenge the status quo, as well as offer a variety of art forms to push boundaries and connect to a wide-ranging audience.”
Other themes, such as violence against women, pain and marginalized bodies were also explored in performances that were both deeply moving and hard to watch.
In an entranced state punctuated by wails and screams, Cameroonian artist Kayifa began her performance “The memories of the body” outside of Ussher Fort on Cleland Road.
Kayifa’s work is autobiographical. During her piece, the audience followed her into a purpose-built healing circle for a two-hour long performance exploring domestic violence, rape and other forms of oppression directed toward female bodies. It culminated in a deeply moving scene, with the artist, exhausted and wearing her underwear on her face, inviting audience members into an embrace.
“My performances deal with domestic violence, rape, child trafficking, and other forms of female oppression,” said Kayifa. “Chale Wote provides an audience across ages and social class, and its important to use this as a platform for my fight and others.”
Growth of a festival
Once a small artist-led festival with experimental beginnings, Chale Wote is now an established tourist attraction. The festival relies on volunteers and offers no funding to participating artists, but it now attracts thousands of visitors each year. At the same time, the nature of the performances on display has also firmed up its position as a transgressive platform.
Fiatsi defines Chale Wote as “One of the most important spaces and platforms that merge art, locals, natives and internationals.”
Since its inception, Chale Wote has conquered much attention outside of its country of origin, which makes this year’s theme, “Pidgin Imaginarium,” as relevant as ever. It was described in the festival’s brochure as a response to “A continent on the precipice of a major shift, that will completely reset how Africans engage the rest of the world.”