To the Western mind, "African Electronics," the theme of this year’s annual Chale Wote street art festival in Ghana’s capital, might conjure up images of social media revolutions, telecommunications giants, farmers using smartphones, or other "tech solutions" to development. Not for artist Serge Attukwei Clottey.
Attukwei, like most artists participating at Chale Wote, views African Electronics as a call for African empowerment, and celebration of the innovation and energy which has been flowing through the continent for centuries. This was ever present throughout a festival that saw examples of both traditional and contemporary art forms: from colorful wall murals to performance art, interactive installations to stand alone sculptures, traditional drummers to electronic music DJs.
Describing African Electronics as a "spiritual approach to individual power," Attukwei intertwined his take on African Electronics with the values of "Afrogallonism" for his performance at this year’s festival. A movement he started 15 years ago, Afrogallonism looks to a futurist Africa through the lens of the distinctive, usually yellow, gallon containers used by Ghanaians to carry water.
Attukwei is interested in the physicality of the gallons as they invade contemporary spaces where there is less and less use for them. Viewing them as symbolic of consumption and the creation of plastic waste, Attukwei's process involves cutting the gallon containers into pieces and stitching them with copper wire to create large installation pieces. As part of his African Electronics work, Attukwei again recycled gallons to make African-style masks; creating a traditional object with a manmade material. By doing so he depicts African Electronics as the traditional practices and inner power Africans use "to survive every single day."
Attukwei's performance art at Chale Wote aimed to challenge the powers taken away from his country during colonial times, and the resource plunder that continues today. He explains that using electronic motherboards and similar materials when making his costumes is representative of this, as so many electronic goods imported into Africa are actually made from the continent’s natural resources in the first place.
The choice of the streets of Jamestown as the venue of the festival is noteworthy here. Once known as "British Accra," it was home to the colonizers and hosted a number of events integral to Ghana’s history, including the imprisonment of the country’s independence leader, Kwame Nkrumah, at James Fort Prison.
Along with his 40-person-strong GoLokal performance collective from his home in Labadi, Accra, Attukwei walked through the streets of Jamestown displaying what African Electronics means to his community. Wearing gallon masks, traditional war garments with an electronic twist, and carrying out spiritual ceremonies, Attukwei embodied African empowerment as he made his way through the crowd.
Attukwei's words—and the festival as a whole—bring to mind a theory by Nigerian scholar Lawrence Ogbo Ugwuanyi called "Glo-fricanisation." Ugwuanyi views globalization and Westernization as synonymous, and calls for a globalization which not only takes into account African values, but actually adopts African ideals as global ideals. Attukwei doesn’t view globalization as inherently damaging for Africa, and he recognizes the importance of technological advances in making the lives of many people on the continent easier. But he does not see globalization as a solution to the challenges faced by Ghana and other African countries either.
For Attukwei and other artists participating at the festival, it’s clear the solution lies within the individual and communal power of Africans themselves. Events like Chale Wote present an opportunity for participants and onlookers alike to showcase this power and creativity as forces for change. And despite limited funding for visual arts in Ghana, Attukwei is confident art is "a powerful tool which will really help Africa, if Africa gives artists the platform to explore it."
Ghana’s pan-Africanist Independence hero Kwame Nkrumah once said, "We face neither East nor West; we face forward." Attukwei's art shows us an innovative, electronic Africa in charge of its own future—led by creative young Africans embracing the cultural and natural richness of their continent. And this isn’t just a futuristic view. It’s happening now, and has been happening for centuries. It just hasn’t yet been given the recognition it deserves.
Serge Attukwei Clottey will exhibit his performance installation, The Displaced, at Feuer Mesler gallery in Manhattan in October 2015.