Swaths of vendors displaying art, brightly colored clothing and sculptures covered Washington Park on Monday, as the sounds of drumming filled the air on day three of the African Festival of the Arts.
Now in its 34th year and back after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, the festival is the nation’s largest Labor Day celebration of the global African diaspora, with more than 200 vendors, organizers say. Its purpose, founder Patrick Woodtor says, is to showcase African culture and allow Black people in America to feel a connection to their roots.
“People think it’s just a grand party,” Woodtor says. “But it’s not, it has a grand impact.”
Festival-goers who come to enjoy the music, art and food have even met at the African Festival of the Arts, and gotten married.
Artists from across the country, and from around Africa, display their art in dozens of stalls throughout the park. Later in the evening, musical acts take the stage.
For the past four decades, Woodtor has dedicated his life to nurturing the festival to become what it is today.
Violence and military coups in Liberia led to Woodtor and his wife moving back to New Orleans. To make ends meet while his wife finished up her doctoral degree, he began showcasing and selling works of art he collected over the years in Africa. Street selling turned into stores, and that eventually morphed into a full-fledged festival.
Woodtor “brought culture to Chicago and he taught people to appreciate themselves,” says Twinet Parmer, Woodtor’s sister-in-law. “This festival has survived 34 years, and it taught us to embrace who we are, and we learned about the many traditions that came from the continent.”
Dayo Laoye, an artist originally from Nigeria, came to America in 1987. He developed what would become his signature focus of his art while attending Howard University in Washington.
Since then he’s encouraged artists to look back to Africa and “within the culture” for inspiration.
One of Laoye’s pieces displayed at the festival is a colorful pastel sketch of his grandfather, who was a king in Nigeria. He died in 1975, but Laoye created the piece dedicated to him from a photograph.
Julian Roberts, a board member for the African Festival of the Arts, says connecting to culture is crucial.
“We were dehumanized by being referred to as slaves,” he says. “As opposed to enslaved peoples.”
Drumming was once a way for people to communicate when speaking to one another was forbidden, and during the festival drumming was part of the celebration of culture.
Olu Shakoor plays with Drum Village, playing African rhythms across the city and during the festival.
“Some people are drawn to this,” he says. “It’s like Africa in Chicago.”
https://chicago.suntimes.com/entertainment-and-culture/2023/9/4/23859000/african-festival-of-the-arts-celebrates-culture-its-like-africa-in-chicago African Festival of the Arts celebrates culture: ‘It’s like Africa in Chicago’