Speak Magazine

Field Notes

The art of poverty

Photo: Carolyn Thompson

Artwork on display at the opening of L’Arte Café.

By: Carolyn Thompson

ACCRA, Ghana – In a working class neighbourhood where open sewers reek of feces and vendors sit on rickety stools selling fried plantains and sachet water into the night, there is a building entwined with vines and surrounded by sculptures.

The two-storied building is an oasis: a bright light in a place where things can sometimes seem very dim, says Nat Amarteifio, the former mayor of Accra and an art historian.

Photo: Carolyn Thompson

Former Accra Mayor Nat Amarteifio welcomes the guests as artist Larry Otoo looks on.

On Saturday evening, Amarteifio attended the opening of l’Arte Café in Bubuashie along with about 100 art lovers and high rollers of the Ghanaian capital city. It was an unusual crowd for the neighbourhood; so much so that five police officers were stationed on the streets prohibiting taxis and other traffic from travelling through.

Three pockets of Bubuashie are identified as slums by the Accra Metropolitan Assembly, the municipal government. There are no health facilities in the identified areas, despite Bubuashie being densely populated.

“This is a working class neighbourhood,” Amarteifio said, gesturing to the dark streets lit with oil lamps and candles.

A government report says the people living in Bubuashie are at a third-class income level. Residents make between GHC 99.12 to GHC 137.38 each month, the equivalent of about 50 to 70 Canadian dollars.

The community rarely makes the news, unless flooding threatens homes or the government preaches its commitment to improving the lack of infrastructure.

“Life is grim around here. Life is grim,” Amarteifio said. “Things are expensive, and there is very little assurance of accessing the good things of life.”

The former mayor of Accra said as the city has grown toward the north, it ran the risk of expanding so quickly that crucial elements of a community – such as its art – would be forgotten.

“If you look at the garden here and look at the beautiful furniture there, it’s just an example that things can get better to the community,” he said. “I believe that there is something about beauty of life – it moves us.”

Photo: Carolyn Thompson

Sculptures grace the garden of L’Arte Café in Bubuashie.

L’Arte Café was situated deliberately in the Bubuashie community with the goal of making art accessible, said Sarah Osborne, the owner of the establishment.

Osborne said the café is located in a home that used to belong to Constance Swaniker’s grandmother. Swaniker, a sculptor and artist, has been running an art business from the home for two years. Community members have already been involved with programs and internships with Swaniker.

“For her Bubuashie is central Accra; it’s where you get a real sense of Ghanaian spirit, and that’s what’s so great about it. You’re driving around and you would never expect that there would be something like L’Arte Café in the middle of that area,” Osborne said.

Osborne said opening a café over the weekends will allow even more interaction with the community.

“What we really want to do is to create a cultural hub where art, fashion, and music can thrive, and where it’s a space really where you can escape reality and immerse yourself with creativity,” she said. “We don’t believe anything like that exists in Accra at the moment. That’s what we’re passionate about creating.”

Ghanaian painter Larry Otoo, whose work was featured at the opening, said the country is lacking places for artists to showcase their work despite the acknowledgement that art plays a crucial role in society.

Photo: Carolyn Thompson

A sculpture at the opening of L’Arte Café.

“Finding a place to exhibit is actually a problem in this country,” he said, adding that accessibility for the general public is crucial. Otoo has been pushing for a national gallery to house Ghanaian works such as his – what he has dubbed “contemporary traditional.”

“The artist has the creative mind to produce those things we can relate to,” he said. “By getting artists involved in such social activities, it helps. It helps to bring society together, it helps to bring something useful to society.”

Otoo, a former social worker, said everyone – no matter their societal role – has a right to access beautiful art.

“I believe as a human being we all have esthetic feelings,” he said. “We all deserve to have something that is beautiful. Something we can relate to.”

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