Arts + Culture

Ghanaian-American Artist Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh Tells a Tale of Liberty and Theft with 'BLUE STEAL'

In conversation with Ghanaian-American artist, Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh on his multimedia exhibition, "BLUE STEAL."

It’s mid-morning on a Friday, where multidisciplinary artist Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh, known to many as “AK,” is frantically looking for legal parking, because we all know the parking signs in Williamsburg, Brooklyn are enemies of progress. He’s also one of the frontmen of Dragons of Zynth alongside his twin brother, Aku—the indie band gained critical acclaim from the likes of TV on the Radio in the early 2000s.

He walks down the sidewalk to the OkayAfrica offices wearing a headband made of blue and golden yellow patterned wax print around his head, with an off-white bomber jacket trimmed with blue on the cuffs. This was the one moment where I could get a look at his eyes, for he put his black rimmed, opaque sunglasses on as he sat in our naturally lit office before we began our conversation on his new exhibition in Okay Space.

On Tuesday, May 2, Orraca-Tetteh shares with us BLUE STEAL, a multimedia exhibition of new works drawn from a chapter of his existential narrative, The Birth of Tiro, where he intersects his performative and studio practices introducing a futurist tale of liberty and theft.

Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh. Photo by Dex R. Jones.

“My artistic background is informed and influenced by experientiality and both in study and practice of performance,” he says.

Presented by Okay Space and in collaboration with Black Swan Projekt, BLUE STEAL is a glimpse of Orraca-Tetteh’s exploration into the “psycho-surrealities” of American digital consciousness via visual representations that make you feel you’re in virtual reality, illuminated by neon lights.

With a background in mythology, philosophy and technology, he’s attracted to the points at which ancestral, cultural and digital memories collide, enter and abstract the social organization of post-modern visual language. His character, Tiro, is his existential realm where he could fully engage his artistic insight.

BLUE STEAL runs until June 1. Take a look at our conversation with Orraca-Tetteh, where we dig deeper into BLUE STEAL, his thoughts on Afrofuturism and more below.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Antoinette Isama for OkayAfrica: Who is Tiro and how were you able to develop the character? 

Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh: By the time I was finishing my thesis in art school I came upon the realization that to really embrace oneself and the assent of what it means to live an artist's life. I think I was around 21 years old when I fell into an existential performance piece where I was inhabiting a lot of the inherent qualities within us that we aspire to. What I mean by that is, a lot of times we find we have strengths, characteristics about us and we're also very much aware of our vulnerabilities and weaknesses.

Tiro was a nickname of mine from childhood that my father gave me. Mr. T was one of the first icons that I really took to because he represented power, but he also represented a very fun kindred spirit. He's very much about waking up the children to the idea of how they can represent themselves. So Tiro, that's his original name, became a nickname for me and then gradually when I fell more into the realm of character, almost in the sense of the way that (I'm an 80s baby) Crazy Legs calls himself "Crazy Legs." At the time of embodying this character, then it became very much about what aspects of the character, what are the attributes, what's the origin story. At the time I was creating the origin story, so I had the opportunity to create my own wardrobe so to speak. So thinking a lot of in the lines of representations of identity and power, having a very profound understanding of my growth as a Ghanaian person and an American.

I'd been wearing a lot of black and silver at the time, so those became the adoptive colors representing two of the key profound bases for the character's creation. In thinking about the color of black representationally in regards to how we think of power; or the idea of silver in the way we think of electricity, [the way] we think of metal, the way we think of natural elements.

I took on the full embrace of this character and maybe about a week before graduation I met director David O. Russell. He was giving a talk and at the time, when you take such liberal choices, existential choices, you take on the persona of another idea. You become free to engage with the world, whereas you might not otherwise. So he gave a Q&A [and] in full character, I'm not sure to what effect I made a joke, I think I might have broached I guess you'd say, what would be considered to be "church language."

