Big Interview: Chale Wote - Creating museum in the street

BY: Kobby Asmah
Mr Kobby Asmah (right), Editor of the Daily Graphic, exchanging contacts with Mantse Aryeequaye, Director of the festival after the interview. With them is Nii Aryetey Aryeh, the Head of Operations of the festival
Mr Kobby Asmah (right), Editor of the Daily Graphic, exchanging contacts with Mantse Aryeequaye, Director of the festival after the interview. With them is Nii Aryetey Aryeh, the Head of Operations of the festival

The Chale Wote Street Art Festival has become part of the arts, cultural and fashion scene of Accra. It started in 2011 and for the past 10 years, it has created a global platform for artists, lovers of art and the general public to come together to celebrate art. The festival has improved Ghana’s standing in the art world. The Editor of the Daily Graphic, Mr Kobby Asmah, had an exclusive interview with the originators and organisers of the festival - Mantse Aryeequaye, the Festival Director, and Nii Aryetey Aryeh, the Head of Operations of the Festival. The interview focused on the rationale and motivation behind the festival, the benefits for the country and some of the challenges facing the organisers.

Kobby Asmah(KA): Chale Wote has become a very popular festival that is patronised by thousands of people and sends the country into a frenzy. What is Chale Wote Street Festival all about?

Mantse Aryeequaye (MA): Chale Wote is simply a museum in the street. Art, as a cultural experience, for a long time, has not been accessible to many people. Art has been known as a thing for the elite. The idea of Chale Wote is, therefore, to free the art from exclusive spaces and make it accessible to everyone on the street. It is therefore an art experience for everyday people. It can be described as a community-based independent street festival.

KA: The name Chale Wote is very curious, why that name?

MA: Chale Wote is a Ga expression which means “my friend, let us go”. We settled on the name because it is a leveller. Everyone in Ghana has a relationship with Chale Wote, regardless of one’s standing. Chale Wote is also a unifier and a clarion call for people to be united for a purpose.

KA: What are the activities that take place during Chale Wote?

MA: It is a 10-day festival. The festival begins with a film laboratory that involves screening films from Ghana, the African continent and around the world, and sharing knowledge on film production. The last time we collaborated with NAFTI and taught people about post-production. Afterwards, there is Homowo. The festival is climaxed during the weekend where we have processions, art exhibitions, an art fair and musical concerts.

KA: Who are the brains behind Chale Wote?

MA: It was a crazy idea I had while I was at the Ghana Institute of Journalism in 2003. In my final year, I wanted to do my project work in a way that had not been done before. I attempted to hold an exhibition next to the Woodin shop, but it turned out that it was too expensive. Since then I became obsessed with creating work on the street. I put it into practice in 2010 when I organised a concert with an art exhibition. This was what turned into an art festival in 2011 which became known as Chale Wote. At the time, nobody understood how powerful it could be, nobody actually gave it a chance until 2014 when Aljazeera did a big story on it. It was after that that other media organisations started calling us for interviews.

KA: Has Chale Wote been replicated anywhere?

MA : It has inspired other artists around Africa, who are attempting to replicate what we are doing right here in Ghana. There have been similar festivals in Togo, Cote d’Ivoire and some parts of Eastern and Southern Africa. There has been experimentation with our module, but it has not been quite extensive and sustained. The good news is that Chale Wote continues to inspire people and the world.

KA: So far what has been the success story of Chale Wote?

MA: Chale Wote has shown the possibility of creating an art economy in Ghana. Now, there are more art galleries that are showing up, and more international investors investing in art. Ten years ago, it was a completely empty space. Chale Wote is able to put artists on the international stage and give visibility to those artists. Artists are also able to create portfolios with international businesses through the festival.

KA: Why must Ghana take the art economy seriously or focus more attention on it in view of the fact that there are other equally competing areas of importance that need urgent national attention?

