Archive for September, 2009


(Photo: Keston Duke Photography) Averlyn Archer, program director at the Harlem Arts Alliance, founded Canvas Paper and Stone Gallery in 2006.

(Photo: Keston Duke Photography) Averlyn Archer, program director at the Harlem Arts Alliance, founded Canvas Paper and Stone Gallery in 2006.

An old religious maxim says prophecy and imagination go hand-in-hand. So while society’s collective conscience can be limited, prophets operate on an elevated understanding of the world around them.

These individuals were community historians and storytellers of their generation. Ask Averlyn Archer, founder and director of the Canvas Paper and Stone Gallery in Harlem, who the modern prophets are. And the Trinidadian-born, Brooklyn-raised 46-year-old will simply say, “The artists.”

Archer plays a special role in developing these artists. She’s a resource they use to get additional venues for their performances and art exhibitions. She also helps them apply for grants and preps them to successfully go before review boards. She’s a woman of many hats – a seasoned art collector, gallery owner and program director for a prestigious arts alliance.

Add those to her more than 10 years’ experience in Internet advertising, e-commerce and her work as a corporate attorney on multimedia and interactive technology, and Archer’s somewhat of a megaphone amplifying the messages of Harlem’s prophets to the global community. To hear her tell it, the intent is out of her love for the arts. “It’s meditative,” she said. “It’s inspiring and healing.”

It’s a discovery Archer made in 1981, while a student studying English and Sociology at The City College of the City University of New York (CCNY). That same year, the Genesis II Museum of International Black Culture was founded as CCNY’s museum-in-residence.

(Photo: http://www.georgeranalli.com) The City College of New York.

(Photo: http://www.georgeranalli.com) The City College of New York

There, Archer had access to the museum’s several galleries and exhibits including the African Sculpture Court, the Egyptian and Haitian Galleries. “That’s when I discovered art – Black art, in particular – that was geared towards our history and culture,” she said, adding that she couldn’t imagine her life now without art.

That curiosity sent her packing and traveling internationally to art galleries and museums in Cuba, Thailand and, most recently, Scotland, where she explored the ruins of 500-year-old castles. She said, “I realized this was something I was excited and passionate about.”

But that passion was not without a setback. In 1997, Archer launched the Genesis Art Line. The online African-American gallery was successful enough for her to open American Visions 145, a Harlem-based retail gallery, in 2001. After a two-year run, the gallery was closed. She tried again in 2006 with Canvas Paper and Stone, a gallery and retail store that started online. A year later, Archer opened the fine art gallery on Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Harlem.

(Photo: africanastudies.as.nyu.edu) Deborah Willis, who's pursued a dual professional career as an art photographer and as one of the nation's leading historians of African American photography and curator of African American culture, is on the list of artists who exhibited her work at Canvas Paper and Stone.

(Photo: africanastudies.as.nyu.edu) Deborah Willis, an art photographer and one of the nation's leading historians of African American photography and curator of African American culture, is on the list of artists who exhibited her work at Canvas Paper and Stone.

Canvas Paper and Stone has been going strong ever since. The list of artists who’ve exhibited works there include Otto Neals, TAFA, Francks Deceus, Charly Palmer, Deborah Willis, Diane Waller, Dianne Smith, Mary Heller and Aleathia Brown. Keeping with its original objective, the gallery educates its clientele about contemporary visual art. At the same time, it works to make its artists business savvy.

In December 2007, the gallery teamed up with marketing guru Andrew Morrison to launch the artist strategic marketing workshops.  “While our artists are amazingly talented, like most of us, they are not able to give the business end of their art much attention,” Archer told BlackStarNews.com.

During that workshop, artists learned various strategies to immediately improve their marketing skills. These strategies included repackaging their business brand, according to Morrison, founder of Small Business Camp – an entrepreneurial training, coaching and marketing firm. This way, he told BlackStarNews.com, “You allow your clients to get to know you, and also buy from you which in turn leads to you becoming more successful.”

That success for emerging artists is also due, in part, to Archer becoming program director at the Harlem Arts Alliance last year. The service organization nurtures the growth and development of its more than 400 individual members and arts organizations in Harlem and its surrounding communities. Archer ended up there after co-creating ArtCrawl Harlem, a bus guided tour designed to increase audiences for Harlem’s art galleries and artists.

The roughly four-hour tour consists of seven gallery sites, a light snack and a trolley tour through Harlem while the guide points out various pieces of public art. “Heath Gallery, the meeting spot for the tour, is set inside a gorgeous brownstone across from Marcus Garvey Park,” writes Shane Ferro in her arts and entertainment blog.  The tour concludes with dinner, wine and live music. The annual event, which started in 2008, is produced in collaboration with Canvas Paper and Stone, Taste of Harlem Food and Cultural Tours and the Harlem Arts Alliance. “This is our second year,” says Jacqueline Orange, with Taste of Harlem. She met Archer after moving from Chicago to Harlem in 2002. Describing their working relationship as “great,” she says, “We compliment each other.” Of Archer’s resourcefulness, Orange adds, “She will find an art show on the dark side of the moon.”