I think I brought to light some more subversive tendencies with it as well. The whole room kind of erupted into some kind of laughter. You know when you're in a room with a bunch of people and somebody makes a joke and tension kind of breaks? His assistant came up to me after the talk and essentially invited me to come out to Hollywood and work with him; reading scripts and doing coverage. Being in full character at the time and not really retreating back into my normal existence I went out to Hollywood as Tiro. What I found from that experience was that it was very intriguing, but I perhaps felt that the concept or the narrative embodiment of what the story could be was better served perhaps through other means.

"Blue Steal." Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh. Photo courtesy of Okay Space.

What is a main takeaway you want for people to get from BLUE STEAL?

In a lot of ways, I would love to consider it as by means of giving. If there's something I could potentially give to anyone coming to the show, in clear recognition of the kind of toxic times that we're living in, I would definitely want them to be present to existing realities that we all share. Perhaps a means of engaging with both the deep, inner turmoils that maybe don't have the opportunity to be collectivized in public spaces.

When I think of BLUE STEAL as kind of a clearing call, I think of the two words paring themselves in the way that we consider say, blue, as a concept of liberty, our concept of freedom, our concept of the earth, or purity as in pure water. And steal, as in the theft of those things, representation and considering that everyone's idea of liberty might be different than the other's. Thereby, complicating the relationship between theft and liberty.

For example, whose president is yours, whose president is mine, whose president is ours—within the context of feeling as though one's belief systems have been robbed from them. Whereas, other people might be cemented in their foundations by these same belief systems. I'm really kind of hoping to give people a glimpse into the ways in which those of the Diaspora, those of African descent, especially in America, those who have existed for decades even with a very very sharp eye and spiritual awakening to the complexities of American life.

Definitely now, there seems to be a more blanket awakening and “wokeness” among peoples of all different types. In thinking about the future, and I think it was the artist Marilyn Minter who said, and I'm paraphrasing, that those who have the heart that is most beaten down are the most free to engage with the new world. So in a lot of ways I feel like collectively America has been a beaten heart. Now we're entering a space where we can potentially wake up after a sundown—in the ways that art can light some of those cataclysmic experiences. I feel BLUE STEAL lends itself to that in some way I hope.

"Whitewater Weekend." Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh. Photo courtesy of Okay Space.

Would you consider your work to exist in the Afrofuturist space?

In the context of Africa being the cradle of civilization, one could then argue that existentially the present time and always moving forward is in direct correlation to what we consider to be a starting point—the hub that is the continent of Africa.

When I think of the idea of Afrofuturism, I would naturally tend to believe that we're just generally talking about futurism as a whole. Sometimes I tend to struggle with the term, but I think that the term definitely has power for recognizing the non-monolithic status of the black intellectual thought, of black excellence, of black life. So in that way, I'm definitely a strong proponent of the concept.

I would be more drawn to a term that could reflect the ways in which people of the Diaspora are responding to evolving from existing within the complex nature of Western life or life within digital culture, generally speaking.

Who do you create Tiro and BLUE STEAL for?

When I think of Tiro, the character, and of BLUE STEAL, my show, both in its narrative and visual forms, I think of the brilliant young minds of a 9-year-old from anywhere. He could be from Ghana, he could be from Jamaica, he could be from Japan. But the idea of little boy, little girl, or they, are sitting in their room. Maybe they have a vision of the world that they want to live. Whether it's they want to become a doctor, whether they want to become the best engineer, maybe they want to be a football player, maybe they want to be a superhero, or maybe they just want to have the characteristics of being great.

I'm employing tools that I've gained to really share this kind of idea of what a mythical life can be as created by one’s own inspirations. I see that 9-year-old child who one day wants to grow up and be a mega director of action movies and create his own 3-D animations and virtual reality and share his story with the world. I want to exemplify that for other people, for young people especially, so that they won't be afraid of really using whatever tools that they have.

"Ziggy Starter." Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh. Photo courtesy of Okay Space.

Take a look at the chapter, BLUE STEAL, below:

Blue Steal, as many would later come to find out, was the psychoactive substance of The Resistance, secretly planted among many to distort visions of truth. With the power to suspend time, conceal actions, and move oceans, ne'er were there more a vessel of its far reach. The imbalance of the world was at full tilt and many were in despair. With much at stake it was then up to a few to gather, uncloak, honor and emulate the true harmonic power underlying Blue Steal's viral grasp.

