Chicago’s twenty-sixth annual African Festival of the Arts (AFA) is taking place this Labor Day weekend in Washington Park. The AFA, one of the oldest and largest diaspora festivals in America, will convert the park into a “simulated African village” featuring art, music, food and entertainment.
The AFA is a chief program for the Africa International House, a center that aims to inform audiences about the individual and shared contributions of African cultures. This mission reflects Patrick Saingbey Woodtor’s intent when he began the AFA decades ago, which was to connect his African homeland to his current home in the United States, says Patricia Andrews-Keenan, director of media relations for African Festival of the Arts. “It is a perfect blending of cultures,” she adds.
This year’s AFA Artist of the Year award recipient, Nii Oti, reflects Woodtor’s strides. Oti, who passed away in 2014, followed a similar pursuit as Woodtor, but in reverse. Originally from the South Side of Chicago, Oti yearned for an “African experience,” as Andrews-Keenan puts it, of “being an African-American artist.” Following his desire to discover his heritage and culture, Oti moved his family to Ghana in the 1970s, where he taught art and studied with many renowned artists in Ghana, Nigeria and throughout the Ivory Coast before eventually returning to Chicago. Despite the different paths, both Woodtor and Oti achieved a similar outcome of “creating links between two continents,” says Andrews-Keenan. The AFA hopes to fulfill this goal each year. “Our country is made up of all these different diasporas that have come here,” she observes. “We want people to have a sampling of that—a feel for what it is like to be a part of the culture…and never have to leave Chicago.”
To make this vision a reality, the AFA offers a bevy of activities. Among the many options, visitors can attend the “Drum Village” to experience and understand African traditions in music and culture. Alongside a host of drum-based events, master drummers Olu Shakoor and Baba Tyehimba Mtu are leading drumming sessions. The fine art program at the Fine Arts Pavilion is another notable aspect of the AFA. Woodrow Nash, Stacy Brown and Frank Frazier are a few of the many artists displaying artwork of various media, including oils, watercolors and charcoals, among many others. There are many activities geared toward children, including music, dance, storytelling, games and crafts.
This year’s musical entertainment is organized by themes with multiple performers scheduled for each theme. “Chicago Steppin’” performers take the stage on Friday night; followed by “African Beats” on Saturday; “Chicago’s Best” on Sunday; and “Soul Fest” rounds out the event on Monday evening. As Andrews-Keenan explains, “The whole purpose of the event is to bring the African culture to people in this country.” (Amy Haddad)
The African Festival of the Arts runs September 4 through 7 in Washington Park. More information is available on the Africa International House’s website: aihusa.org/african-festival.
Elliot J. Reichert is a Chicago-based curator, critic, and editor. He is a currently Curator of Contemporary Art at the Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana Unversity, and Hatch Projects Curatorial Resident at the Chicago Artist Coalition. Formerly, he was Art Editor of Newcity and Assistant Curator at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University. His writing has been published in The Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of Visual Culture, and Newcity.