MA: Statistics show that the art economy in Africa alone is around US$58 billion annually. That is money waiting for Ghana to participate in and take a cut. However, it is going into countries that have structured their art and cultural economies to be able to receive such cash flows. Countries such as Rwanda, Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya and those in North Africa are positioning their artists, producers, galleries and the whole art infrastructure to benefit from the lucrative art business. This is something that Ghana can do, and in the last 10 years, Chale Wote has shown that we can create the infrastructure to take advantage of this multi-billion dollar economy. What we need now is more investment so that we can bring some of this US$58 billion into this country.

KA: This is quite fascinating and yet how do we take advantage of this opportunity?

MA: Yes, art is a resource that can generate numerous opportunities. It is a renewable resource that does not destroy the environment, and it’s a sustainable economy.

Nii Aryetey Aryeh (NAA): To add to what he is saying, Chale Wote can be the magnet that can attract a whole industry around art and have a ripple effect on other sectors such as tourism, hospitality, education, and even the media.

KA: What sort of infrastructure does Ghana need to blossom the art economy?

MA: We need investment in training, art education, curatorial management, and business of art and how that can be translated into cash. We also need investment in the media. What is happening is that large portions of the media are unable to engage in the art space because they do not have the language for it. We can train many journalists on how to analyse, write and speak about art so that when people read about our art, they can centre it properly. It is important to involve the media; the media have not really been interested in art because we have built our news around sensation. Once we are able to fix some of these things, we can have a comprehensive analytical art space within the media so when people write about a subject, they know what they are writing about.
There is also not a large pool of specialised artists who are producing unique products. What is happening is that there is a replication of the same thing. Chale Wote has tried to put the work of artists out on the international market to enable them to make money.

KA: Chale Wote is 10 years. How was it like when you started?

NAA: We started in 2011, and at that time, it was just a handful of artists for just a day, and since then it has been growing from strength to strength.

KA: Ten years down the line, are you meeting the objectives of the festival?

MA: Largely, Chale Wote has been successful at making art accessible, creating an art economy and proving the possibility of a viable art business and also showing that the art industry can thrive. Our model works so there is a duplication of various forms of the festival, which shows that we are growing. Chale Wote has created many allied programmes, employing many people. We have shown that art can be profitable and sustainable if we can invest properly in it. Also, it has made art accessible to many people in Accra in a way that was not possible 10 years ago. It has been remarkable creating this cultural renaissance not just for Ghana, but for Africa as well.

KA: How do you fund this elaborate festival?

MA: Corporate funding is very thin, we mostly fund everything. We have had occasion to collaborate with some corporate organisations, but largely, we have been independent. The only time we got any kind of funding was in 2018 when the government supported the festival.

KA: Are corporate institutions not interested?

MA: Not at all, but they love to ambush the festival and milk it. I think these corporations do not see the value of art and understand how that economy operates, and its profitability. When we started, we did not have the legal muscle that we have now, so now when corporations ambush us, our lawyers will take the necessary legal action.

KA: Beyond the financial challenge, what other challenges are you grappling with?

MA: We use public spaces and therefore some of them can be contested. Spaces that did not mean anything will all of a sudden become a contested issue because someone wants to set up a bar for the festival. Also getting the state or city to help us has become a challenge. It is also a free festival which makes it very difficult to make money off it.

KA: How did you organise Chale Wote this year, amid COVID-19?

MA: Hmmm, it was not easy at all, it was financially draining. We made heavy investments, only for the city authorities to announce that it was going to be virtual. We had planned to organise a safe cultural festival for everyone, but the city authorities refused. We had a virtual version inside Ussher Fort, but the police still arrested us for that.

KA: You were arrested for organising a virtual festival?

MA: Yes, a virtual festival that we had permission to put together, but even with that one, it was broken up and we were arrested. This is not how you treat people who have raised the flag of Ghana. We never asked for any kind of special treatment, but what happened on August 21 this year was sad. It is not the handshake we should get after 10 years of creating so much joy for the city of Accra, Ghana and the African continent.

KA: Thank you