Mantse Aryeequaye and Sionne Neely: Putting Accra on the international creative map

BY: Elikem Nutifafa Kuenyehia

Mantse Aryeequaye and Dr Sionne Neely are creative entrepreneurs who should, together, be treasured as a national institution.

As co-directors and co-founders of Chale Wote Street Art Festival, they have perhaps done more to celebrate and showcase grassroots Ghanaian artistic talent than any other person or institution in the last several years.

For a weekend in August each year, they manage to get the world’s attention to turn to Ghana for their Chare Wote festival, a colourful street arts festival which causes the streets of Jamestown in Accra to become filled with colourful paintings, graffiti murals, photography, interactive art installations, energetic performances, live music and dance by hundreds of artists and creatives from Ghana and several places outside of Ghana. 

It is now the largest street art festival of its kind in West Africa, and one of the largest on the whole continent. In the process, the festival has become an important part of the economy of Jamestown, reinvigorated many public spaces there, and given renewed energy to creative talent in Ghana.

This year, Chale Wote 2015, the fifth, drew over 20,000 people (including several hundred from all over the world) to Jamestown in search of artistic ecstasy. Another 12,000 or so followed on Twitter and Facebook. And thanks to the presence of the key international press, images and stories from the festival were reported to millions others.

This year, the international press represented include The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Africa is A Country, IndieWire, Mail & Guardian, Design Indaba, Fader, AfroPunk, Studio Africa, Dynamic Africa, Channel O and the Africa Channel.

Certainly no mean feat for a festival that only started in 2011 with an attendance of 400 people.

The roots for Chale Wote go back to 2009 when Aryeequaye, a filmmaker and producer, and Neely, a researcher and writer, started a monthly gathering for filmmakers, musicians, artists and other creative types in Accra. The objective of these meetings (later known as the Talk Party Series) was for the artists to discuss their work and the changes in Accra’s creative scene.

The Talk Party Series, quickly became an outlet for creatives to vent their frustrations and discontent at the repressive environment in which they had to work.

To help address some of the problems of the artists, Aryeequaye and Neely started ACCRA (dot) ALT in October 2010 to create a platform for the ignored emerging artist – and mainly the musician. Indie Fuse 2010, an independent music festival, provided a stage for the alternative music groups, long frustrated and unable to share their music.  This has now evolved into Sabolai Radio, which continues to thrive, supporting independent artistic spirit and talent.

Aryeequaye, who grew up in Accra recounts, “it was a music festival with an art market, stilt walkers, a fashion show and many other things. There was a lot going on, so in April 2011 during our Talk Party, I suggested that we set up a street art festival.” That suggestion, was the seed sown for what would become the Chale Wote Street Art Festival. For Neely, a Baptist Minister’s daughter, it was an opportunity to contribute to a cultural renaissance in Accra and a way to help provide professional opportunities for Ghanaian artists to sharpen their skills, showcase their work and earn liveable wages.

But it goes beyond that, she tells me: “Culture is a critical motor of sustainable development for the continent. Emerging artists provide a fresh lens on the state of Africa through film, music, fashion, design, and performing arts. We articulate an alternative vision of Africa by a creative and eclectic corps of young people.”

Almost four years later, the network has expanded into a year-round cultural outlet and a launch pad for African alternative music, video and art. Conscious of the growing global industry for African content, ACCRA [dot] ALT develops fresh content – photography projects, short films, music videos, merchandise, and commercial advertising. They also create original programming – music events, art shows, film screenings, live concerts, roundtables, workshops, tours, and festivals – in the heart of Accra city.

The pair are keen to stress that Chale Wote is simply not about art for art sake. Aryeequaye tells me “The economic potential for it is enormous, not just in tourist traffic but in domestic economic growth and development starting with Jamestown. The cultural capital within Jamestown alone is humongous; it could translate into millions of dollars.” By way of example he continues “In 2012 we started a walking tour programme; a settlement and a historical tour throughout Jamestown with six residents of Jamestown. As we speak there are over 20 tour guides. So just outside of the festival, even when the festival does not happen, it has created very tangible means of employment for the people of Jamestown”.