Many local black artists struggle to fit in at MOJA 

This Ain't My Festival

My original intent was to write an article about the MOJA Festival and its impact on the African-American arts scene in Charleston. Makes sense. MOJA is atop us, I am an artist, and I like talking to other folks in the arts. Easy, right? Wrong. I've had more off-the-record conversations in the last week than I ever anticipated. There is disenchantment with the lack of local performing artists being featured. There is a sense, as one anonymous source put it, that "This ain't my festival." And according to a number of people — from musicians to thespians to technicians — the local buy-in from our community of African-American artists is about as flat as the economy.

But let me start with the easy, non-confrontational stuff. This is the 28th year that the festival is celebrating African-American and Caribbean arts. Those of you who have been in Charleston for any amount of time at least know that during MOJA, the culture and history of African-American and Caribbean people is celebrated through art, music, theater, dance, and literature. There are loads of free things to do, including the popular Caribbean Street Parade and the Reggae Block Party.

Brooklyn transplant and Mt. Pleasant resident Marlene Gaillard, an avid arts fan and longtime MOJA supporter, is torn about the festival this year. News of the 2011 schedule wasn't announced until just a few weeks ago, and Gaillard is disappointed with the seeming lack of organization. "First and foremost, could you explain to me why I just received my program booklet yesterday?" she says. "September 20 for a large event that begins nine days later? How does one plan for that? And there are enough 'TBAs' in this booklet that I had to ask myself if it was the name of a group I'd never heard of but was increasingly popular from the amount of times it's listed." The major R&B concert that's usually a highlight of MOJA was one of the TBA casualties.

The Office of Cultural Affair's Ellen Dressler Moryl explained that a number of factors, including a diminished staff, promoters backing out, and other events like the 9/11 commemorations, got in the way of planning. Perhaps most significantly, the MOJA program coordinator position was vacant this year, and a programming committee was tasked with the planning. Elease Amos-Goodwin, who formerly held the position and recently retired, served on the committee. "This year it has just been an occupational hazard that things didn't happen as one might want," Moryl said.

Gaillard also bemoans the lack of local talent represented at MOJA. "Why aren't there things in local venues with local musicians? Happens all the time during the big festival," she says. Moryl responded that she'll address that concern next year. "That's an interesting perspective," Moryl said. "I'll address it with the committee. As you know, we don't dictate from this office what should or shouldn't be in MOJA. We offer advice, give input, and support."

Colin Quashie is one local artist that has had some negative experiences with the festival. He's been a screenwriter, sketch comedy writer for television (MAD TV), a filmmaker, novelist, and contemporary artist. He's a bit of a provocateur, both in his work and his thought process. From the moment I met him in 1996 at my first MOJA, in which I performed with a San Francisco theater company, he has intrigued me. There he was at the end of the table, angry and loud and ready to spar with anybody crazy enough to challenge him.

"It was after that MOJA experience that I decided to leave the art world in Charleston altogether, although I'd just purchased a home here and just gotten engaged," he says. "Yeah. 1996. I told myself, 'I'm not painting the stuff they want me to do, and I'll quit before I do it.' And I did. For 10 years." 

Having been commissioned to design that year's poster, Quashie's work was a featured exhibit. That exhibit, essentially, lasted two days because the content, to the powers-that-be, was too incendiary. The exhibit was called The Black American Dream; there were 26 black ceramic tiles with gloss-black ink on a matte black surface. You could only see the black writing on the tiles from certain angles, as it was meant to be a subliminal reflection of the worst things that African Americans think about themselves. Atop that black writing, however, was white ink saying things like, "I want to be like the white man. I want to live like the white man. I want to be the only black person at a white party."

"I was trying to make a point, but I wasn't being critical," Quashie explains. "I recognized that I fell victim to some of the same stuff that I'd written. I wasn't above it. I suffered from it, too, and it needed to be talked about. I hung it on a clothesline and each tile was connected by a clothespin. Kind of like, you know, airing our dirty laundry as a community. It was an installment based on the politics of identity, racial and otherwise."

The exhibit was moved upstairs at the Dock Street, where they posted a security guard who was instructed to keep the door locked and not allow anyone under 17 inside. Quashie pulled the whole thing down and spent the next 10 years moving back and forth between Charleston and wherever he was working. Eventually, he came to a crossroads: continue working full-time on TV and film projects and let his art go, or return to Charleston and get his fingers dirty again. He chose the latter. With his studio on Upper King Street marked only by the letter Q, Quashie is quietly working to change the cultural fabric here in Charleston.

