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‘You have to go with the flow in Accra.’
Gems in this
Photo>>>Na Chainkua Reindorf
Each time artist Na Chainkua Reindorf returns to her motherland of Ghana from her adopted home of Upstate New York, she reclaims the pieces so neatly woven into the fabric of her being, and that of her work.
Growing up with aesthete parents in a culture so rich and storied, Na Chainkua knew very early on that illuminating the human experience through visual and sensory arts was what she wanted to do. After a four-year delay, Na Chainkua returned to Accra in 2022, and the trip served as a significant reacquaintance — validating that Ghanaian culture is, for her, an eternal source of myth, mystery, and masterful creativity. We chat with Na Chainkua about creating away from home, and uncover her take on one of the most dynamic and resourceful cities in West Africa: Accra.
On your early exposure to creativity
I grew up in an art-loving family, so I would say I knew I wanted to be an artist pretty early on. My parents collected art before I was born, and our home was like the typical French salon, with all the walls covered in art. I saw art every single day of my life and was like, ‘I want to be in somebody else's home too.’ But that aside, my mother was also particularly interested in children's education, so she started a book and toy store. Because of that, I grew up with LEGOs and Crayola and lots of jigsaw puzzles and things. So there's this very particular part of me that was always trying to put things together. I think those two elements played a role in how I approach my art.
On your early career
There was a lot of anxiety and unknowns. I had a lot of false starts. I always had interactions with people from art galleries and the art world who would say they were really interested in my work, but then after having meetings and speaking with them, it wouldn’t work out. I particularly remember one of them saying, ‘You seem to be on the cusp of figuring out what it is that you want to do,’ and I remember being extremely upset about that. But I think, in hindsight, it was helpful because I had to sit down and think about where I wanted my career to go. Then soon after, I got my foot in the door and had my first solo show. I felt it solidifed fully what it was that I wanted to do with my practice, at least for 10 years or so.
On your approach
I think my approach does have to do with social and political concepts a little bit. Like being a woman in society, being Black, being African — trying to navigate the world. Or the politics of dress — deciding what you want to wear and how that changes the way you're perceived, or how that changes the way you behave in public. The whole idea of my latest work is that with masquerade, your identity is concealed and this allows you a certain type of freedom that you may not otherwise be able to explore.
On work that stayed with you
I did a lot of research for this recent work. It was during a time when I was thinking about what historical, strong, female characters who have come through West Africa were like. I've been reading this book called Amazons of Black Sparta by Stanley B Alpern, which is about female warriors who basically defended the King of Dahomey back in the 18th century. These women actually existed and were really terrifying. They almost took on the form of masculinity. They didn’t like the idea of having children or having to be domesticated. I sort of based my characters off these women. I took what I felt would work for what I wanted to do, but referenced things that actually existed: things that exist within religion and cosmology and from my own personal experience as well. It's like writing a book, but having to make artwork to support the book too!
On your relationship with Accra
I love being there because there's so much happening all the time, and people figuring out ways to make it all work. I like that a lot, how people try to be resourceful. There's an interesting parallel between my art practice and being in the city — there's a way of doing things over there. You can’t just come in and try to rush things. You have to go with the flow, slow yourself down to that pace. It’s a forced ritual in the beginning, and then you adjust to it, over time. Being patient is definitely important to feel sane in Accra.
On describing the city to an outsider
Accra is the metropolitan center of Ghana, it's the main city. So it’s one of the areas in Ghana where you see the huge disparity between people with a lot of money and people with not so much. It’s lots of traffic, lots of noise, lots of people shouting, but it also has a super intense amount of creativity and resourcefulness. For me it’s an interesting back and forth, I find it both challenging and fulfilling. There's a lot of chaos that happens in the city — both good and bad.
On getting lost in the market
Makola is this huge market where you can literally find anything and everything. It has different districts: an area that is just fabrics, and an area that is just electronics. But all the stalls are right next to each other and everyone wants you to come to theirs. It's super intense and you’re on high alert because there are a lot of people — bumping into people, people bumping into you — but I always notice it brings a sharpening of my senses. People from all walks of life are trying to sell stuff, find stuff; people from different countries are exploring. I always make a point of going every time I'm in Accra, at least once.
On checking out the local art scene
Regardless of where I am, if I'm traveling somewhere, the first thing I do is find out where the galleries and the museums are. I'm always interested in the art scene, the cultural scene, and where people are being creative. But I'm also super interested in architecture. So Nubuke Foundation in East Legon is the very first place I'll send anybody. Apart from the fact that it's a gallery and has interesting exhibitions, it's actually just a really cool building. It's very brutalist, with louver windows. There are no air-conditioning units, it's just naturally cooled by the air blowing through the building. They also have community projects where they have people come in and do performances or talks. There's always something happening there.
On a few more culture recommendations
Gallery 1957 is another contemporary art gallery. They have three spaces within the same vicinity so they can have three concurrent exhibitions running at the same time. Artists from a wide range of nationalities are exhibited and it’s a cool way to explore what's going on in Ghana art-wise. Independence Avenue and Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park & Mausoleum are, I would say, very distinct wonders of the city. If you’re a tourist in the city they are definitely two things that you want to see. They are very distinct in the way they look, but also show the history behind Ghana gaining independence. Kwame Nkrumah was our first president who fought for independence in 1957, which is also coincidentally why the gallery is called 1957.
On good coffee and great drinks
A place I recently discovered when I was last in Accra is a café called Jamestown Coffee Company. It’s a big converted warehouse that is now a café, bar and event space. I think they're all owned by the same people. They roast their coffee locally as well, so that's an added plus. But it just has a really calm, chill vibe — definitely a place where creatives would want to go and hang out, even if it's just to take your laptop and do some work. Another bar I like is called Republic, which is in Osu. It’s a really unassuming, small bar that spills out into the street in the evening. They have this famous drink with bissap, which is a hibiscus flower drink. I’ll go there just for that drink.
On where the locals hang out
For local-type fun, I think Osu in general is a great place to visit, especially at night. It’s where the nightlife is hopping. I like Bloom Bar, which is an open-plan outdoor area with lights that illuminate everything and everyone. They always play good music, so if you want to have a really fun night it's the place to go. A great place for local cuisine is Buka, which is also in Osu. It’s got really good food, a really cool atmosphere, and is just a nice place to get lunch and then go back to enjoying other activities in the city.
On wise notions from Ghanaian culture
Respect your elders. Listen to what they have to say about things. They have a unique perspective because they have, most likely, already lived through some version of what it is we are going through. There’s definitely a distinct difference in that over there: people in Ghana greet everybody with courtesy, respect and politeness, regardless of social background and age. There’s this element of back and forth happening. You never know who you’re going to meet, and you never know how this person is going to impact your life in the future or how you are maybe going to help each other.
On a window or an aisle seat
Definitely window. You know how you can set up an account with an airline and they ask you where you prefer sitting? I literally have ‘window seat’ checked every time. I'm always window, I need to be by the window.
On a song that best represents Accra for you
I would say 'Down Flat' by Kelvyn Boy. It is one of the most popular songs right now in the city. He is singing about a love he has fallen for and can't get out of his head, and interestingly enough, I find that the lyrics are reminiscent of the way people describe the pull Accra has on them. The melody is also heavily inspired by highlife: a musical genre originating in Ghana.
On Accra in one word
But chaotic in the good sense that there's stuff happening all the time. It can be really easy, as I mentioned, to be overwhelmed by what's happening, but there's also this element of people taking it in their stride. And once you figure out how they do it, it gets much easier to navigate working in the city, interacting with people in the city, and doing business in the city. The people are definitely tenacious!