Accra’s Creative Scene: Building a Locally-Driven Cultural Capital

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It is an exciting moment to be in the city of Accra.

Local artists and members of the Foundation for Contemporary Art, Ghana partnered with the Akumajaye community in Ga Mashie to paint a community seating area.

For some time now, there has been a locally driven, independent creative movement manifesting itself through the arts, culture and music. While still under the radar for more mainstream publics, artists and other creative minds are at work, plugging away in collaboration or independently with the goal to transform and define the city of Accra into their creative, cultural space. From an urban planning perspective, what’s particularly interesting is that this movement is happening independently. That said, there are those organizing, planning and documenting these actions to transform them from a possibility to a reality.

(Some of the) Major Players on Accra’s Creative Scene

At varying levels of action and intervention, organizations are lending their efforts toward pushing forth space for creativity. The Accra Cultural Mapping Project, a locally devised initiative aimed at documenting the city’s cultural and historic sites, is working to create an interactive, online map showcasing the city’s cultural gems. This is a first step in transforming today’s somewhat disorganized, but vibrant arts and culture scene into a recognizable, documented and publicly accessible one. By documenting the city’s various creative, cultural and historical assets, this project provides irrefutable evidence as to the city’s existing creative potential. With outside funding from UNESCO and the United Cities and Local Governments organization in Spain, the project team is working with communities and community leaders to identify both the more apparent and also the more undervalued sites and spaces in Accra, and to include them in a integrative map that can be used by tourists locally and abroad and Ghanaians inside and outside of Accra to explore the city’s cultural history and presence. The result will be a map that showcases not just Accra’s already recognized tourist sites (e.g., the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum, where the country’s first president is buried), but also include spaces such as the Akumajay Community Park Mural, a public space in Ga Mashie painted by a group of local artists.

One of the most aggressive efforts promoting the city’s alternative and independent creative culture is Accra[dot]ALT, a youth-centered unit intent on exploring and spotlighting Accra’s artistic talent. The organization serves as a network bridging Ghana’s creatives based locally and globally, from those working in photography to filmmaking, music, academia and everything imaginative in between. In just the past couple of years, Accra[dot]ALT has already been a major force behind such noteworthy events as the Chale Wote Street Art Festival, a one-day street fair that transformed the Accra’s historic Jamestown district into an artist’s canvas for local youth and wider Accra’s artists (see my previous post on the Chale Wote Street Art Festival), and the indie:FUSE music festival, which brought together a wide spectrum of independent artists for a live concert. The team launched the inaugural indie:FUSE event last year, and is currently planning this year’s concert, set for December 17th.

Wall graffiti as community art at the Chale Wote Street Art Festival.

At the same time, there are efforts by local actors to organize artists and promote their recognition and works through more formal channels. The Foundation for Contemporary Art, an NGO created with the purpose of supporting and promoting contemporary Ghanaian artists in the creative network, is another force for promoting new forms of art. The NGO promotes the art of its members through exhibitions and the creation of a member artist directory. The organization also aims to create a space for the artistic critique of Ghanaian society: FCA’s October 2011 exhibition “Cultures in Confluence”aims to address the modern understanding of Ghanaian identity through all forms of expressive art.
The Nubuke Foundation, a cultural and arts center promoting art through art exhibitions, poetry and drama, music, and film shows, is home to Ehalakasa, an effort to bring together musicians and spoken word artists on a regular basis to share their talent and hone their craft in a supporting environment.

The media also plays a critical role in the discussion and promotion of creativity. Dust Magazine, new magazine focusing on reporting on, discussing and promoting all forms of creativity in the city through a free, quarterly magazine, represents just one of a handful of efforts to develop a media that is art-sensitive and supportive of this growing creative industry.

