Cultural Exchange

African Cultural Art Forum, Frito Bastien, and Isaac Maefield

Cultural Exchange aims to create temporary ground for conversational exchange, for considering what we know and what we need to know from one another. We invite you to amplify the stories that can be told about the people, works, and issues represented - and about the future we want to shape together. Recognizing that the stories of these men, and our times, is more rightly told collectively and by the community, PFP is asking for community input. The exhibition will be up until December 17th. At a series of monthly programs, and over the course of the fall, we invite you to respond to the exhibition by amplifying the stories, histories and politics outlined here. For more information, email us or call 215.726.1106. View Slideshow


This new exhibition honors four local Black men who have devoted their lives to community betterment. Folk arts have been resources for them and sources of value. Cultural Exchange recognizes the significance of their labors, takes inspiration from their 40+ years of diligent and dedicated service, and honors their efforts to shape a future for others (especially others who have been written off, or sacrificed as collateral damage). PFP inaugurates our new Philadelphia Folklore Project "Folk Arts and Social Change" residency series (and our 25th year), with an exhibition that values and draws attention to grassroots collective vision and practice: to work where freedom, equity, and accountability to community are abiding concerns.

Cultural Exchange celebrates the efforts of four vanguard cultural workers: men who have practiced alternative economics and politics for decades. In making, trading, and re-circulating folk arts, and in constant devotion to others, Rashie Abdul Samad, Sharif Abdur-Rahim, Frito Bastien, and Isaac Maefield have forged ways forward. Humbly and with consistent ethical principles, they have regenerated value, community, beauty, integrity, and resistance. Examples of their work trace community-based movements in formative stages. The exhibition can be experienced in many ways: one way is to take it as a reminder that revolutions begin in everyday actions. Rashie Abdul Samad says: "If anything is going to change, it will come from exchange with each other."

The African Cultural Art Forum, which Rashie Abdul Samad and his brother Sharif Abdur-Rahim founded, have pioneered culturally-minded trade since 1969. Their goal is to foster community self-sustainability and cultural awareness. The depth of their enterprise is visible in their sculpture collection, incense line and beauty products. Isaac Maefield credits the brothers: "They were among the first to educate people about what was happening throughout the African Diaspora, in terms of literature, hair culture, beauty, and more. We didn't know about shea butter until the vendors brought it. This is part of the undervalued material culture of America. Through their energy, many were educated and exposed to African arts."

Isaac Maefield has championed and cultivated cultural traditions from his North Philadelphia neighborhood for decades. His commitment is traced in carvings, canes and checkerboards handmade by him and others. All of these crafts are richly annotated with inspiring (and necessary) stories of neighbors, family, local and international politics, and visions for youth.

Frito Bastien's
paintings chronicle everyday life in his native Haiti and his Philadelphia home. His work shows beauty, violence, and the experience of resettlement and adjustment in his community at various stages of his life. Despite many setbacks, his artistic practice says we endure.

Together, the assembled works reflect compelling alternatives: community-minded and collective effort. Featured artists and cultural workers show how purposeful lives, arts, and interests can build the worlds we imagine and want to inhabit. Cultural Exchange encourages us to ask: On what values do we rely? On what legacies do we draw? What does it mean to reclaim, reconstitute and recirculate culture and heritage? Who benefits and what is at stake? How are the experiences of older generations of cultural workers relevant today? Cultural Exchange aims to honor these men and their efforts, and to encourage public attention to grassroots politics and practices - local folk arts of social change.