Averlyn Archer 2

(Photo: Keston Duke Photography)

Along the tour route, participants stop at the Essie Green Gallery, Hamilton Landmark Galleries, Gallery M, Tribal Spears Gallery and The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. On a recent press tour that stopped at Canvas Paper and Stone, Archer noted that 70 percent of the art in her gallery are created by artist in the community, and 80 percent of it comes from artists of color.

In an April 13, 2008 article, the Harlem News Group reported that the tour also included the mosaic mural on the Capital One Bank Building at 125th Street, the Harriet Tubman sculpture at Frederick Douglass Boulevard and West 122nd Street, and the Adam Clayton Powell sculpture at the Harlem State Office Building. The point Archer was hoping to drive home with the tour was this : “We’re surrounded by art.”

What she also hoped to get across to the tour group was for them not to take the art lightly, and to recognize what she calls the “intuitive” and “spiritual” nature of artists. “Artists are storytellers and prophets,” Archer said. “They’re imparting to us some information that possibly we wouldn’t get elsewhere.”

For more information on Canvas Paper and Stone, visit the gallery online at http://www.canvaspaperandstone.com.

RSS Search

Share

n.   pl. rites of passage
A ritual or ceremony signifying an event in a person’s life indicative of a transition from one stage to another.

(Photo by Jati Lindsay) Gabe "Asheru" Benn is an African American hip hop artist, educator, and youth activist. He is widely known for performing the opening and closing themes for the popular TV series, The Boondocks, as well as his pioneering and innovative efforts to forward the Hip Hop Education movement.

(PHOTO: Jati Lindsay) Gabe "Asheru" Benn is an African American hip hop artist, educator, and youth activist. He is widely known for performing the opening and closing themes for the popular TV series, The Boondocks, as well as his pioneering and innovative efforts to forward the Hip Hop Education movement.

Much like its predecessors, hip hop has its own rites of passage that varies little among local scenes throughout the country. Gabe Benn (emcee “Asheru”) was 21 when he went through that process from 1996-2001. During that time, his group Unspoken Heard was signed, they put out two EPs (“Cosmology” and “Jamboree”), a 12-inch (“Better/Smiley”) and their first LP (“Soon Come”). All this while aggressively hitting D.C. streets to make a name for themselves while earning the respect of the area’s veteran mic rippers.

The 33-year-old recalled them opening for top-tiered local emcees and rocking shows up and down the U street corridor – for free. As fresh faces on the scene then, Benn understood they couldn’t start charging local promoters $800 a show. “The promoter’s going to look at you as if you’re crazy… You’re going to do at least 200 free shows before you can even talk about getting any money,” he said Thursday during “The Art of Storytelling for Aspiring Artists and Media Makers” forum. In this artform, he added, “You have to earn your stripes. You can’t just pop out and start rapping.”

The panel discussion was part of Words Beats & Life’s (WBL) Second Annual Bootleg Festival that features poetry events, panel discussions, 13 blocks of films and several live concerts. “The purpose of the bootleg festival is promoting independent media, as well as independent filmmakers,” said Mazi Mutafa, WBL’s executive director.

The nonprofit started as a hip hop conference at the University of Maryland, College Park in the fall of 2000. Since its incorporation in 2003, WBL has set out to transform individual lives and communities through hip hop with its programs. In addition to its multi-media hip hop arts Academy, a global journal and a hip hop business incubator is WBL’s annual festival that started in 2008. “What we wanted to do this year was really to expand the concept of the Bootleg Festival,” Mutafa said of the event running Sept. 16-19. “We wanted to explore hip hop’s underground economy.” (While that economic model often refers to illegal means of making money, Mutafa was careful to note that the underground economy he’s referring to are the authors, clothing designers and other entrepreneurs –  what he believes people don’t associate with hip hop.)

(Photo by Shyree Mezick) Jason Reynolds, a poet, has self-published three books, including SELF with collaborator Jason Griffin, and served as the first artist-in-residence at Penn State University. He has been featured at colleges and universities all over the country. Reynolds has shared a stage with Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, and Nikki Giovanni and has spoken at the National Black Family reunion, on the National Mall, and at the 40th Anniversary of The March on Washington.

(PHOTO: Shyree Mezick) Jason Reynolds, a poet, has self-published three books, including SELF with collaborator Jason Griffin, and served as the first artist-in-residence at Penn State University. He has been featured at colleges and universities all over the country. Reynolds has shared a stage with Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, and Nikki Giovanni and has spoken at the National Black Family reunion, on the National Mall, and at the 40th Anniversary of The March on Washington.

The festival’s events are being hosted at area venues such as Lincoln Theater, Busboys and Poets and the Universal Capoeira Center. On the second day of the festival, more than 20 aspiring authors, filmmakers, media makers and performers filed into the True Reformer Building at the corner of 12th and U streets NW for “The Art of Storytelling,” a panel discussion that included emcee/educator Gabe Benn, writer/performer Jason Reynolds and Tewodross Melchishua, professor of visual communication and digital media arts at both Bowie State and Howard universities.

