Inside a warehouse, away from the honking tro-tros (commuter minibuses) and cars travelling past Accra’s sports stadium, preparations are underway for the opening of ANO, an arts hub. Light floods into the foyer through three huge windows.
It’s currently bare, save for a burgundy Persian rug beneath a glass display table, but when it opens on 4 March, two days before Ghana marks 60 years of independence, ANO will become a home for the country’s creatives and artists.
Its first exhibition, Accra: Portraits of a City (until 1 April) charts the capital’s history from its colonial roots to busy metropolis through photographs, drawings, sculptures and installations.
Art historian and film-maker Nana Oforiatta-Ayim founded ANO (named after the Akan language word for old woman, who is “the first human being and origin of all things”) in 2002 as a cultural research institute. She says the new space comes as Accra’s arts scene is experiencing a renaissance: “The exhibition is going to help us look at who we are in this city, in this country, at this point in time. Our generation is out of the post-colonial phase and we’re now reacting to the colonial. I’m obsessed with the idea of revolution – be it cultural, social or political – and the idea of writers and artists sitting in a room and dreaming up what a new reality might look like. I really feel we’re in that moment.”
That spirit of putting heads together to create opportunities has come to define the entrepreneurial flair of Accra’s young creatives. Ghana doesn’t have an arts council and external funding is hard to secure. Studio rents are expensive, so artists are adopting public spaces as an alternative outlet.
It’s a contrast to the early 1960s when the post-independence arts scene thrived under prime minister Dr Kwame Nkrumah’s government. Budding architects and artists were given grants to train and support their output. Artists such as El Anatsui, Kofi Setordji and photographers James Barnor and Felicia Abban, regarded as Ghana’s first female professional photographer, helped lay the foundation for the country’s fertile contemporary arts scene.
However, by 1966, up-and-coming artists were struggling. A weak currency and fall in the price of cocoa, the chief agricultural export, led to Nkrumah being ousted. This triggered a cycle of military coups and economic unrest. But Ghana has since stabilised and a generation of young artists are now publicising their work on Instagram, Etsy and SoundCloud.
Among the bright young things is Ibrahim Mahama, who uses coal sacks as canvases in his exploration of supply-and-demand conditions at African markets. Ghanaian visual artists Zohra Opoku and “Afrogallonism” creator Serge Attukwei Clottey are crafting new narratives around west African traditions, gender and identity through textiles and photography. Gallery 1957, in Accra’s Kempinski Hotel, which hosted Clottey’s latest showcase, is a recent opening, while the Nubuke Foundation in East Legon, a leafy neighbourhood just south of the University of Ghana, and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, in the southern suburb of Cantonments, curate exhibitions and host workshops and panel discussions.
At the Nubuke Foundation, performance artists Elisabeth Efua Sutherland and Emilia Pinamang Asiedu collaborate with professionals and passionate amateurs who train outside of their nine-to-five jobs. The pair started the Accra Theatre Workshop in summer 2013 as a place to create experimental work. Sutherland says: “I feel validated when I’ve chased someone down and told them, ‘I know you’re a pharmacist but you’re really good at this, please consider it’.” Both are working with a doctor on a performance based on the brachial plexus (a network of nerves that control movement in the arm). “It’s bizarre but gorgeous. We’ll look to show that later this year.” She adds that she’s “scaling up” and hopes to secure a new studio soon: “We have our own projector, lights and sound so that eases some financial pressure on the shows. There’s freedom in being broke because you push yourself in ways you didn’t think were possible.”
My first visit to my parents’ homeland in December 1991, aged four, is among my earliest memories. My early childhood is synonymous with playing by the banana trees outside the family home, chasing goats and chickens and running amok with my cousin Paa Kojo. There were huge family parties soundtracked by energetic highlife music. Tables groaned under the weight of jollof rice and fried fish and family members dressed in their Kente finery would playfully mock our broken, British-inflected Fante. We continued to visit well into my teens [I last visited aged 15 in August 2002].
Ghana retains the smells and sounds I remember from my childhood but Accra has changed. As tourist numbers increase, foreign developers have moved in and updated former shabby suburbs. I took a walk through Osu, a lively neighbourhood in downtown Accra. It’s teeming with new shops, sports bars and plush lounges. Lebanese, Italian and Chinese restaurants have been opened to cater for expats and visitors. But to counter this, the art crowd is carving out an alternative scene.
On both sides of Lokko Road there are brightly-painted kiosks and detached buildings painted orange, pink and shades of blue. Near the new ANO space is Elle Lokko, a women’s concept fashion store that stocks African designers. It’s an offshoot of Lokko’08, a T-shirt shop across the road. I walk past barbershops, tailors and metal containers selling household bits and bobs. Roadside traders sell peeled oranges, peanuts and smoked plantain chunks wrapped in newspaper as cars speed by draped in the red, white and blue flag of the New Patriotic Party, which swept to power on 7 December.
Vendors preside over large pots of piping hot soup and banku (corn and cassava dough) and a stew called palaver sauce (cocoyam leaves fried in palm oil with crushed pumpkin seeds, garlic, onions, tomatoes and pepper). I make a beeline for a stall selling bofrot (Ghanaian doughnuts), a childhood favourite, before heading east towards the Labadi district in the 30C heat. I stop for a juice at Tea Baa, a cosy hangout where patrons tuck into spare ribs and sip iced tea, and I’m surrounded by people working on laptops or catching up with friends over drinks.
After dark, the creative crowd tends to skip Osu’s crowded bars in favour of Alliance Française d’Accra to dance to highlife. Another favourite is bar/restaurant/music venue Neem Grill, which hosts electro house parties.
Events curated by ACCRA [dot] ALT[sic] have proved popular with those interested in the arts. This multi-disciplinary collective began in 2010 as a “response to state neglect and lack of cultural production infrastructure” and has been instrumental in bringing together the city’s artistic talent. Every August its Chale Wote festival draws 10,000 people to Jamestown, a historic fishing village dotted with dilapidated colonial architecture. Last year saw 200 artists interpret the Spirit Robot theme through performances, graffiti murals and photo exhibitions. The crew brought the streets to a standstill with block parties, fashion shows and art installations.
The collective’s base at Brazil House in Jamestown has become a home for creatives to network and collaborate. “Accra is on its way to becoming the cultural hub of west Africa,” says co-founder Mantse Aryeequaye. “Dozens of artists are creating projects that are affecting the economies of large communities. And as Accra becomes a destination for art collectors, more artists are able to live off their work as they build this new creative economy.”