Tiro lifted the vitrine to grab his helmet, syncing this new intel with his visor inputs.

"The Ultramericans will have to convene," he said. "Lawrence, pull up the registry and call Mr. Keats.”

"John? Yes, right away sir."

As Tiro's trusted assistant located the poet's quant files, our hero began to write a poem of his own.

“Oh the Ultramericans

Bent by the seams

Of light and true wonder

So oft unseen

Barely is moonlight

Brighter than thee

Lest not we shutter

Whose name yet screams,

"No door, no dinner

No fight, no lunch

No floor, no filter

No life, no punch"

Oh the Ultramericans

sent by the dreams

Of night and blue thunder

too woven to steal.”

"Lawrence, what do you think? Is it good?", Tiro uttered.

"Well Sir, as you have said repeatedly since we met it is not a matter of bad or good, but how hard we refine.

"Yes, that is word Lawrence, you will do well here. Now. Please. Ask John before we speak what he thinks of the election."

"He's online and is already responding sir. He says he's written a poem about the election--he wants you to read it."

Tiro put his helmet on wiggling for a comfortable fit.

"Very well..."


In a drear-nighted December,

Too happy, happy tree,

Thy branches ne'er remember

Their green felicity:

The north cannot undo them,

With a sleety whistle through them;

Nor frozen thawings glue them

From budding at the prime.

In a drear-nighted December,

Too happy, happy brook,

Thy bubblings ne'er remember

Apollo's summer look;

But with a sweet forgetting,

They stay their crystal fretting,

Never, never petting

About the frozen time.

Ah! would 'twere so with many

A gentle girl and boy!

But were there ever any

Writhed not at passed joy?

To know the change and feel it,

When there is none to heal it,

Nor numbed sense to steal it,

Was never said in rhyme.

John Keats


This Is What Rotimi's 'Walk With Me' EP Listening Party Looked Like

The Nigerian singer held an intimate listening party on the eve of the release of his new EP, 'Walk With Me,' at Brooklyn's Okay Space.

Walk With Me, Rotimi's new and highly anticipated EP, dropped Friday—giving us a seven-track peek into who the singer and actor truly is sonically.

The night before, the Nigerian-American crooner gathered over 100 tastemakers and day-one supporters to Brooklyn's Okay Space—the shared gallery space between Okayplayer and OkayAfrica—for an intimate listening party celebrating the release, as well as his music video for "Love Riddim" which also dropped this week.

The night was simply a vibe—folks enjoyed libations and bites from The Suya Guy, with sounds by DJ Tunez. Rotimi opened the gathering up with a thoughtful prayer, with the music video reveal to follow. The singer then walked the audience through each track from Walk With Me, opening up about the creative process of how each track came to life.

Following, Rotimi engaged in an even more in-depth Q+A session with OkayAfrica's arts and culture editor, Antoinette Isama, where he touched on his experience touring with Wizkid back in 2011, his thoughts on the continued rise in popularity afrobeats is having in mainstream music, his hopes for the future and more. Tunez then ran the EP back when the party ensued, as the project is full of tracks that are worthy of being on repeat.

Listen to Walk With Me below, and be sure to take a look at photos from the listening party by Nerdscarf Photography.

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CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 16: Director Ladj Ly and Almamy Kanoute attend the photocall for "Les Miserables" during the 72nd annual Cannes Film Festival on May 16, 2019 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

How To Survive Cannes Film Festival As a Black Filmmaker

A film festival is intense by nature, but Cannes is a whirlwind.

Cannes Film Festival is one of the world's most prestigious gatherings bringing celebrities, filmmakers and actors claiming to celebrate the world's best film. Although the festival is way behind Sundance or the London Film Festival regarding diversity efforts, it remains the place to be if you're a filmmaker—especially a Black one.

I, myself, am a Black French filmmaker who was invited to Cannes as part of their scheme for young film lovers—3 Days in Cannes—open to anyone between the ages of 18 and 28. The scheme, which launched in 2018, requires young hopefuls to write a cover letter showing their passion for film. It ultimately gives young people the opportunity to discover the international selection of films showed at Cannes.

