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Crossing continents and raising consciousness: African Arts Festival celebrates culture and fosters conversations

February 23, 2018

Jenny Ibsen
ART AND ACROBATICS: Students gather in David Saul Smith Union to take part in Bowdoin’s first ever African Arts Festival on Thursday evening.

All eyes were on the acrobats in David Saul Smith Union yesterday. Pushing the limits of human strength and flexibility, members of the Kenya-based Zuzu group moved to the pulse of Kenyan music in Bowdoin’s first ever African Arts Festival. The event, designed to showcase the art of the African diaspora, was both a celebration of culture and a chance for community conversation and reflection.

“The point of the event is not to be something too heavy. An event where you do get some form of entertainment, but where you learn something about what is not normal or comfortable to you in your everyday life,” said Africa Alliance Leader Oratile Monkhei ’20.

Along with Africa Alliance, the African-American Society (Af-Am) and the newly-formed Student Organization for Caribbean Awareness (SOCA) organized the event, which also featured clothing, handmade jewelry and artifacts, all originating from Africa. The oldest of these items were hand-made masks from the Portland Museum of African Art. Each mask, carved to depict a range of different emotions and ideas, had a distinct symbolism behind it.

“I try to take the masks out of the gallery into a practical arena where the objects are used as communication tools instead of art objects. The objects were not meant to be art—they were meant to convey a universal message that transcends gender [and] culture,” said Oscar O. Mokeme, curator for the Portland Museum of African Art.

Beyond the material culture displayed at the festival, Monkhei believes there is greater knowledge to be gained from events like these, but it begins with critical thinking on the part of students.

“When you are listening to those drums, think about what they mean. When you are watching an acrobatic show, ask yourself so what is the symbolism? What is the history? Explore all those same questions that go into doing a mathematical proof,” said Monkhei. “How does all of this work? How does all this function? Why do people believe in this math?”

Questions like these allow events like the African Arts Festival to become valuable learning experiences.

“I think having the opportunity to have interpersonal connection with others is important. You don’t get that in a lecture or a large event. It is small intimate events like this one where students can talk and enjoy their time together that can be part of the learning process as well,” said Benjamin Harris, director of the Student Center for Multicultural Life.

The festival was held during the final week of Black History Month during which students across campus have honored black heritage by remembering the people and events of the African diaspora.

“I think it is really important to show black representation through art, but I think it’s important to know that although we’re in the United States, blackness does not just fall within black Americans, but the whole entire African diaspora as a whole,” said Amani Hite ’20.

Monkhei echoed this sentiment.

“When we talk about race there are certain commonalities that cut across borders,” she said.

Monkhei emphasized the importance of honestly acknowledging America’s history.

“There is this community in America that has made enormous contributions to the country, what it is and what it will become, how it’s evolved. [It] is kind of putting a stamp on the national conscious that history should be celebrated, history should be recognized,” said Mokhei. “It should not be seen as African American History, but American history.”

At the same time, Monkhei hopes students understand that this history cannot be relegated to a single month.

“You can’t limit people to a space and time. There’s more than just that to begin with. We don’t just celebrate your life on your birthday. We recognize your life everyday,” she said.

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