Last week, I spoke with Susan and Cindy Ogwal, the co-founders of the Champaign-Urbana Black & African Arts Festival (CUBAA Fest). The festival's mission is to “expose and give a culturally diverse experience to the Champaign-Urbana community by expressing both Black and African heritage”. This is the second year the festival will be taking place and like many other events in 2020, it will be virtual.

Two Black women sit behind a table covered in a white table cloth. There is a variety of colorful jewelry spread out on the table. Image by CUBAA Fest.Kenyan Jewelry Vendor at the 2019 festival. Photo provided by CUBBAF.

The energy Susan and Cindy shared about bringing the festival to life was electrifying. They were thrilled to share the details of the event, walking me through the process of its creation and their own histories, which inspired them to create this experience with team members: Kellie Blanden, Alissa Irvin, Alicia Robinson, and Nimot Ogunfemi.

Susan is originally from Uganda, immigrating to the United States with her family roughly 20 years ago. They came to Champaign in the early 1990s, when there were very few African families in town. At the time, Susan and her family felt very isolated and disconnected from the local community. Based on her experiences, she was motivated to become an immigrant liaison and greet newcomers, let them know they are welcome in this space, and help them begin to cultivate a relationship with the community.

Cindy moved to C-U after she graduated from Eastern Illinois University and Indiana State University, respectively. She is originally from Chicago, where she would frequently attend cultural festivals and events. She saw the need for an African and Black art festival in this area, and found likeminded collaborators to help her develop it.

Although the original vision and planning began in 2013, last year marked the inaugural CUBAA Festival. The creative forces behind the event had so many ideas they wanted to merge together involving a fashion show, food, an exposition, music, dancing, and more. They applied for a grant from Urbana's Art and Culture Program, and last year received the funding they needed to make the vision come to life.



A seated audience watches a group of musicians perform on a stage. Image from CUBAA Fest.Audience watching performances in 2019. Photo provided by CUBAA Festival.

The first CUBAA Fest was extremely successful. It was hosted inside Lincoln Square Mall in Urbana, attracting many visitors from the area, as well as from Chicago, Indiana, and Iowa. Despite this year’s festival being online, it has already gotten a lot of attention. Susan affirms that “one of the things you learn in business is that you have to adjust. That’s how you stay relevant… If you can make the necessary adjustments people will appreciate that."

A woman with long black hair paints on a canvas that's mostly purple. She's painting a woman with long hair with black paint.  Image from CUBAA Fest.
Artist Nimot painting at the 2019 CUBAA Fest. Photo provided by CUBAA Fest.

Conversing with Susan and Cindy about CUBAA Fest and their own backgrounds made me really excited to learn more about Black and African culture. Being bicultural myself, I found similarities in the way we all longed for reminders of our native countries, such as a specific ethnic food or an opportunity to have a conversation with someone who spoke the same language. It’s so wonderful that the CUBAA Fest has become an event in the C-U area. Some communities don’t have the opportunity to participate in culturally immersive events like this one.

This year's festival will be completely virtual, taking place over several days. Leading up to the festival there will be a variety of activities the week of September 7-11, such as the Kid’s Corner activity packet, local restaurant specials, and Rep Your Roots Friday. The festival itself will be taking place this weekend, September 12-13. There will be 20 vendors selling their products through the festival's website, which includes African inspired jewelry, clothing, and art.

Additionally, there will be informational vendors that provide valuable self-care lessons for women and offer insights on the topic of pregnancy, as well as Black motherhood. There will also be a virtual art exhibition, Art of Afrofuturistic II, featuring works that explore “the developing intersection of African Diaspora culture with technology, cultivating a vision of black futures that stem from afro-diasporic experiences”,

A Black woman sits behind a table covered with a white table cloth. She smiles at the camera. A variety of jewelry sits on the table in front of her.  Image from CUBAA Fest.
Vendor Janelle Pleasure at the 2019 CUBAA Fest. Photo provided by CUBAA Fest.
A poster is displayed to the left hand side of the image titled Art of Afrofuturistic 2019 featuring installation by Matt Harsh and works by Kamau Grantham, Stacey Robinson, and Keenan Dailey. Photo provided by CUBAA Fest.

All-access pass holders will have the ability to attend to an online fitness Hip Hop Zumba class with trainer Kia Williams and a live cooking demo with Kendra and her husband of BookerTea Shop on how to make a Ugandan Rolex dish. What better way to learn and celebrate a culture than to learn how to make their traditional food? To get access to all the activities you can purchase the pass for only $10.

The ability to attend CUBAA Fest is a privilege we should participate in. Anyone can research a culture online or read books and articles on topics they are interested in. Despite how eye opening this research might be, it does not provide the full educational experience. Interactive learning leaves a stronger impact because it is personal. 

A young child holds a drink with a straw, smiling at the camera. She has face paint on. Image from CUBAA Fest.Child enjoying drink at CUBAA Fest 2019. Photo provided by CUBAA Fest.

It is crucial for our community to promote and celebrate diverse cultures. People need to open themselves up to new experiences, beliefs, and traditions. We are always learning, which is what makes life so beautiful and valuable. By taking the time to immerse ourselves in cultures that are unknown to us we can learn about why they are so special and meaningful to the people that are a part of them.

As a community, we must support one another and work harder to develop and grow long lasting connections with our neighbors. It can be scary and uncomfortable to try new things but once you open yourself up to the unfamiliar it is extremely rewarding. Our differences are what make us unique. Our ability to build connections and learn from one another is what makes life worth living.

Top image provided by CUBAA Fest.