Ranging on topics from Gladys Knight’s recent criticism of hip hop, to making it as an artist full-time, to the collaboration of hip hop and visual art, the discussion came back to storytelling. Fred Joiner, forum moderator, had a question for the panel: “How do you all see yourself as continuing the narrative of the artists that inspire you?”

According to Benn, he’s a part of a tradition that predates hip hop – a tradition that came out of a renaissance on U Street prior to the one in Harlem. During the early 1900’s, U Street was known as “Black Broadway,” a term coined by Pearl Bailey. This nine-block stretch that extended from 9th Street on the east to 18th Street and Florida Avenue on the west was a prominent center for the development of jazz. Ragtime orchestras began playing at the Howard Theater in 1912, according to Historic U Street Jazz, a Web site of George Washington University. In the process of experimenting, musicians started moving away from ragtime to “a freer style” called jazz. “Our rites of passage”– as emcees –“was U Street,” Benn said. “I didn’t know that when I went to Kaffa House and Bohemian Caverns…that I was actually continuing a legacy.”

Reynolds invoked the name of Jati Lindsay, a D.C. photographer who’s made a national name for himself, with his photos in hip hop magazines such as Venus, URB, Remix and Scratch. (He’s also made ripples in the international art pool, as well, with his work in Backspin, a German magazine.) “I remember looking at Jati’s photos, feeling like if you haven’t been shot by him, then you weren’t relevant,” Reynolds said. “You hadn’t gone through the rites of passage.” The 25-year-old poet and performer recalled going through that process almost 10 years ago.

(PHOTO: Jati Lindsay) Fred Joiner is a poet living in Washington, DC's Historic Anacostia. During the day Fred masquerades as a Systems Administrator for a small progressive consulting company. When he is not masquerading, his passions are poetry, photography, making collages, and the culture and history of the African Diaspora.

(PHOTO: Jati Lindsay) Fred Joiner is a poet living in Washington, DC's Historic Anacostia. During the day Fred masquerades as a Systems Administrator for a small progressive consulting company. When he is not masquerading, his passions are poetry, photography, making collages, and the culture and history of the African Diaspora.

That night, in the candle-lit basement of Bar Nun (now “Pur”), Reynolds watched Jive artist Raheem Devaughn rock the crowd with the house band, wondering how he could follow such an act. At 15 years old, all he had was a poem meant to be performed a capella and a name no one had heard of. Unlike the crooner, no women were going to be singing his lyrics from the crowd, waving their hands in the air or even shouting his name. “It’s just you and your words”– no beat, he told himself at the time. “Can you hold it down?” When the host called his name, he knew what was next. Reynolds said, “When the beats not there, either you’re exposed – or you’re validated.”

For more information on the Bootleg Festival, for a full festival itinerary, visit http://www.bootlegfestdc.com.

Blog Collector

Share

Theatre In The City

In this photo by http://media.wayne.edu, (Left to right) Thomas L. Harris as James Hewlett and James Abbott as Ira Aldridge.

In this photo by http://media.wayne.edu, (Left to right) Thomas L. Harris as James Hewlett and James Abbott as Ira Aldridge.

Ira Aldridge was a teenager discovering his love of theatre before becoming the first of his kind to be known internationally. William Henry Brown established a theatre before writing what many considered to be the first play of its kind. James Hewlett was a tailor by trade before becoming the first of his kind to star in a one-man show. These prominent Black men, during the early part of the 19th century, played a pivotal role in shaping America’s Black Theatres, especially in Washington, D.C.

The history of this movement in the district was a topic briefly mentioned during a discussion last night at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. (HSW) on K Street NW. The event, “Theatre District: How Washington, D.C. Became a National Stage for the Performing Arts,” was a look at how the city evolved into “a theatre-Mecca second only to New York City,” according to HSW Executive Director Sandy Bellamy.

“There are scores of dance, choral music, instrumental music and opera companies in our midst,” said Linda Levy Grossman, moderator and president/CEO of the Helen Hayes Awards, which honors professional theatre in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. But Monday night’s discussion, the first of HSW’s fall programming, was to focus solely on theatre.

Kicking off a brief overview of the city’s history was an 11-minute video titled “Again and Again: The Legacy of Washington Theatre.” According to the film, the city’s first playhouse was a bare room inside a hotel on E Street NW in the early 1800s. Two new playhouses – featuring “everything from acrobats to the finest classical actors from both sides of the Atlantic”– were constructed in 1804 and 1822 to accommodate growing audiences. And in 1835, the National Theatre opened three blocks from The White House on Pennsylvania Avenue.

(Photo by crapo.senate.gov) After Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, the theatre was closed, but served intermittently as a museum, office space and storage facility.  A restoration effort started in 1954 brought the theatre back, and theatrical events still performed on its stage. The building has been open to the public since 1968.

