Okay, look. There’s a lot going on in Champaign-Urbana this weekend. It’s PYGMALION weekend, it’s Pride weekend, but please oh please do not overlook another festival happening September 27th and 28th in downtown Urbana. Sisters-in-law Cindy Ogwal and Susan Ogwal are bringing C-U’s first Black and African Arts Festival to Lincoln Square Mall, with some additional events happening at the Independent Media Center and Urbana Free Library, and it is not-to-be-missed.
Cindy grew up in Chicago, and now works for the Office of Minority Student Affairs at the University of Illinois, where her work involves going into area middle and high schools to talk to students about setting their sights on college. Her mother is from Nigeria, father from Ghana, so she’s spent her life with one foot in American culture and the other in African culture. “I’ve always wanted to be the type of person to want to expose people to my culture,” says Cindy. She did so in college through organizing events such as fashion shows.
Susan came to the U.S. with her family in the 1990s. They were war refugees from Uganda, and came to C-U when her father was accepted into a PhD program at the U of I. Susan is now the PhD student. She’s president of the African Student Organization, and has been very involved in immigration initiatives in the community (she’s actually just received a Welcome Award because of her work), drawing on her experiences growing up as a new American. “We were one of the very few African families here, let alone in the classroom. My experience has been interesting to say the least. Certainly very challenging and difficult, but also seeing the growth of African families and individuals here has really warmed our hearts. When we first came to the U.S. it was very isolating and hard.”
Knowing where these two women are coming from, they are perfectly poised to plan such an event. And it’s an idea that’s been brewing for a while. “There’s been a lot of underground conversation,” said Susan. Cindy did a lot of traveling back home to attend cultural events: the African Fest or Caribbean Fest, and she was looking to fill a void she saw here, a need for cultural programming centered around black and African culture.
Cindy initially wanted to do a fashion show, then they started thinking bigger, talking about adding vendors, and the idea grew. In this organizing duo, Susan is the one always ready to jump into action. “She’s a pusher,” said Cindy, laughing. Susan's response: “Are you going to be a part of the solution, or not?”
The official process of setting the wheels in motion began with an application for an Urbana Arts Grant landing on Susan’s desk. They put in the application and soon after found out they’d won a grant, and “at that point it became real,” said Susan.
They were a bit nervous in initially getting the word out about the event. Cindy wondered “How are they going to receive us?” But over the summer they hit the pavement, Cindy traveling around the Midwest to attend similar festivals and make connections with possible vendors, and Susan shoring up support from the local community, and they’ve ended up with a balance of outside folks and local vendors. They’ve actually had to start turning people away. “We’ve had a great response,” said Cindy.
Take a peek at their Facebook page, and you can see the wide variety of vendors featuring fashion, jewelry, beauty products, as well as arts and crafts. There will be an interactive art installation entitled “Art of Afrofuturism” on display at Lincoln Square, which “explores the developing intersection of African Diaspora culture with technology cultivating a vision of black futures that stem from afro-diasporic experiences. It features works by BlackMau/Kamau Grantham, Stacey Robinson, and Keenan Dailey.
The festival is kid-friendly, with numerous opportunities for kids to learn more about African culture. They’ve partnered with Art Coop and The Idea Store for arts and crafts projects; there will be a dance and drum workshop at the IMC; and there will be storytelling featuring black authors at Urbana Free Library.
Photo by Jessica Hammie
And of course, most importantly, there will be plenty of music and food. The restaurants at Lincoln Square: Balderotta’s, Yellow Canary Cafe, and Stango Cuisine will be serving food, and you will also find deliciousness from Neil Street Blues, and even more food vendors from Chicago.
Cindy hopes that attendees will coming away from the festival “knowing they have a space,” in the community, and wants people to see the immense amount of talent that exists here in our black and African communities. According to Susan, this festival is about “celebrating the beauty of blackness...It’s not just limited to Africa. There’s a story here about being black in America, and what does that story look like...This is an opportunity for folks to see us unified. Often times people want to focus on tensions within our own community, black vs. African, and we just want to celebrate. There are stories to tell, talent to share, creativity and beauty in a time where people want to make you feel bad about who you are.”
What an opportunity for black and African community members to celebrate in a space where they are celebrated and centered. But it will also hopefully be an experience where those not in those communities can come alongside, listen, learn, and appreciate the richness of our diverse community.
Check out the C-U Black and African Facebook page for more information about the festival. General admission is free, but you will want to have money on hand for buying and eating. The festival goes from 4 to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Photos and images from C-U Black and African Arts Facebook page except where noted