A mural at the Chale Wote Art Festival photo by Paula Akugizibwe

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Art at the Center of the World: A Guide to the Chale Wote Festival

More than art for art’s sake in Ghana.

The Chale Wote Street Art Festival springs up every August in Jamestown, Ghana. Organized by alternative arts collective Accra [dot] Alt, it offers a weeklong immersion in visual art, music, literature, dance, theater, workshops, extreme sports, and much more. The festival has grown from an initial crowd of several hundred people at its launch in 2011 to over 30,000 in 2016, while remaining free to the public and creating a home for free spirits.

This is not art for art’s sake. African liberation is the undertone that vibrates through the eclectic sights and sounds of the festival.

Each year’s festival is curated around a different theme that Accra [dot] Alt issues in its annual call for artists. This is not art for art’s sake. African liberation is the undertone that vibrates through the eclectic sights and sounds of the festival. Over the past few years, Chale Wote has brought together hundreds of artists from Ghana and around the world to build a “blueprint for plugging into indigenous technologies to create the impossible and open up new spaces of social consciousness,” as explained by Accra [dot] Alt in its 2017 call for submissions.

A sight from Chale Wote.
photo by Paula Akugizbwe

I first attended Chale Wote in 2014, traveling solo from my home country of Rwanda to a location near the center of the world—located in the Atlantic Ocean at 0˚ latitude and 0˚ longitude, with Ghana the closest land. I fully expected to be lost in a sea of art; I did not anticipate the overwhelming wave of energy that would engulf me as soon as I stepped into Jamestown, a down-to-earth seaside community that once housed slave-trading forts.

The 2014 theme of death and rebirth featured over 200 artists, including a procession by Paa Joe, Ghana’s celebrated fantasy coffin maker. In various exhibitions at the festival, objects that would otherwise be discarded as trash had been repurposed into exquisite fashion and furniture. As day gave way to night, the streets lit up with the boisterous beauty of thousands of people caught up in what felt like a different block party every 20 meters. I was left overstimulated by the magic of it all.

The spirit of Chale Wote is one of belonging and celebrating past, present, and future manifestations of African freedom.

In 2015, Chale Wote expanded to include the LABS, two additional days set in beautiful gardens before the weekend’s street festivities that offered an intimate setting for film screenings and conversations. I became an active participant, co-organizing a session in the LABS together with Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah, who runs the feminist blog Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women. In 2016, the festival grew to a seven-day extravaganza, with exhibitions and events across Accra. I danced with Afro-Brazilian drummers, performed poetry on a street corner, and stole moments of quiet in a fishing boat by the sea. The theme, Spirit Robot, celebrated the power of the creative spirit in the face of restrictive systems that people of African descent all over the world are forced to navigate on a daily basis.

A painting at Chale Wote Art Festival.
photo by Paula Akugizibwe

This conversation continues with the theme Wata Mata, which unfolds from August 14–20, 2017.  Accra [dot] Alt describes Wata Mata as a “creator’s manifesto . . . an all-access dream machine . . . that reanimates our bodies against coerced amnesias about who we are and what we are capable of manifesting.” The purpose is not just to remember and reflect, but to regenerate knowledge and power. The 2017 festival will include a special procession to honor the enslaved Africans who passed through Jamestown’s forts.

For the first time, Accra [dot] Alt is also offering an extended 12-day festival package to enhance the experience of visitors traveling to Ghana for Chale Wote. While the festival itself is free, this package offers convenient deals on accommodation and meals, guided tours through Accra’s hot spots and traditional ceremonies that happen the week before Chale Wote, and behind-the-scenes mixers with artists and creatives.

Whether you want to absorb mind-bending art, make new friends, shop the fashion market, step up to an open mic, take incredible selfies, gorge on Ghanaian cuisine, or simply party, there is something here for everyone. The spirit of Chale Wote is one of belonging and celebrating past, present, and future manifestations of African freedom. It’s no surprise that these streets at the center of the world now feel like home.

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