Fifteen years later, Quashie can laugh about the events of 1996. When he was invited to sit on the jury for the art submissions in 2007, he agreed, but it wasn't a great experience. He was disappointed by both the number of submissions and the quality of those submissions. "It was just too sad," he says. So, what does he want out of MOJA? His sense is that the festival jurists have a responsibility to educate the audience, to not limit what people see and define as "black art."  

"Think about the posters created for Spoleto," he says. "These artists aren't limited in what they are able to produce. They're commissioned, and, well, like the work or not, it's art. It's meant to be discussed. That's the point of art. It creates dialogue, gets you engaged. If you look at the artwork on the posters for the last 10 years, MOJA isn't really doing that. There is a theme in these posters, and they begin to look alike. Believe it or not, I'm a huge supporter of MOJA, and I want it to be the best."

To be fair, there are a number of artist lectures on the slate again this year, and the Jonathan Green image gracing the poster is gorgeous. There are some artists being juried whose work runs the gamut, including that of Karole Turner Campbell, a mixed-media artist who has been involved in one way or another with MOJA since 2005, a year before she and her husband moved here. Her work is evocative, from title to texture, and according to Campbell, "Like it or not, as long as you're willing to dialogue about it, be engaged by it, whether you reject it or celebrate it, that conversation about the work is important and the point of the art."

Campbell is leading this year's writing workshop. Instead of poetry, the gathered students, pre-selected by Charleston County Schools, will write monologues. "They'll write their stories, explore their voices, and share them," Turner says. A former playwright, Campbell recognizes the importance and empowerment in finding a way to articulate and share your voice. 

And speaking of literary endeavors, Nigerian-born writer, attorney, and educator (at the Charleston School of Law) Jacqueline Maduneme is about to experience her first MOJA Festival, and she couldn't be more excited. Her book, Ada's Daughter, is being promoted at the Avery Research Center in the Literary Corner with a signing and reading by the author. When asked what she was looking forward to about the festival, she spoke to the opportunity of meeting people in the community. "I've been here almost a year, and this will be one of my first opportunities to meet people of African-American descent. I'm hoping this event will connect me to the community here in Charleston. And I love the idea that MOJA is meant to be enjoyed and celebrated by everyone — all cultures — but its focus is the cultural and artistic depth within the African diaspora."

I also spoke to an emerging artist, actress Liza Dye, who was seen in PURE Theatre's production of David Mamet's Race last season. Dye, who heard about the MOJA Festival years before moving here from Spartanburg, was just as confused about how to become a part of it as a local actor. "I checked the website, asked people I thought would know, and finally just let it go. I wanted to audition for something, work on something," Dye says. "I mean, if this is the premier festival for African-American artists in this region, I wanted to be a part of it. But nothing. I couldn't find any information." Will that keep her away? "Probably. I mean, I'll catch something if I can, but I heard there is only one theater piece."

Indeed, the only theatrical offering this year, housed at the Circular Congregational Church on Meeting Street, is a Carlie Town Production, Diary Frum De Neck: Part 3: Dis Ya Da Gullah/Geechee Famblee Reunion. Other than that, there's no "traditional" theater. How does that happen at an arts festival? Well, it happens this way: Art Forms and Theatre Concepts, the local African-American production company generally seen during MOJA and Piccolo, says they did not have the financing to produce a show this season.

I spoke to a musician about the music scene during the festival and, upon agreeing to keep him anonymous, the disappointment and disconnect from MOJA was clear. "I've done MOJA. We all have," he says. "We've opened for the national artists they bring in or if you are an instrumentalist, you might fill out a chair, but I've never been approached to be the feature and wouldn't know the first thing about making that happen. It's interesting because a number of us work with the city on other ventures, but with MOJA ... Hell, they even bring sound techs in from out of town. Does that make sense? We've got local soundmen here that could use the work and deserve the work. It's not just the lack of local musicians, vocal or instrumental, it is the lack of local talent period. When was the last time you did MOJA?"

Good question. It's been a lot of years for a number of reasons, but as soon as they open up applications for next year, I'm downloading one. No point in kvetching about what is and what ain't if I'm not willing to get my feet wet again.

Joy Vandervort-Cobb is an associate professor of African-American theatre and performance at the College of Charleston.

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