(Photo by crapo.senate.gov) After Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, the theatre was closed, but served intermittently as a museum, office space and storage facility. A restoration effort started in 1954 brought the theatre back, and theatrical events still performed on its stage. The building has been open to the public since 1968.

Following its opening, the building was destroyed by fire and rebuilt on the same site five times during the 1800′s, according to nationaltheatre.org. In the time preceding the Civil War, opera houses and music halls dotted the downtown area. After the war, the city underwent another transformation. Between 1885 and 1915, 37 new theatres opened in a block bordered to the south by 9th Street, to the east by Pennsylvania Avenue, to the north by 15th Street and the west by New York Avenue. And while this enlivened, six-block theatre district was created downtown, an area known as “Black Broadway” was taking shape uptown.

At the time, Segregation forced African Americans nationwide to establish their own organizations and institutions as a way of supporting their lifestyles. And thanks to William Henry Brown, a West-Indian born U.S. theatre producer and playwright, African-American artists also had a blueprint for establishing their own playhouses. “As it happens, African-American theater flourished as early as 1821,” writes Heidi Weiss in a September 2006 Chicago Sun-Times article. That same year, Brown, a retired steam ship steward, created the African Grove from “a little tea garden and cabaret” behind his house in lower Manhattan.  African Grove was the first of its kind to allow an all-black casts to perform plays originally written for White actors, which included Shakespeare’s Richard III and Othello.

(Photo by maap.columbia.edu) The first African Grove Theater was located on Mercer Street near Houston. It was built on the second floor of a two-story house with a large tea garden in back.

(Photo by maap.columbia.edu) The first African Grove Theater was located on Mercer Street near Houston. It was built on the second floor of a two-story house with a large tea garden in back.

The company’s productions soon became a popular diversion with White audiences, which started a rivalry “between this small theater and Stephen Price’s Park Theater,” according to a web lecture on the African Grove Theater. As the story goes, Brown rented a hall right next to the Park Theater for performance of Richard III after being ousted from his house on Thomas Street. Brown’s production coincided with the Park Theater’s presentation of the same play. According to the online lecture, “Stephen Price hired a mob to stage a ‘riot’ and had the police shut down the African Grove performances.” Laura Blanchard, vice chair of the American Branch of the Richard III Society, writes on the organization’s Web site that the African Grove moved to Mercer and Bleecker streets on October 1. The company was again forced to close down in 1823. That same year, Brown wrote The Drama of King Shotaway, the first African American play to be written and produced in the United States. The play is based on a Black Carib revolt on the island of St Vincent in 1796 against both English and French settlers.

During the time of African Grove, Brown’s company produced two notable actors: James Hewlett, the first African American Shakespearean actor, and Ira Aldridge, a teenager at the time. According to blackpast.org, an online reference guide to African American History, Hewlett and Aldridge honed their skills “while sitting in the balcony of Stephen Price’s landmark Park Theatre observing the acting styles of European transports in Shakespearian plays.”

(Drawing by Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library) James Hewlett (1778–1836) played Richard the III (pictured) and other starring roles at the African Grove Theater.

(Drawing by Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library) James Hewlett (1778–1836) played Richard the III (pictured) and other starring roles at the African Grove Theater.

Born 1778, James Hewlett’s education of theatre came from following behind British actor George Frederick Cooke as a servant boy, when he learned to imitate the actor’s actions and attitude. But, according to a Dec. 22, 1825 article in The Star, the young man had something else going for him. “Hewlett…must have had a natural talent for theatrical performances and an excellent voice, or he could never have surmounted his early difficulties,” the newspaper reported. Those difficulties were the result of racism. In addition to working as a waiter and tailor by trade, Hewlett was a role model for the African Grove’s younger member, Ira Aldridge. When Hewlett joined the theatre company in 1821, he attempted Richard III with an all‐black cast and played the title role in Brown’s The Drama of King Shotaway. But much of his life after the African Grove is a blur. According to the Oxford Companion to American Theatre, he “seems to have confined his appearances to recitals devoted largely to imitations of famous White actors.”

Among his honors, Hewlett was called “the most astonishing phenomena of the age” by an 1826 advertisement. In addition, the ad goes on to describe him as: “a young man, who, notwithstanding the thousands of obstacles which the circumstance of complexion must have thrown in his way of improvement, has, by the mere dint of natural genius and self‐strengthened assiduity, risen to a successful competition with some of the first actors of the day.” Later billed as “Shakespeare’s proud Representative,” he disappeared after a farewell benefit in 1831. According to blackpast.org, Hewlett passed in 1836.

(Drawing by Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library)

(Drawing by Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library)

Ira Aldridge, an American stage actor who made his career largely on the London stage, is the only African American actor among the 33 actors of the English stage with bronze plaques at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. Born on July 24, 1807 to Reverend Daniel and Luranah Aldridge, Ira’s first professional acting experience was in the early 1820s with the African Grove, according to various sources. There, he debuted as Rolla in Pizzaro, played Shakespeare’s Romeo and later gained fame for his portrayal of Hamlet.