READ: Black Women Are the Future of French Cinema—When Will Cannes Catch Up?

Being in Cannes for the first time was a wonderful experience, but it can be tough to navigate as a Black filmmaker if you're not prepared for it. So, here are top tips.

1) Don't be a person of color—especially if you're Black (Just kidding. But still.)

Cannes is a beautiful, posh city in the south of France. It is part of the Provence Alpes Côte d'Azur, an administrative region where the far right party Rassemblement National (formally known as the National Front) hits record-breaking highs. Despite the fact that the festival is incredibly international, at times it can feel pretty racist, like a sunny, idyllic version of 1960s Alabama, where a party of more than one Black person gets routinely rejected from some clubs/bars/restaurants. On top of that, the staff and some of the security working at the festival can be incredibly aggressive and rude to you and in French. If you don't understand it, it's even more confusing.

To avoid it, try to stick to the official Cannes parties, or hang out in international hotels like the Miramar or the Radisson Blu Hotel—which are used to an international crowd. You can also stick to parties at the various country pavilions near the Film Market.

2) Stick to the African Pavilion

At the festival, most countries have their own pavilion. But because the festival believes Africa is a country, all 54 countries are gathered in one pavilion. This pavilion also includes the Caribbean, since Jamaica, as life would have it, is also an African country. In the African Pavilion, there was even talk on how to submit films if you're a filmmaker of Indian descent (despite the fact that India had its own pavilion).

You're not African? That's okay, no one cares. Pan-Africanism is still alive, I guess? Thankfully, out of the many pavilions, I did find the African Pavilion was the best one the most welcoming and whose schedule was the most open and clear. Because Cannes is such an exclusive festival, most of the parties and talks won't be communicated outside of those who are supposed to attend.

The African Pavilion, however, requires you to sign up to their newsletter. You then access their app where you can see the schedule, the talks to attend and the party they planned. The only downside is that they were understaffed, so some talks and events were cancelled last minute and with limited communication.

If you're a Black French filmmaker, speaking English is a must to get the most out of the pavilion. If you're an English-speaking filmmaker, try to make friends or meet people who speak French, as some of the talks/discussions might not have professional interpreters.

Also, go to the events organized by diversity in Cannes. Now, if you're a Black filmmaker who would rather not stay in the community for fear of being pigeonholed? Unless you're part of a talent scheme run by the festival...good luck getting others to support you.

3) Be ready to WAIT to see films and to party

On average, I waited 1 hour 40 minutes for each film I wanted to see in the official selection program. And I purposely chose not to see the famous ones like the Pedro Almodóvar or Quintin Tarantino's films. I also waited almost two hours to see a film from the Un certain regard selection and didn't get in—despite my pass. Now, Un certain regard has the most highly sought after films, even more so than the Competition, because they tend to select the best among indie international films. To get in for sure, you need a "Un certain regard" pass, so they need to invite you themselves. Even if you have a ticket at the counter, you might not get in unless you wait two hours (standing) or choose to attend the early screening or the late ones (and still, you should be ready to wait 1 hour for these).

You need a pass AND a ticket to see the films from the official selection and walk the red carpet up to the Grand Théatre Debussy. For the ACID, Director's fortnight, Semaine de la critique, and the Official selection's films not shown on the red carpet, you just need a pass—and to be ready to queue for at least 45 minutes.

I wouldn't recommend getting the Cannes cinephile pass as it has a low priority. I saw people waiting 2 hours to see a film and not getting in, while people with professional Black passes arriving 10 minutes before the screening walking past them. Because the Cannes festival is for professionals, they have, unfortunately, priority over members of the public.

Now, with the parties at Cannes, word on the street is that they are not as legendary as they used to be. Even if you get invited to one, you still need to wait an hour. It's not because they are over capacity, but rather they feel the need to pretend that they are. Unless you're a VVIP. And if you're one, why are you reading my article?