Signs of Future Potential

Perhaps it is events such as Chale Wote in particular that best demonstrate the potential for success when the city’s cultural organizations collaborate in a coordinated, focused effort to bring art to the streets. The festival was sited in Jamestown, the indigenous home to the Ga (traditionally a fishing community). Local youths worked alongside more established artists to paint murals on the walls of the Old Kingsway Building, bike stunt artists performed for crowds and Ussher Fort, a former prison where Kwame Nkrumah and other then-revolutionaries were held, was converted into an exhibition stage for art paying homage to the community’s fishing tradition (among many other exciting events). Even Jamestown’s main thoroughfare itself was decorated with art forms, from street graffiti to a giant mosquito created out of used bottles and jerrycans. While this street art festival was masterminded by one particular organization (Accra[dotALT), the success of promoting cross-collaboration between the city’s artists provides the strongest statement for the potential of the artistic movement in the city. In addition, it made particular use of city space – from the pedestrian walkways to the roads, from inside the buildings to their very walls, all the time making art accessible, viewable, and most of all appreciable for the public.

For the Chale Wote Street Festival, local youths teamed up with local artists to transform the dilapidated Old Kingsway Building into a series of murals, using the buildings walls as a canvas for community art. The street festival took place in Jamestown.

An exciting aspect of this movement is the city and community-wide benefits that are ultimately possible as a net result of these actions. For example, the potential for tourism development, by developing an underdeveloped industry in the city of Accra (attracting crowds to Accra, rather than the tourist-crazy places of Mole, or Cape Coast or Elmina) is huge. There’s also the possibility of diversifying the city’s economy within these lines, and when this tourism and its economic gains are made to trickle down into the communities where they are taking place (e.g., Ga Mashie), the potential for sustainable, local wealth creation. Additionally, there’s the amazing potential for the city of Accra to define itself as a city based upon its own standards, and to challenge preconceptions outsiders may have. Rather than just being the capital of the Gold Coast, Accra can be the capital of Africa, or West Africa’s creative movement. The point: this creative industry has the potential to be one that ultimately benefits citizens and indigenes of Accra alike, if it can be planned and promoted well.
Challenges to Sustainability

These numerous efforts are not without challenges. One of the key challenges facing the creative sector is the lack of sustainable sources of government and financial support. In other cities, the government often serves as a major sponsor and supporter for the creative industry, from planning for the creation, management and use of open spaces for particular activities, such as concerts, festivals and street fairs, to developing business-oriented policies to attract artists to the city and providing the incubating support necessary to ensure that arts organizations start up and flourish. One example of such efforts is by the city government of Johannesburg, who in addition to developing a creative city policy agenda, also provides the necessary financial and institutional support to achieve it. In Accra however, despite the government’s lip service, much of this would-be support is nonexistent.

“When you walk around the city [of Accra], just by the way the city is laid out, the traffic situation and how people interact with spaces, you can immediately tell how the city is run, and you can tell how the government views spaces and art,” says Mantse Aryeequaye, film producer, member of the Accra[dot]ALT leadership duo and a Ghanaian born and raised in Accra. “There is a critical lack of imagination in the city’s approach to art.”

Another major related issue is funding. For lack of government support, artists and organizations must rely on themselves, private companies and international organizations for the funding necessary to operate their initiatives. While this setup may work in the short term, funding from these organizations, however helpful to artistic promotion, is almost always founded on sponsoring organizations’ particular agendas (such as supporting artistic initiatives in line with corporate policies or cultural program promotion aims). This dynamic leads to a number of critical questions, chief among them being the influence that such organizations now have on the arts industry – by directly or indirectly determining which types of art and in which forms are deemed worthy of promotion, and by in turn making it more and more challenging for alternative, progressive and otherwise non-mainstream art forms to get equal play. It also means that artists are forced to devote less time to their art and more time to the necessities of funding it.

Another issue is in finding the physical space to display and communicate art. Private art galleries have become increasingly popular in commercializing art, but few designated spaces exist for displaying art for the good of the public. Even the government-supported National Museum suffers from lack of space; the institution is forced to hold more than 20,000 pieces of its collection in archives instead of displaying the art for audiences.

Moving Forward

Despite the above and other challenges, local artists, as they always have, continue to think imaginatively about not only their art, but also how and where to promote their industry. And the initiatives highlighted here spotlight only a few of a wide wave of actions taking place in this West African City. People are excited, people are working and creating, with or without government support – and the results continue to be exceptionally inspirational.

  • I remember seeing a sign that read “art is our culture.” I was in a car and did not get a picture of it. If you or anyone sees that sign in Accra, could you please send me a photo of it? all I remember is that is was somewhere by the sea, in a small market type of area.