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Rashie Abdul Samad and Sharif Abdur-Rahim were born in Penn's Grove, New Jersey. They established African Cultural Art Forum (ACAF) in 1969 with their store on S. 60th Street. In 1969-70, they fought to be among the first vendors in center city Philadelphia to sell cultural goods. They began manufacturing incense in 1971, and have since developed, produced, and distributed their own line of products "made in the community for the economic development of the community." In their early days, responding to a need for images reflecting Black cultural identity, ACAF began producing wall plaques, using prints produced by local artists Calypso, Leon Wisdom and others. Bringing culturally-minded goods to the people, they became a well-known presence, selling out of carts at community gatherings like ODUNDE, Unity Day, the Penn Relays and homecomings. Rashie Abdul Samad recalls that in 1975, African arts were not widely available locally. He traveled to Haiti buying and bartering Black-manufactured goods. Abdul Samad remembers, "We were running off of what Malcolm was saying— that we had to become producers." ACAF shea butter, body oils, incense and incense accessories are now widely available in stores throughout the region and ACAF aims to reach two million customers. Since 1995, their products, along with a collection of African art gathered through travels and trade, have been displayed and sold in their store in the former Aqua Lounge jazz club, at 221 S. 52nd Street. Selections of art from Haiti, Mali, Cameroon, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, and their product line are on display at PFP, tracing ACAF's 42-year journey for self-determination.

Frito Bastien was born in 1954 in Jacmel, a coastal town on Haiti's southern peninsula. He began working on canvas at thirteen, when he became the apprentice of well-known Haitian painter Celestin Faustin. In 1969, he and his family moved to Port-au-Prince, where he continued his schooling and learned about craft-making and carpentry, which became his livelihood. In late 1991, Bastien's political activities made him a target of Haiti's paramilitary forces, the tontons-mâcoute. After two of his colleagues were assassinated, he was forced into exile. A few months after arriving in Philadelphia, Bastien learned that his wife and children had survived and were in living in Port-au-Prince. Bastien's luminous paintings share thematic content of an artistic tradition that has flourished in Haiti since the 1940s. He paints from his imagination and memory of the life and mountainous landscapes of rural Haiti, illustrating the customs and rituals of his homeland. Although much of his work evokes joyful memories, several subtly contain an underlying element of violence, evil and hardship. This is a strategy traditionally used by Haitian artists who could not safely oppose the repressive regime openly for fear of persecution, but instead used this method of artist coding to express the concerns of the community. In Philadelphia for nineteen years, Bastien continues to use indirect means of expression. His beautiful paintings contrast with the reality with which he lives every day. His family lost their home in the earthquake. "I don't have anything to do but imagine what is going on," he says. "I have a headache all the time, remembering what people are going through. No work for them. No houses. So many people died. Sometimes I paint just to stop myself from remembering. Sometimes I put the paint on the wall to help my mind calm down." Because of a work-related injury in 2009, he has been unable to paint on an easel or on walls. "Art is my life," he says, expressing the hope that he will find a way to continue painting to share his experiences and to raise money to send home to help his family. Bastien's work has been shown in PFP's "Folk Arts of Social Change" and a Challenge exhibition at Fleisher, Moore College of Art, Art Alliance, City Hall, and Vivant Gallery, as well as on walls throughout Philadelphia during his tenure at the Mural Arts Program. He has received awards from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and a Pew Fellowship in the Arts.

Isaac Maefield, Jr. gained an unparalleled education in carving, storytelling and community history by listening to, and learning from, people around him. Most of those from whom he learned are also "self-taught," in the sense that their educations have been self-directed: they have sought out others, often at considerable trouble. Maefield's training as an artist began in his own home. His parents, who migrated to Philadelphia from Georgia in the 1940s, settled in North Philadelphia. They encouraged their children's artistry and creativity. Isaac Maefield, Sr. spent hours in his basement workshop, and Maefield, Jr. remembers helping: measuring and holding things still. As a child, he was bored by the kind of meticulous care that his father required, but the lessons stayed with him. After his father passed in 1979, he began to carve - making things with his hands in his father's memory. His mother, a hairdresser and a writer, passed her literary and story-telling skills on to her son. An encounter with Gwendolyn Brooks, in which the 17-year-old Maefield shared his own poems with the audience, led to a college scholarship. Maefield remains active as a poet and story-teller, and was one of the founders of Pathfinders, and of Keepers of the Culture, Philadelphia's Afrocentric storytelling group. His carving, sculpture, and jewelry has been showcased at the African American Museum of Philadelphia, Balch Institute, Erie Museum of Art, Hershey Museum of American Life, the Luckenbach Mill Gallery, and in a PFP exhibition at City Hall, among other places. His work has been commissioned by the Smithsonian Institute, WDAS Radio, and by the United Negro College Fund for a piece that was given to Nelson Mandela. An artist in residence at the Paul Robeson House, and elsewhere, Maefield has worked as a teaching artist for decades, both through the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and independently. He actively develops arts education programs for young people in his North Philadelphia neighborhood and city-wide.