Anyway, despite not being as glamorous as they used to be, they remain so exclusive that if your name is not on the list, you might need to sell your first born to attend.

Thankfully, you can avoid it by being smart. When I arrived in Cannes, I was dead set on going to parties to network. Since almost all of them are invite only, I went to the parties at the pavilions, like the UK one, the American one (which costs 20 euros because Americans are always about their money) and the African Pavilion—that were kind enough to facilitate networking by introducing me to fellow filmmakers. God knows how talking to strangers and building new relationships can be difficult, and they made it easier.

4) Make friends with distributors or people working for the Mayor's office

The whole point of the festival is to sell films. Tickets are sparse for most people, so some badge holders wear their Sunday Best and stand outside the grand theater, holding signs asking for tickets. It makes sense that distributors are incredibly powerful, since they have the power to buy and sell films internationally. They are given way too many tickets that should be given to people waiting for hours outside.

So, if you make friends with distributors, they will always have a handful of spare tickets, even for the big ones that everyone wants to see. They also have tickets for the big parties as well. Press badge holders also have priority since they are responsible for a film good or bad media coverage. So they have a handful of tickets too.

People working for the Mayor's office also have tickets because they work closely together since the festival brings so much revenue to the city. Make friends with them, as well as film students and you'll get tickets. Don't know where to find them? Social media is your friend.

There is also another way to get tickets to films: the staff. For example, I couldn't get tickets to see Mati Diop's Atlantiques. I walked to the ticket counter and saw a Black woman with a great hairstyle. My instinct KNEW I had to tag along. I asked her if she needed help. She was looking for the same tickets. We asked someone at the ticket office if they could help. They said they had nothing. But one of the staff members saw us and said she could try to help us. She came back with two tickets and that's how I got to see the film. I got lucky and was cunning. So be nice with the staff, they can help.

5) Be ready for anything

A film festival is intense by nature, but Cannes is a whirlwind. Since you're spending so much time waiting and walking from venues to venues, you won't have time to eat unless you bring food you've made before hand. You're not allowed to eat inside the theaters and if you walk the red carpet, you food is thrown out beforehand. You can try buying food and drinks in the morning and finish it by the time you walk the red carpet. I'd advise buying it at a supermarket like the pricey Monoprix. Or the nearby McDonald's. It's cheap, warm, almost always open and a great way to socialize! Young filmmakers, as well as those from Britain and the States will come to McDonald's to eat since it's one of the places they know best. Why not strike up a convo there?

Also, don't forget your power bank. Your phone will get out of battery for sure, especially if you post content on social media.

Finally, despite its reputation, the festival is incredibly badly organized. You will be told that your badge is not allowed to watch films at other selections, or you would be given the wrong directions and will be lost in the croisette on your way to see an obscure film.

Chill, be ready to walk and use Google Maps. And enjoy!


Julie Adenuga: "There Are Young Artists In Nigeria Who Are Changing the World"

In an exclusive interview, the Beats 1 radio presenter opens up about her Nigerian heritage, documenting Homecoming in Lagos, and London being an important hub for afro-fusion sounds.

Julie Adenuga sits at the intersection of two continents.

As an affable tastemaker who transforms banal interviews into engaging conversations with some of the most famous artists in the world, Julie is leading the global dialogue on new music from her daily radio show, which broadcasts to over 100 countries.

The North London native of Nigerian descent hails from a musical family, her brothers are artists Skepta and JME, and has risen from the underground as a self-taught presenter on former pirate radio station Rinse FM to being one of three lead DJ's with her Beats 1 show on Apple Music.

A champion of homegrown talent in the UK and across the African diaspora, Julie is a purveyor of the afro-fusion genre, as is evident in her recent Homecoming documentary, which captured the fresh innovators from the Lagos music scene, and her DON't @ ME club nights, which has featured Ghetts, Lady Leshurr and The Compozers as residents.

Chosen as one of OkayAfrica's 100 Women celebrating extraordinary women from Africa and the diaspora, we speak with the presenter and broadcaster on owning her Nigerian identity, the responsibility of spreading afrobeats and why London is a key location for the genre.

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