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Saturday, May 30, 2020

Western’s black community celebrates blackness through art

By Jack Taylor and Rahwa Hailemariam 

Despite obstacles, Western faculty and students put on a two day event honoring black history and culture through art.

The event began Friday night with the unveiling of the art exhibition, followed by “The African Diaspora Fashion Walk,” the Black National Anthem and a participatory workshop to reflect on the hardships of African slaves.

Early Saturday morning, artists and curators from around the country came to Western to talk about the importance of recognizing black art.

Junior Labra Dangaladima Ambo converses with fellow fashion show participants before performing at the Black History Month Summit event on Friday. // Photo by Nic Ulmer

Even though the turnout was successful, planning and getting the funds for this event was challenging, according to the organizers.

Karen McLean Dade, professor of secondary education at Woodring College, was on research sabbatical leave, but she still worked with students and faculty to make sure there would be recognition of Black History Month at Western this year.

Since there was no allocated money set aside for them, they had to gather funds themselves in order to make this event happen, said Shaneen Walter-Edwards, president of the African Caribbean Club.

Professional opera singer and Western Alumna Ibidunni Ojikutu sings a song with piano accompanist Rebecca Manalac during the Black History Month Summit event at the Performing Arts Center Friday. // Photo by Nic Ulmer

The event was funded by the Doug Dreier Family, as well as through collaboration with University Residence Life, Enrollment Services, Woodring College of Education, the WWU Diversity Fund and several other Western programs.

Part of the summit was initially going to be held in the Viking Union Gallery, but due to construction preparation in the VU, it had to relocate for a large part of their Saturday event.

The art exhibit was held in the Performing Arts Center’s main lobby and the Saturday program was held in the Wilson Library.

Additional costs for staffing, equipment, transport services and creating a gallery space out of the library and PAC was a challenge, Dade said.

“The planning committee very much appreciated those units and programs that helped make it all possible,” Dade said.

Sophomore Fatuma Musa (right) and freshman Quarazine Aquino (left) discuss their routine for the fashion show, which was part of the Black History Month Summit. // Photo by Nic Ulmer

On top of little funding, Edwards said there was very little promotion for the event.

“The program itself was not advertised, and I think that was partially because we did not have enough money,” Edwards said.

Abdul-Malik Ford, president of the Black Student Union and emcee of the summit, said he was shocked at how difficult it was to put on this event, considering the emphasis on diversity on campus.

“Coming here and hearing things like, ‘We love diversity,’ but seeing the lack of support for our events is just discouraging,” Ford said.

Ford said there’s been a decade-long absence of a prominent black history month event occuring on campus. This was pointed out in the opening remarks by many faculty and staff, including Counseling Center Director Shari Robinson.

Professor Karen McLean Dade leads a workshop during the Black History Month Summit event at the Performing Arts Center on Friday. // Photo by Nic Ulmer

Not having seen a Black History Month program in her three years at Western, Robinson said that her peers, Kunle Ojikutu and Dade, who have both been at Western longer, have also not seen an event held in their time. Ojikutu is the assistant vice president for Enrollment and Student Services and special assistant to the president for diversity.

Despite little promotion, many people showed up to the event eager to learn about and celebrate black art.

Having the arts featured as the focus of the program helped showcase the importance of art in learning.

“It is one of the very first things cut out of any program, especially in K-12. So that tells us it does not mean much to people, when in fact, it is an integral component of learning,” Dade said.

People learn in ways other than just linearly and analytically, Dade said.

“Look at how many things we have talked about. Sensitive subjects around race, mass incarceration, but we are doing it through art and people feel a little more comfortable in that creative space,” Dade said.

The legacy of black art was at the forefront of discussion during the panel on Saturday. Nyanda Donaldson, Dade’s daughter, was one of the four panelists.

Participants hold hands in a circle during an interactive workshop lead by Karen McLean Dade during the Black History Month Summit event at the Performing Arts Center on Friday. // Photo by Nic Ulmer

Donaldson, who owns galleries with her husband in Los Angeles and New York, said she thinks artists should not feel afraid to challenge themselves in their art during the first panel.

“What I bring to the table is guidance for the artist. For me, an artist should really provoke their artistry and immerse themselves in their artistry,” Donaldson said.

Both Edwards and Ford said they want the event to continue annually and draw in more attention, but worry it won’t be possible without stable funding.

Lynden High School senior TJ Robinson, who took part in the fashion show, is presented a gift from Assistant Vice President for Enrollment and Student Services Kunle Ojikutu and his wife, Diann, during the Black History Month Summit event at the Performing Arts Center on Friday. // Photo by Nic Ulmer

“I would like to see this happen every year, and I will help out in anyway I can,” Ford said.

Dade said she saw the event as a result of the strong relationship growing between the Black Student Union and African Caribbean Club students, as well as the African-descent faculty and staff on campus.

The 2015 incident of a Western student suggesting lynching toward the Associated Students president at the time, a black student, and other anti-black sentiments on campus are reasons for students and faculty to actively support one another, Dade said.

BSU President, Abdul-Malik Ford, sophomore, poses for a photo during the Black History Summit event on Saturday. // Photo by October Yates

“In 2015, African-descent faculty and staff came together to address the safety issues for our black students, and to create an affinity group that would help give all of us the support we needed,” Dade said. “Students at that time didn’t know where to go or who to rely on. It took them quite a while to sort out that black faculty and staff were meeting, and when they found out that we had a collective body, they came to us to serve as mentors and to assist in a variety of programming.”

The Martin Luther King Jr. event and the Black History Month Summit are examples of programming needed not only for black students, but for the entire university, Dade said.

Dade said the Black History Month Summit was a success because black students, faculty and staff worked very hard to make it so.

“In the process, we experienced unity, love and healing, and pride in sharing our culture and history with campus and the local community,” Dade said.

She said education is key to dismantling racial ignorance and practices and the summit’s focus on Art and Radical Pedagogy was a tool in addressing these issues.

The Black History Month Summit is part of a year-long project known as “Back to the Sandbox: Art and Radical Pedagogy,” co-directed by Dade.

“Cherub” an Artwork by Johnnae McDaniels hangs in the PAC during the Black History Summit on Saturday. // Photo by October Yates

“Back to the Sandbox: Art and Radical Pedagogy” is year-long project focusing on connecting art and education. Additionally, the project also included workshops for Bellingham School District teachers on how to incorporate storytelling and art from the Coast Salish tribal communities into the classroom which were held last fall.

In the future, Dade said the theme could change from the arts to the sciences, but the event itself must continue.

“We would love to see this be sustained. That our Black Student Union and our African Caribbean Club will have the opportunity each year to be given a budget to celebrate our achievements and contributions to this nation, and the world at large,” Dade said.

Fashion show participants line up and receive applauses from the crowd during the Black History Month Summit event at the Performing Arts Center on Friday. // Photo by Nic Ulmer

With both faculty and students are determined to keep awareness of black history and culture alive, they hope more people will become aware of the struggles still facing the black community.

“Black History Month is a time not just for you to learn and embrace black culture, but to acknowledge things you can do to further people and their endeavors,” Edwards said.

More information on “Back to the Sandbox: Art and Radical Pedagogy” can be found here.

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