Confronted with persistent racism in the U.S., Ira emigrated to England, where he worked as a dresser to the British actor Henry Wallack. His move from the U.S. sparked a series of tours that started in 1831, when he successfully played in Dublin, along with several locations in southern Ireland, Bath, and Edinburgh. He eventually toured Europe in 1852, and was successful in Germany – where he peformed for Frederick William IV of Prussia after being presented to the Duchess Saxe-Coburg-Gotha – and in Budapest. Ira spent most of his final years in Russia – where he met Leo Tolstoy, Mikhail Shchepkin and Taras Shevchenko – and in continental Europe. He died in August 1867.

The spirits of Aldridge, Hewlett and Brown’s African Grove motivated the theatre movement on D.C.’s “Black Broadway” during the dawning of the 20th century, when the city became the social and cultural capital of Black America, according to the PBS documentary, “Melodies and Memories.” “From 1900 to 1920, it was this country’s largest African American community. Anchored by Howard University and federal government jobs, this community became a magnet for African American intellectuals and sent a stream of shining talents to the nation for generations,” according to PBS’s Web site. “It developed a prosperous Black middle class which forged a strong society of churches, newspapers, businesses and civic institutions.”

Among those institutions were the Howard and Lincoln theaters. Created in 1910, the Howard Theater at 620 T Street NW was a stucco-clad building that originally served “as a playhouse for both variety shows and moving pictures catering to African-American audiences,” according to a January 2008 Staff Report  for Howard Theater. “The Howard is the oldest surviving and the first known theater in the country built just for Black audiences during segregation when Blacks were barred from attending or performing at White theaters.” Success of the 1,200-seat auditorium helped energize the debuts of other Black-owned theaters, such as the Apollo in Harlem, the Uptown in Philadelphia, and the Royal in Baltimore (or the Chitlin’ Circuit), according to “Historic U Street Jazz,” a project of George Washington University. The theater closed its doors when the Great Depression hit in 1929. When it reopened its doors in 1931, the theater moved away from providing variety acts to solely jazz performances. The city’s desegregation in the early 1960’s and the 1968 unrest that ensued after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led to the Howard closing its doors in 1970. The theater is currently closed with plans for renovations.

Like the Howard, the Lincoln Theater was designed as a movie theater for black patrons in 1921. Initially, it was where African Americans saw vaudeville acts, first-run films, and amateur competitions. When the Lincoln switched owners in 1927, the theater was expanded to include “a cabaret, a hot nightspot, and a dance hall called the Lincoln Colonnade,” according to GWU’s “Historic U Street Jazz.”

The Presidential Ball came to the Lincoln in the 1940s, and the first ladies Eleanor Roosevelt and Bess Truman used the theater for a March of Dimes rally. “The Lincoln’s name, its decor, its cabaret, and the politically and socially elite visitors all worked to affirm the importance, not only of the Lincoln, but of the community on U. Street,” according to “Historic U Street Jazz.”

And  like the Howard, the Lincoln Theater suffered from the city being fully integrated in the 1960’s. Following the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, Black businesses moved downtown and along with them went majority of the neighborhood’s prominent residents. The unrest of 1968 also ended the Lincoln’s golden era. “The Lincoln played B movies until it was permanently closed in 1982,” according to Historic U Street Jazz. “Currently, the Lincoln remains in the custody of the District Government and is awaiting a proposal for restoration.”

(Photo by newsreel.orga)

(Photo by newsreel.orga)

Last night, Grossman, moderator and president/CEO of Helen Hayes Awards, had a question for the audience. “Who here has, at some time in recent history, attended a Washington theatre performance as an audience member?” At the sight of every hand raised, she said, “Excellent! A’s for everyone.”

Today, the total number of theatres in D.C. quadrupled from 14 in 1983 to more than 70 now. In 2008, alone, 69 of the city’s area theatres – plus theatre festivals – produced 428 productions, 169 readings and 154 festival productions, the moderator said. The total? It’s around 8,723 performances seen by almost two million audience members. So if everyone in the room attended even one of those productions  in 2008, she said, they played a critical role in confirming the city’s current reputation. “The quantity of productions maintains Washington’s tradition as the second most prolific theatre town in the country,” Grossman said. “But the quality and the diversity of the work produced here make Washington second to none.”
Arts

Share

Photo by Jati Lindsay

Photo by Jati Lindsay

Stand in any metropolitan corridor and ask the art scene denizens there what they know about Aniekan Udofia. Some might list the 33-year-old among the most talented visual artists of his generation, with national attention on his work in hip hop magazines such as XXL, Vibe and The Source.

And on a local level, others might even christen the Nigerian artist as “the face of the D.C. art movement that mixes political themes with a hip-hop aesthetic.” But no matter what you hear, Aniekan will tell you himself they only scratch the surface of who he really is.

