ACCRA [dot] ALT’s Sionne Neely on Ghanaian emerging practice and their synonymous Chale Wote Street Art festival.
Each year the CHALE WOTE street art festival transforms old Accra into a live cultural museum, filled with the sights and sounds of multidisciplinary arts event. Launched in 2011, the 5th edition of the festival is taking place now from August 20–23, 2015 and its success is testament to the organisation behind its inception, ACCRA [dot] ALT.
Founded in 2010, by Mantse Aryeequaye and Sionne Neely, as an idea for a Ghanaian alternative music festival, the organisation has evolved into a dynamic and multifarious cultural institution. Consequently, the organisation now operates as a, “a cultural network that promotes the alternative work of young Ghanaian artists and emerging creatives across the globe and provides critical space for filmmakers, photographers, musicians, visual artists, designers, writers, academics, activists, and students to exhibit their work in imaginative ways.”
As a relatively new organisation on Ghana’s cultural landscape, ACCRA [dot] ALT’s impact has been instant. Already, their program of events consists of The Talk Party Series, a monthly creative discussion forum, Saboli Radio, an indie music festival and the Chale Wote art festival, the organisation’s crowning jewel. Not bad for 5 years work. But, they don’t intend to stop there.
That is perhaps because, at the heart of ACCRA [dot] ALT, exists a deep commitment to Ghana’s creative and cultural producers. Reiterating Bisi Silva’s sentiments in Nigeria, co-founder Sionne Neely believes that, “it is important that we provide a safe and creative space for these artists here in Ghana, for them to know that they always have a home here to produce their work freely.” This is because, despite ACCRA [dot] ALT’s success, access is still an issue, particularly, “access to information, mentorship, capacity building, as well as viable support structures via civil society, government and corporations to assist artists in Ghana,” says Neely.
However, as with so many of the artistic locales in Africa, it is institutions like ACCRA [dot] ALT, that are forced to bridge the gap. This is a challenge that they seem to–for the meantime–accept with open arms, while hoping that the government will eventually step up and help with support. It is this dynamic, although a direct consequence of a dire situation that has lead to a strong sense of pride in what ACCRA [dot] ALT is doing. “We each have the capacity to transform our communities into livable places for all,” says Mantse Aryeequaye. “The festival [Chale Wote] also interrogates old systems and ideas that need to die while also recognising the other side of the coin, how this can provide new opportunities, fresh ideas, different realities to take place.” In addition to organisations like ACCRA [dot] ALT having to fill the void, this situation has also meant that questions have been asked of the artists themselves, in particular about the way they are/will respond.
Therefore, in recognising the complexity of the current situation and in particular ADA’s contributions to Ghanaian culture alongside, ANO, the Nubuke foundation, and the Artists Alliance, we caught up with Sionne Neely, to find out more about the current Ghanaian artistic climate and ADA’s role in supporting emerging artistic practice.
Fatric Bewong’s “Plastic Beauty?” Procession @ CHALE WOTE 2014. Credit: Ghanyobi Mante.
Houghton Kinsman| To begin with, what is ACCRA [dot] ALT and how did it come about?
Sionne Neely | ACCRA [dot] ALT is an independent creative network that supports the work of alternative Accra-based artists and exchanges with emerging artists and cultural institutions worldwide. We provide a platform to support the work of Ghanaian artists, artists on the continent and the African diaspora. We started in October 2010 as an idea for a music event that December. That show ended up being not just a concert but also a fashion show and a film festival. From there, we continued producing events which eventually led to our annual programming calendar: CHALE WOTE street art festival (every August), Sabolai Radio music festival (every December) and the Talk Party series.
The Talk Party Series is a monthly gathering of creative folks who meet the last Friday of every month at different venues across the city. Here we screen an independent film, have a discussion about issues affecting social life in the country, a performer showcase featuring music talent, DJ set and mix and mingle session. Our first Talk Party was in June 2009 and it was a conversation with about 15 artist friends about how difficult it was to sustain a living in Ghana from our crafts. Mantse is a filmmaker and has been involved in every aspect of the media industry in Ghana over the last fifteen years from music production, radio, television, advertising and magazine production. I have an academic background (Ph.D. from the University of Southern California in American Studies and Ethnicity) and completed research on the music industry in post-Independence Ghana with over 250 interviews with folks involved in this field, over the last 10 years. So, ADA really came out of a deep passion to help stimulate an active arts industry and experience in Ghana. We both witness the many talented artists who live and work here but don’t have the exposure to get their art out.
More than anything, the Talk Party Series is a project generator – through discussions at this event we’ve launched CHALE WOTE and Sabolai Radio. We also do a street art ‘Strolling Goats’, we make short films and music videos for artists as well as DIY workshops for artists on branding, social media, art activism, copyright protection, licensing and professionalism. We also run alternative tours to Ghana for those eager to come and experience something new and different.
Having contributed quite significantly to what is happening-culturally-in Ghana right now, how would you describe the artistic climate?
Complex. It’s quite varied and emerging. There are a lot of energetic artists in Ghana who have amazing work to show the world. There are also a lot of artists who are enamored with Jay Z, Kim Kardashian, and more and aspire to live a celebrity lifestyle. Access is the issue. Access to information, mentorship, capacity building, as well as viable support structures via civil society, government and corporations to assist artists in Ghana.
