Meeting the Change Maker Painters: Street Messages in Accra, Ghana
By Claire Tunnacliffe, on 20 April 2016
The first experience of a city is a disorientating introduction of smells, sound, temperature and touch. It is primarily sensorial. Before you can get your bearings, your body reacts, attunes, listens, smells, and looks.
I’ve been fascinated about the use of the wall as a tool for communication and transformation, and while I’ve known from previous visits to Accra that there were messages inscribed on the walls, I had never paid close enough attention to them, the walls passing by in a whir of taxi windows, going from place A to B. This time it would be about following the surfaces, not about the destination but the in between.
Accra’s visual landscape is dominated by signage; Ghanaians express and shape their culture through this, as common as the informal flows that dominate the city. Signs stating ‘Do Not Urinate Here’, ‘Post No Bills’ sit alongside adverts for Indomie, Glo and Juvita. School walls are decorated with children playing and learning. Billboards advertise religious services, skin care and weight loss. In and amongst this, businesses paint the front of their shop with illustrations of their services and products.
On Accra’s main roads in and around the city, messages become slightly more political, more patriotic. On November 7th 2016, Ghana will have another election, and the surfaces along the streets are covered in posters for party leaders and tags. Ghana is a multi-party system but either the National Democratic Congress or the New Patriotic Party largely dominates it, with any other party finding it difficult to achieve electoral success. However, along these main roads is the repetitive scrawl: #GHANAGOESGREEN #TOTALSUPPORT #NEWREGISTERSTOVOTE or SAVE GHANA. A retort to the current election process and another party, the Convention People’s Party, a socialist political party based on the ideas of the first President of Ghana Kwame Nkrumah. After a bit of digging online, I learn that #ghanagoesgreen isn’t based on green party politics, but rather for Ivor Greenstreet, a candidate standing for Presidential Election in 2016.
These hash-tags straddle two existences between public space and cyber space, a tactic used by political parties, musicians and other businesses. While many people do have phones, what part of the demographic accesses the Internet? Do these tags predominantly exist online or offline?
I met Larry, who co-founded Nima: Muhinmanchi Art (NMA), a grassroots organisation that provides art workshops to youth, beautifying communities through public art and promoting urban renewal through culture. Larry tells me how he sees mural paintings as an opportunity to transform everyday spaces, empowering local communities and how it’s a powerful tool to changing the perception of Nima. Nima, is a dense, vibrant and ethnically diverse residential area in Accra, made popular by a large market. It is a stigmatized area, external perceptions have created prejudice and cultural barriers to the rest of the city, and as a result, it has become a city within a city – with its own authorities, rules and policing, undergoing its own development, driven and enforced by its inhabitants.
Larry is passionate about the power of art as transformative, calling the artists in NMA the Change Maker Painters. I ask him about the mural making process and he explains that it begins with a visibility study, to identify a surface that has the most footfall followed by a conversation with the community; including chiefs, the wall owner and households in the immediate vicinity. He presents what he has noticed about the area or what other people have raised with him – the murals act as a vehicle to talk about issues; child labour, waste, and politics. The murals, are subjects of conversation before, during and after their production, with people stopping to talk and ask questions, and share their own experiences. He tells me about a mural that the NMA did after Accra was devastated by a flood and explosion in 2015 that saw the loss of 150 lives. They decided to paint a mural along Kanda Highway to stress the importance of waste management, one of the main causes found for the flood that had blocked drainage systems. As a result, people clean their drains outside their homes and in their community more frequently than when they are just blocked, creating more preventative methods of avoiding another flood.
I meet with Rufai Zakari, an artist, in his studio in Nima, and I ask him why he has made the transition to murals, “Art contributes to positive change. But also introduces something African into the street art scene. My community, which I promised to help with my profession, needs this. I am a child of that community and I use art to change the perception of it, but also to fight for my country and continent”. In March 2015, he set up with other street artists GrafArt GH, a group of young artists from Ghana with the aim of using art to address issues facing the African continent & also to promote Ghanaian art & culture to the rest of the world. Rufai explains that to him, art is a multidimensional tool, to change peoples view of the area, to beautify, but also as a platform for change and awareness raising.
Art movements in these contexts are therefore less about the individual, about the money, than they are about the collective, the community, so that everyone grows and learns together. These Change Maker Painters, see themselves occupying two roles, one within their own communities, painting the inner bellies of the walls and communal courtyards to address very localised problems, but also more widely in the streets of Accra, drawing attention to who they are, to changing the perception of their community, to showing Ghanaians and the world their art.
Accra is a creative and dynamic city, its visual landscape a thick tapestry of politics, social, environmental and economic messages. From the religious billboards that dominate much of the main roads, to the upcoming elections, the hash-tags that flicker past moving vehicles, to the Ghanaian flag which is bold and colourful, to the murals in communities and the art festivals in the streets of Accra more widely. There are therefore many ways in which street messages are communicated to the city and its inhabitants, orchestrated by individuals, communities, businesses, artists and politicians. While their intent and agency may vary, the wall is a space for appropriation, discussion and transformation, and as one artist pointed out to me as, “if there are no walls, we will build the wall, to share our message”.
Many thanks to NMA for opening up their studios and selves to my questions – and personally to Larry, Musah, Rufai and Kamal. I extend also a big thank you to Samoa, for taking me on a tour of Jamestown, exploring the route of Chale Wote. Thank you to Victoria Okoye from African Urbanism, for the contacts, resources & tilapia.
Claire is a DPU MSc Environment & Sustainable Development Alumni. Since graduating in 2012, she continues to research the role of urban street art in re-naturing urban imaginations and experiences. She is a PhD student at the Bartlett School of Architecture exploring street messages in West African urbanism. However, her interests are interdisciplinary; community engagement, urban street art, public interest design, sustainable development, town planning, creative cities, art psychotherapy, mental health, the psychodynamics of public spaces, and their impact on place making in the city. All images taken by Claire Tunnacliffe.