For starters, meet his parents, Dr. George and Edna Udofia. They came to the U.S. from Nigeria for school while Civil War raged back in their home country (the Nigeria-Biafra War lasted from July 6, 1967 to Jan. 15, 1970). Nigerians first came to the United States to attend American universities, intending to return home, writes Kalu Ogbaa in his book “The Nigerian Americans.” But for the first time in Nigeria history, the civil war “became the cause of immigration, and more students from the war-ravaged Eastern Nigeria easily made good cases for their immigration to the United States.” So George and Edna studied law and nursing, respectively, at universities in Washington, D.C. They settled down and started a family. Aniekan, the second of five children and the first son in the family, was born on Nov. 26, 1975.

Ogbaa, professor of English and Africana Studies at Southern Connecticut State University, continues: “The gloomy sociopolitical and economic conditions in Nigeria resulting from their civil war were so unbearable for Easterners that everybody wanted to flee the country.” By 1980, the number of Nigerian immigrants in the U.S. rose to 25,528. In addition, the emergence of military dictatorships, the abuse of power and denial of human rights also led to a mass exodus of trained personnel in university institutions from Nigeria. By 1990, the number of Nigerians in the U.S. more than doubled to 55,350. But instead of following the trend, George and Edna decided to whisk their children away from their birth place in Northwest D.C. to Nigeria’s Akwa Ibom state in 1982.

Aniekan, who was 7 at the time of the trip, is of the Ibibio people, one of more than 250 ethnic groups in Nigeria – the three most popular being Yoruba, Ibo (or Igbo) and Hausa-Fulani. Located in southeastern Nigeria, mainly in the Cross River state, the Ibibio are rainforest cultivators of yams, taro, and cassava. They export mostly palm oil and palm kernels; they’re also noted for their skillful wood carving.

Back in Nigeria, George taught French in high school, and Edna was a health educator. They had high hopes for their first son, Aniekan. “As a patriarchal society, sons are trained to be strong and assertive and to develop leadership qualities that will enable them to inherit the leadership roles of their fathers at home, should such fathers die or become old, ill, or infirm,” Ogbaa writes. In addition, “They are supposed to be providers of their family members’ needs and to give them security as well as emotional and economic protection at all times.” According to Aniekan, his parents thought he was destined to go to college and major in something more practical than art, or pick up a trade and work with his hands. But instead, he embraced a movement from overseas.

Afro Beat King...Fela Kuti by Aniekan

Afro Beat King…Fela Kuti by Aniekan

Having grown up on highlife, a musical genre that originated in Ghana in the 1900s before eventually spreading to Sierra Leone, Nigeria and other West African countries by 1920, Aniekan was familiar with legends such as Ibo highlife innovator Sonny Okosun and Victor Olaiya, a Yoruba singer and trumpeter. But hip hop captured the then-17-year-old in ways highlife couldn’t. “It was the expression of it…Even with Slick Rick, how he tells the story,” Aniekan recalls. “He’s rapping, but it’s like he’s singing…the art of twisting words.” (He likened listening to Kool G Rap, a precise wordsmith, to “playing Tetris at high-speed.”) Aniekan’s first encounter with the art form was through a friend, who passed him a Kid ‘N Play cassette tape in 1992. Other encounters came through friends who got VHS tapes of Yo! MTV Raps from their relatives in the U.S. “We didn’t have a VCR,” Aniekan says. “It was like one person in the hood had one, so we would all go 15 deep to that person’s crib, hang out, watch those videos and get all hype, trying to talk like the guys in the videos.”

At the same time, record shops started popping up all over Uyo, a city that became a capital of Akwa Ibom State on Sept. 23, 1987. “You had DJs who had spots like that and they put these big speakers outside,” Aniekan says. “That’s where we used to hang out.” Other hang-outs were barbershops, which usually consisted of a closet-sized space with a chair, a sign, a comb and some clippers. Some barbers were fortunate enough to turn their humble beginnings into a franchise. One such barber was “Big Stuff,” who had three shops in commercial areas throughout Uyo.

Photo by blogs.sun.com/christophersaul

Photo by blogs.sun.com/christophersaul

At the time, it was customary for barbers to commission local artists to create price lists and posters for their shops. Big Stuff commissioned an artist that completely changed Aniekan’s life. Through this artist, the budding hip hop head would understand the power of expression through illustrations. “It was a guy named Arabian…He would do shit and you would just look at the piece [amazed],” Aniekan says. “He had a lot of creativity.” He recalls Arabian incorporating hip hop styles, with guys dressed in hoodies and posing in the stylish rides of the time. “The style was so crazy the way he did it. Every last one he did was different.” There was a price list, where a guy had a finger over his mouth while another hand pointed to a price list painted in what looked like a hole in the wall. Another one was an illustration of three guys posted up outside a well – one guy on a cell phone, the other on look-out while the third pulled a price list out of the well. “His imagination was just something crazy,” Aniekan says. “Crazy!”

