A thread that runs through all creative mediums from fashion to architecture to cinema is that cultural icons of the bygone days can be fertile inspiration for the contemporary creative imagination. It was in this spirit that Ghanaian-American filmmaker Akosua Adoma Owusu wrote and directed her short film, Kwaku Ananse. Starring rising talent Jojo Abot, palm wine legend Koo Nimo and film veteran Grace Omaboe, the film is a reimagining of the classic Ghanaian tale of the spider. Supported by the Africa First film program, Kwaku Ananse went on to win an African Movie Academy Award and screened this year at the Durban and Toronto International film festivals.
Akosua’s current project is also a reimagining of sorts. This time, she hopes to add social relevance to Ghana’s iconic Rex Cinema house. Once a central element of entertainment in Accra, the Rex has fallen into disrepair and is at risk of being sold. The idea is to transform the now dormant structure into a vibrant multimedia artspace in the middle of Accra. To bring about this transformation, Akosua has started a kickstarter campaign called “Damn the Man, Save the Rex”. If funded, the campaign plans to renovate the building as well as install new projection and sound systems, creating a meeting place for members of Ghana’s growing arts community to showcase their talents.
The project will only be funded if it reaches its target by November 15th. If you want to contribute, click here to visit the campaign’s kickstarter page. Read our interview with Akosua below to learn more about the project and find out who her favorite classic and contemporary Ghanaian artists are. But first, the campaign’s trailer:
What inspired you to revive the Rex Cinema?
After winning the Africa Movie Academy Award for Ghana earlier this year, I wanted a place to premiere Kwaku Ananse, which was about preserving a Ghanaian cultural fable. I wanted to simulate the experience of listening to stories outdoors by a fireside, but couldn’t find a venue that worked. I was always fascinated by Ghana’s creative cultural spaces, specifically our cinema houses – which have long been inactive. Eventually, Alliance Française and Insitut Français premiered my short film at outdoor events at their venues. Following those successful events, I decided it was time to revive Ghana’s cultural spaces and use them to promote emerging Ghanaian artists and alternative cultural production.
What led to the Rex Cinema falling into disrepair?
There are a lot of reasons why The Rex is falling into disrepair – everything from politics to lack of resources and interest. The Rex Cinema is just one of many cinema houses that are deteriorating. Ghana’s cinema culture flourished during its independence days. The first president, Kwame Nkrumah, envisioned using the arts to promote our culture to the world and built many cultural institutions including West Africa’s largest movie production house, and Ghana’s film school NAFTI. As Ghana began to compete internationally in video and television production, it became less of a cinema culture and more of a television culture. Today, the needs of Ghanaian creatives are not being met. As a result, we are losing our cultural landmarks and unique creative expressions.
What kinds of activities do you envision for the space once it’s renovated?
I envision using the Rex to screen work from Africa and the African Diaspora, and to create relevant public programs. I intend to borrow ideas from one of my favorite theorists, Paul Gilroy, and foster a radical transnational dialogue between Africans and Africans in the diaspora. Resurrecting the Rex Cinema is part of a larger vision to stimulate a creative culture that appreciates Ghanaian perspectives and stories in the context of contemporary Ghanaian society. Someone recently suggested that I feature FELA! The Musical at the Rex. I’m also interested in exchanging cultural programming with youth in Harlem and street kids in Ghana.
How do you plan to ensure the art space is maintained for years to come?
Since launching the Save the Rex initiative, I heard from several potential investors who shared their concerns about sustainability. Though my concern is about the immediate needs of the Ghanaian art scene, I plan to curate monthly cultural events that will help sustain the Rex and our creative culture. I believe the only way we can grow as artists is if we collaborate, and I look forward to collaborating with my creative peers and the various institutions that have supported me in the past, like CalArts in California and the Studio Museum in Harlem in New York. I believe the Rex Cinema can be a great space, where Ghanaians can screen their films, rehearse for concerts and simply hang out. I also want to help develop a movie-watching subculture.
What are some examples of classic Ghanaian cinema and theatre that you admire?
Examples of classic Ghanaian cinema that I admire are “I Told You So” (1970) and Kwaw Ansah’s “Love Brewed in the African Pot”. Few people know that I reached out to him as a potential producer for Kwaku Ananse, because I knew the kind of film I wanted to make. It made me so happy when people who viewed the trailer told me it reminded them of his films. As for theater, I would have to say Efua Sutherland’s “The Marriage of Anansewaa” is a very successful piece of classic Ghanaian theater that I read for inspiration while researching Kwaku Ananse. Sutherland’s play inspired me to take a traditional oral story and translate it into a playful cinematic art form.
What are the most exciting elements of the contemporary cinema/arts scene in Ghana?
Many of my close friends in Accra are musicians, and there is an openness in their collaboration. Africans and Africans in the diaspora are also collaborating – coming together to inspire and create with each other. Some of the most exciting events of the contemporary arts scene in Ghana are the Chale Wote Street Art Festival in Jamestown, Accra and IndieFuse – a music festival. Both are organized by Accra dot Alt. And, then there is Ehalakasa poetry slam, which showcases the best up-and-coming poets like Mutombo the Poet, Nana Asaase, and Jahwai. I want to help foster a new wave of Ghanaian experimental filmmakers who promote Ghanaian creative culture in innovative ways. If I can use my knowledge to inspire other Ghanaian creatives, I would love contribute to their creative experience. The Rex Cinema could be the mecca for African artists to unite.