"African people tend to be very creative," says Patrick Woodtor, the Liberian-born founder of this weekend's 11th annual African Festival of the Arts. "For a long time blacks generated the culture, but didn't reap the benefits....Just look at the natural resources of Africa that have been depleted for thousands of years. Historically, those who owned the creativity never really benefited....Music-industry artists of the 40s and 50s lost out. Jazz festivals in Europe generate millions of dollars, but who really benefits?"
His mention of jazz festivals spurs an obvious question: Why does the African Festival of the Arts take place Labor Day weekend, forcing many like-minded Chicagoans to choose between an Afrocentric arts gathering and an African-American-based music festival? "Actually, we see the two events as complementing each other, in the sense that each is promoting some aspect of world African culture," explains Dee Parmer Woodtor, his wife and the African festival's program director. "Historically, we've usually featured musicians of Africa and the Caribbean; in fact, we book the jazz acts we have early in the afternoon so as not to compete with the jazz festival." The Woodtors say the timing of the festival derives from the exhibition schedule of midwestern artists and craftspersons. "In early August there's an African-based festival in Milwaukee, then there's one in Detroit, and then the exhibitors wind up here at the end of the month," Parmer Woodtor points out. "People who come from out of town for our event often come so they can take part in both events. Acually, I'd love to see a shuttle bus transporting people between Washington Park and Grant Park--then I'd get to hear some of the jazz festival myself."
The seeds of the African Festival of the Arts were sown when Patrick Woodtor started displaying African fashions at his south-side gallery and crafts shop, Window to Africa, in 1983. "Patrick found that people wanted to know more and more about Africa, and that he wound up answering all sorts of questions," says Parmer Woodtor. "Once he understood the interest in this culture, that's how the festival really began." Her husband's experiences in the early 80s, when he worked as an itinerant crafts vendor himself, also helped convince him of the need for a showcase for African art. "In Chicago there were many events, but no African-centered events," he recalls. "It was even difficult for African artists to enter some of the other events here in the city--there were all these prequalifications, and even when we had met them all they sometimes rejected us--so we started our own."
This year the AFA boasts a heavy-duty marquee comprising music from various corners of the African diaspora. That means the gospel of Fontella Bass and David Peaston, the jazz of the accomplished and adventurous young saxist David Boykin, the sturdy pop of the incomparable Bobby Womack, and the silky soul of 70s disco icons the Ohio Players. The schedule also includes music from South Africans Hugh Masekela and Zim Ngqawana, Congo guitar legend Diblo Dibala, and the Haitian pop-fusion band Eklips, which combines several Caribbean musical genres.
Other highlights include the painting of a 40-foot banner overseen by muralist Dorian Sylvain; a "Drums of Passion" tribute to past percussion masters Baba Olatunji and Chief Bey, featuring dance, African masks, and plenty of drumming; storytelling for all ages; visual arts and crafts; and the event that started the whole thing, now dubbed the "Passion for Fashion" show.
The African Festival of the Arts takes place this Friday through Monday, 11 AM to 10 PM, in Washington Park, 55th and Cottage Grove. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for children and seniors; a pass good for the entire festival is $15 and a one-day pass for a family of four is $15. For more information, see the Fairs & Festivals listings in Section Three, or call 773-955-2787.