However, his hopes of finding a mentor in Arabian were dashed when they met in 1995. Until that point, Aniekan would walk around with a sketchbook, looking for work that Arabian illustrated. “I would go try to copy it and practice at home,” Aniekan says. Noticing the young artist’s interest, Big Stuff gave Aniekan an Arabian piece from his shop to take home and study. “So I went and studied it and tried to figure out how he used the color, what kind of color he was using.” (“Was it watercolor or crayons?” he wondered). This was between 1994 and 1997, what he called his “study era.”

R.I.P Jay Dilla by Aniekan

R.I.P Jay Dilla by Aniekan

It’s the era he practiced the “photo-realistic” style of drawing. He experimented until he came up with his own style of drawing faces with color pencils and ink, and then pasting them over a different background. He was anxious when Big Stuff took him to Arabian’s home in 1995. “When I finally met him, I was all groupie-fied,” Aniekan says. “I get to meet him and I’m all shy.” The magic soon wore off, when Aniekan said Arabian had promised to draw him something. “He never really got around to it. It just turned into me constantly going over there and him blowing me off.”

He turned that discouragement into determination and set out on a one-man mission to figure out how Arabian did it. In the process, Aniekan slowly made a name for himself by drawing various haircut styles and selling it to barbers. He started coming up with his own concepts for barbershop posters. In an earlier creation, he took a piece of board and drew a hand cutting hair with an arrow pointing in the direction of the barber’s chair. “People would see it from down the hill and they would know a barber was right there,” Aniekan recalls. In exchange, the barber gave him $50 for the poster. Aniekan’s aim was to get his name, like Arabian’s, all over Uyo. He soon became a sought-after artist among local barbers asking him, “Yo, could you draw me some haircuts or whatever.”

Life is Worth Losing.... by Aniekan

Life is worth losing… by Aniekan

His popularity, however, wasn’t enough to impress his parents, nor quell their desires for him to fulfill his duties as first son. “I went to technical schools [and] vocational schools; they were trying to change my mind,” Aniekan says. But everywhere he went, he saw people as passionate about their fields as he was about art. During the 17-year battle with his parents, he wrote letters to an aunt that lives in D.C. After several correspondences, she granted his request by sending him a plane ticket to come and try his hand in the U.S. art industry. He came to D.C. in 1999, at the age of 24. Since he’s been here, he’s captured the national attention of clothing designers and magazines – no longer the new fish splashing around in the national art scene. He’s created designs for And 1, an urban athletic wear company, and was the premiere artist for the D.C.-based Native Tongue Urban Apparel line.

In addition, his works have been featured in various urban publications such as Rime, Elemental, DC Pulse and Frank 151. His illustrations also graced the album covers of hip hop artists such as Critically Acclaimed and Flex Mathew, as well as the covers of books and hip hop journals.

In 2004, Aniekan joined Artwork Mbilashaka (AM) Radio, a loose band of four to 10 visual artists and a DJ. They’re contracted by corporate clients to create a 7 x 5 artistic interpretation of their logo in front of a live audience. As a part of this group, Aniekan worked on projects for clients including Red Bull, Heineken, Honda, Current TV, Timberland and Adidas.

He uses hip hop themes as social commentary on issues he feel are left lingering such as religion, gender wars (“Is homosexuality right or wrong? Who’s to choose?”) and racism. They also focus on American consumerism. In one of his controversial pieces, former President George W. Bush is in several poses, holding machine guns. On his shirt: “Got Oil?”

Photo by Ziggy ThinkPositive Rayford

Photo by Ziggy ThinkPositive Rayford

Some of his work was controversial enough to draw criticism from viewers, and some galleries have even asked him to take down his paintings. Even still, his style of “telling the truth” is one most people can appreciate. In a June editorial review, Rhome Anderson (aka DJ Stylus) likened Aniekan to a local treasure. “From murals around town to his live improvised painting at musical events, Udofia is as much a fixture in the urban arts scene as the DJs, vocalists, producers and musicians,” Anderson writes on washingtonpost.com. “As part of the Words, Beats and Life’s ‘Remixing the Art of Social Change’ teach-in, Udofia was commissioned to craft a completely new series of pieces.”

On a Tuesday afternoon, Aniekan is hard at work on a new commission. His one-room apartment on 17th Street NW doubles as his ware house and art studio. Cross the threshold and you walk towards a stash of comic books neatly stacked alongside various hip hop and art magazines. Look around, and you’ll see a work-in-progress set on an easel in the middle of his kitchen – artwork lining the wall along the entrance, above his cabinets and into his bedroom. His most recent show, The Sickness 3, opened at Dissident Display on H Street NE in June. Aniekan wanted the show to be a departure from his popular hip hop-themed works. His peers’ reactions varied. “It was good and bad. There were some people who were like, ‘I’m not feeling this new, monochromatic, one-color-themed, crazy stuff,’” he recalls. “But then there were people who were like, ‘Wow! That’s actually dope.’ It’s a stretch and I feel I need to tend more towards that side.”

