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Sixteen Crowns: Manifestations of Ase
8/4/2016 2:45:39 PM

Ade Ofunniyin
By Ade Ofunniyin, PhD (Dr. O)

Last week, a good friend visited me. She travelled from Philadelphia to have a southern vacation and to see the exhibit that I am co-curating with Jody Berman at the City Gallery. The exhibit titled, “Sixteen Crowns: Manifestations of Ase,” represent the first phase of a broader conceptual work that Jody and I have been working on for at least twelve years. I can safely say that the process has been longer than that for me.

During my friend’s visit, she shared with me a cell phone video that she created of her ten year-old son reciting Langston Hughes’ poem, “What Happens to a Dream Deferred”. He actually recited several of Hughes’ poems, but the one that stuck out and resounded in my head is “A Dream Deferred.” It resonates for several reasons. As a young man, I often defaulted to reciting this favorite of the many poems that I love, when I could not muster the nerve to read an “original” as I was always expected to do.

Another reason it rings is because of its brevity and power. With not too many words, in one stanza and six question marks, Hughes posited what might happen to a dream, your dream, and my dream, or anybody’s dream left unattended or unfulfilled. Hughes queried: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore- and then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust over- like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?”

Since discovering Hughes’ poem as a young man, I have asked myself that same question on many occasions and under several circumstances. Sixteen Crowns: Manifestations of Ase, presented by the City of Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs, has given me a recent reason to pose the very troubling question.

Some of you who know me are familiar with my tumultuous relations as an artist and entrepreneur with the City of Charleston. Those in the know might recall Studio PS, an artist hub and gathering place that I created with several young African American artists.

We struggled for two years to gain a certificate of occupancy, so that we could then get a business license, so that we could provide the services for which we were creating our business, namely food and entertainment. An early reason that I was given for the delay in getting the certificate was that Meeting Street Academy was planning to build their new school and relocate two blocks from the studio. The problem cited was that we intended to sell beer and wine and our business was to close to the intended school.

After two years and a heap of debt (we struggled to pay the landlord $3200.00 monthly for a space that we could not “legally” operate), we were forced to give up the dream. That very same location is now a thriving brewery, serving lots of alcohol. The school has been built, recently expanded and the brewery is central to the neighborhood. Gentrification is a beast and no respecter of good intentions; it’s loud, overt, hurtful, we see and feel it.

These few remarks that I now make should not be taken as a delayed critique of the unfair treatment that my co-artists and I received at the discretion of city employees. I hope that they are received and garner the reality of unfairness that continues to affect so many in the art community, particularly African Americans and women. In the past few years, I have seen new comers to the “holy city” create thriving organizations and rush pass me for grants and opportunities that I could not get when I made appeals in my effort to save Studio PS.

I truly support the efforts of our newest arts organizers, I speak up and stand for their causes, but I must ask, who is willing to stand for our causes? Who is willing to use their voices and privileged positions to speak out against the unfairness and inequalities that we face daily as we muddle through bureaucratic quagmires?

Who besides black artists notice that no person of color owns any of the thirty-four art galleries that exist in Charleston? The same can be asked of the businesses up and down King Street, Spring Street, Meeting Street, North or South. How is this ok? How can we claim to recognize and celebrate the contributions that were made by African and Gullah Geechee people to the fabric of the Lowcountry when this is our reality?

I digressed, I return now to Hughes’ question, what happens to a dream deferred? I first broached the subject of the Sixteen Crowns exhibit with the Office of Cultural Affairs (OCA) in early 2015. I don’t recall why it was stalled but I was content with a 2016 date, after all I intended to title the show “Sixteen Crowns”. It was quite appropriate and worked really well with the context of the show. Early on I was advised that the resources available from the city would be scanty and minimal. That came as no surprise. OCA was birthed in 1977, soon after Mayor Joseph P. Riley began his tenure of forty years in office. From what I have come to know, it has been a troubled venture since its inception. The available resources, has always been limited and sometimes non-existent for African American activities and events.

Like so many of the other institutions and agencies in Charleston and the State of South Carolina that were established to serve the public’s interests, OCA has failed its African American constituents. I became involved with OCA in 1989 shortly after a group of community folks approached OCA for some financial support for a “black arts festival.”

The organizers named the festival the Moja Arts Festival. The city provided a meager contribution the first year and quickly gained control of the festival. The festival’s first organizers consisted of local grassroots people. The elitist from the African American community demonstrated very little interest in the success of the arts festival. With the encroachment and promise of support, the community no longer owned Moja and its demise always lurked in the background.

Fast forward, present time; Sixteen Crowns: Manifestations of Ase. The exhibit opened July 16, 2016 with a well-attended and catered reception. I am pleased to say that the very busy Mayor John Techlenberg and his gracious wife Sandy were in attendance. Several of the artists whose works grace the galleries walls provided the entertainment with African drumming. It was a festive and well-received opening. Despite its success, there was no media coverage; no review from any of the arts critics.

To date the exhibit has been left to fester like a sore. I write these remarks in an effort to nurse the sore before it begins to run. More broadly, I write in hope that I might once again add my voice to those of the many artists who continue to call on OCA for an opportunity to show their work in the gallery or during a stage performance during Moja or Piccolo arts festivals. Artists whose constant frustrations and complaints I have heard. I offer my voice in hopes that the deferred dream does not explode, but instead, that it is nurtured and provided an opportunity to flourish and add more flavor and texture to the gumbo that Charleston is.

I am hopeful that our new mayor and his administration will put in place the requisite resources that will empower OCA to become a wing of the city that will support diversity and excellence in arts programming.

Sixteen Crowns: Manifestations of Ase is a powerful and illuminating exhibit worth viewing. The curators Dr. Ade Ofunniyin and Jody Berman will be having a curators talk on Saturday, August 6, 2016 at 2pm. Orisanmi Kehinde Odesanye, the featured masquerade doll maker, will be conducting a doll making workshop on Monday, August 15th and Monday, August 22nd at City Gallery. Registration fee is $75.00 (includes materials, lecture, and lunch) & space is limited! For reservations please contact Dr. Ade Ofunniyin @ (843)-422-7061, email or City Gallery Charleston @ (843) 805-8118.


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