The country, comprehensively, does not see value in nurturing the arts. There is a severe disconnect between the support given to highlife musicians, thespians and filmmakers during Dr. Kwame Nkrumah’s time and now. During the 1980s, art education was stripped from the national school system due to political crises of fuel and food security and there’s been no rectification of that measure. Additionally, there aren’t a lot of people who are sincerely invested in developing the arts industry or understanding the critical relationship arts can play in bolstering tourism and infrastructure for the country.
However, we are seeing more artists now thinking differently about how to push their work forward. Not waiting on sponsorship before they move but instead creatively collaborating with other artists to get music videos shot, photo shoots made, branding done. Artists are bartering with one another to get their needs met, crowdsourcing, working their creative hustles to put on their own concerts, films, spoken word shows, and exhibitions. Artists are also using the street – this free and public space – as the stage for some of these things to happen and as a way to engage the public head on. We love it and are definitely about the DIY life. It’s the only way we’ve found to keep rolling.
Winneba Skywalker @ CHALE WOTE 2012 and Flat Land Boys Biker Crew @ CHALE WOTE 2013. Credit: ACCRA [dot] ALT
With artists seemingly utilizing innovative and creative methods to meet their needs, as a cultural organization, how do you view the role of ADA in relation to emerging Ghanaian art/music/film?
We will be five years old this October. Through our programming, we’ve given a platform to emerging artists in many genres to share their work. Our domestic and international audiences are persistently expanding and it’s great when they can provide encouragement and constructive feedback to artists as this helps to continue developing their talents.
Artists such as Serge Attukwei Clottey, Bernard Akoi-Jackson, Ibrahim Mahama, Elisabeth Sutherland, DJ Juls, Efya, FOKN BOIS, Akosua Adoma Owusu, King Ayisoba, Tawiah, Blitz the Ambassador, Kae Sun, Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh, Fatric Bewong and so many more, have taken part in our programming and they are killing it. They are building national and transnational recognition–taking part in residencies and performing shows across the globe.
It is important that we provide a safe and creative space for these artists and more here in Ghana, for them to know that they always have a home here to produce their work freely. We are happy to support that process and to work with other organisations such as the Foundation for Contemporary Art-Ghana, Nima Muhinmanchi Art, Accra Theatre Workshop, Nubuke Foundation and the New Morning Café, among others, to amplify our efforts and make Accra an art-active city.
Simpol Tinz + Mutombo da Poet in Accra Central, 2014. Credit: Mantse Aryeequay
Furthermore, how readily available are institutions like ADA and Nubuke, for young artists to be able to access?
There are more organisations coming up every day which is great. However, we are few and far between. There’s so much that is needed to support artists in Ghana, in every way possible. Particularly since there has not been an infrastructure in place in nearly 50 years. We’ve found that coordinating our efforts on specific events like CHALE WOTE has helped with this a bit.
Finally, moving forward, what are some of these major challenges facing young emerging cultural practitioners in Ghana?
Where do we begin? First, Ghana is experiencing a critical energy crisis – daily over the last 8 months with a 24-hour light off, 10-12 hour light on rotation. It’s estimated that the country loses over USD2 million each day due to this crisis. It’s having a debilitating effect on everyone – particularly small scale businesses. People are being laid off left and right. Artists who are already struggling for recognition and a livable income, must now find a way to push forward with projects amidst these daily, spontaneous and persistent power fluctuations. So if you don’t have power at your place, you have to expend more money, time and energy to locate somewhere to conduct your business. Unfortunately, there seems to be no clear end in sight on this front.
Additionally, payola is an issue. To get on mainstream radio and television stations often requires that large sums of money be paid to DJs and presenters. Along with the plummeting of the cedi (Ghana’s currency) and rising fuel and food costs, this drives the price of the game way up.
We are also dealing with a historical lack of infrastructural support for Ghana’s artists. Access to information, resource people who can provide routes to quality production, promotion, distribution, and legal support are critical links missing in the value chain. This has created a great deal of isolation, where artists are working in silos without any substantial help in developing and expanding their artistry.
Hopefully, ACCRA [dot] ALT’s work has helped to reduce some of this. We look forward to connecting with more networks in Ghana, the continent and across the globe to help change this narrative.
eLady Jay sings @ IND!E FUSE 2013 (now Sabolai Radio). Credit: ACCRA [dot] ALT
Sionne Neely is the Co-founder and Co-Director of ACCRA [dot] ALT, an independent arts network that promotes the work of emerging Ghanaian creatives and collaborative projects with international artists. In 2010, she received a Ph.D. in American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California [U.S.]. Since 2005, she has completed more than 200 interviews with West African musicians and cultural producers.
She has also produced multiple short documentaries and music videos for Ghanaian artists. Sionne is passionate about providing a platform for African artists. Her work revolves around independent arts organizing, the rights of artists, the history of music production in postcolonial Ghana, and pan-African recollections about the transatlantic enslaved trade.
This article forms part of the series Next Chapter: Inquiries into emerging artistic practice