Photo by Rosina Photography

Photo by Rosina Photography

Looking around his kitchen, a reporter noticed a photo of Fela Kuti, the Nigerian multi-instrumentalist musician and composer. In the artwork, three different Felas take on different hues – a blue Fela looks up at a black and white Fela who’s playing a saxophone. In the background, a silver Fela raises his arms in a victory pose through an outline of Africa. When asked if Nigeria or elements of his Ibibio tribe ever work their way into his paintings, Aniekan looks up from a sketch to carefully consider his answer. “If I choose to do a specific back home kind of theme”–such as the EVOLUTION OF CULTURE show, which opened April 3 at Wisconsin Overlook on Wisconsin Avenue NW– “that’s when I usually bring out those traits of where I’m from,” Aniekan says. “It’s more of a choice.”

It’s a choice he feels that musicians and other artists should have the right to exercise without being labeled cultural sell-outs, or worst. Take Fela, the Afrobeat music pioneer and human rights activist. He didn’t start out as the political maverick he’s known as today. “He was into music…he started off with highlife, which he grew up into,” Aniekan says. When Fela noticed some social and economic issues went unaddressed, his music became his bullhorn – “where he started just banging on the presidents” and corrupt politicians. “That took him to another level,” Aniekan says. “He wasn’t writing just about Nigeria; what he wrote was pretty much Africa, itself, and the world.”

That connection with the world is what Aniekan is looking for with his art. He knows If he puts his art in a box labeled “African art,” it would narrow the scope of his work. The same thing if he only did “hip hop” paintings. So what does he do? He pushes himself with each painting. Aniekan says, “As a visual artist, it’s for people to see your progression.”

For more information on Aniekan Udofia, or to see more of his work, visit him at http://artofaniekanudofia.com/index.html and http://www.myspace.com/aniekanudofia. You can also visit his facebook page to keep up with the “Sickness” series.

Share

Adults Race To Embrace Technologies

photo by scrapetv.com

photo by scrapetv.com

Hey, parents. Remember scolding your kids for sitting in front of the TV all day, or for texting at the dinner table? Or maybe you considered it a waste of time for them to be on the computer – playing with other online gamers from around the world, or surfing the net to watch their favorite music videos. Well, guess what? A growing number of you are just as guilty for indulging in such acts and more, according to several reports that found a large number of adults recently became early adopters of technologies.

A report released July 2009 by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project found that the audience for online video sharing sites such as YouTube and Google Video increased across all demographic groups, outpacing the adoption rates of other internet activities. According to the report, 62 percent of adult internet users watched a video on these sites, up from just 33 percent who reported this in December 2006.

About “89 percent of internet users ages 18 to 29 now say they watch content on video sharing sites, and 36 percent do so on a typical day,” the report stated. A similar study, conducted on behalf of Council for Research Excellence (CRE) by Ball State University’s Center for Media Design (CMD) and Sequent Partners, found that Baby Boomers ages 45 to 54 consumed the most video media.

Today, the New York Times reported that for decades, the adoption and use of technologies was limited to subculture groups such as “tech enthusiasts” or “gadget geeks.” But then a shift took place; at some point, mom and dad switched from playing vinyl records to syncing mp3 files on their iPods, while grandma started updating her Facebook status from her BlackBerry.

“There’s really no group out of the tech loop,” Jacqueline Anderson, an analyst with Forrester Research (a marketing firm based in Cambridge, Mass.), told the Times. She’s also the co-author of the Forrester report, which found that half of all American adults are gamers (about 53,668 households in the U.S. and Canada were surveyed by mail).

So what’s driving this recent surge among adults? The Pew’s report stated one cause was broadband connectivity providing high-quality viewing experiences and broadening the appeal of online video content. According to the report, 63 percent of American adults have high speed connections running to their homes, with 69 percent of broadband users watching video on sharing sites. (About 23 percent said they did the same on a typical day.)

In addition to broadband, the Forrester report found that three-quarters of American households have cell phones and PCs; nearly 10 million American households added an HDTV in the last year, a 27 percent increase over 2007. Charles S. Golvin, a Forrester analyst and the report’s co-author, summed up the findings to the Times. “The digitization of our daily lives has been steadily ramping up over the past decade,” he said.

But Anderson stopped short of saying adults outpaced their kids in adopting the latest technologies. While the figure was high for adults, she noted their adoption is still lower compared with the adoption of other home technologies. “There are more components and you have to understand how to connect them,” she said.

The Pew report also found that while online video viewing has grown across all age groups, young adults continued to lead the adoption curve. On a typical day in 2009, 36 percent of young adult internet users watched video on these sites, compared with just 30 percent in 2008; online adults ages 30 to 49 also increased over the past year, with 67 percent now using video sharing files, up from 57 percent in 2008.

On the complications of other home technologies, Anderson said, “Many people had the components for a home network before but didn’t necessarily understand what it meant to put them together or why they’d want to.”

Share

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,070 other followers