At the exhibition, we're asking people to choose their favorite work in the show, and then tell us about it. Here are some of their responses:

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  1. Afternoon Rainbow. Frito Bastien. Oil on canvas, 36" x 24", 1994. "When the rain came in Haiti, you would see a rainbow. When I was six, my grandmother used to say, "If you raise your finger to the rainbow, it will cut you.' I used to try to do it, and I saw my finger was not cut! She would laugh!"
  2. Farmer. Frito Bastien. Oil on canvas, 24" x 18", 2009. "In the countryside, after farmers feed their animals, they would be happy to go to their gardens. Back home, the gardens were filled with pineapples, mangoes, bananas and everything! Every morning, when I was a child, I remember my family bringing me fresh coconut, sugar cane or mangoes or avocados!"
  3. Waiting for the boat. Frito Bastien. Oil on canvas, 24" x 18", 2009. "1991 through 1994 were very terrible times. The two people here are waiting for the boat to come so they can leave. This is just as it was when I was waiting to come here - hiding until we could see a boat to flee to get free."
  4. School in the Countryside. Frito Bastien. Oil on canvas, 24" x 18", 2008. "Some schools were very far away, in the countryside. Children (me and many others) would walk two hours to go to school."

  5. Chess board. Isaac Maefield, Sr. Black and white painted wood, 16" x 16", 1960. Made by Isaac's father and completed by Isaac. This collection of chess and checker (draught) boards represents the community tradition of making and playing these board games in laundromats, parks, recreation centers and elsewhere. Valuing the skill of this art, and the material and expressive traditions involved (from nicknames to trash talking) Isaac started the first "Rise and Fly" celebration at Boot's Laundromat on his mother's birthday, June 9, 2006 to bring together master checker players. "History, art and culture changes people. The culture of checkers is very therapeutic. The language and the usage of it: It's almost like an unwritten rule of checkers as its played at Bootsie's. You can call someone a name, You can tell them how fantastic you are. How they know nothing about it. You can talk trash. Very similar to playing ball. One of the therapeutic things about playing is you can affirm your 'I am.' That trash talking translates into your everyday life. You gotta believe in yourself even when it looks you are against all odds. Sometimes it looks like you are going to lose a game, then you see a move and it opens it all up. These skills are transferable to everyday life. You can think that all is lost, but then there's a move you can make. Or there's a blessing that comes your way."
  6. Green and Green Checkerboard. Bobby Hart. Light and dark green painted wood, 25.5" x 22", 2005. There is so much creativity in our communities: "Bobby Hart makes chairs by scratch - intricate tables and chairs. He does it for love as a hobby. When he saw me making these elaborate boards: that made him want to make a better board. The same thing with the walking sticks. . ."
  7. Yellow and Green Checkerboard. Bobby Hart. Yellow and green painted wood and masonite, 24.5" x 25", 1996.
  8. Cardboard Checkerboard. Bobby Hart. White painted cardboard, 28" x 22", 2011.
  9. Checkerboard. Isaac Maefield. Yellow and green painted wood with end boxes and checker pieces, 28.5" x 22.5", 2009.
  10. Checkerboard. Isaac Maefield. Wood and leopard-patterned acrylic, 28.5" x 23", 2010.
  11. Plexiglass checkerboard. Bob Herbert ("South Philly Bob"), paint, paper, plexiglass. 24" x 24". 1990s.
  12. Philadelphia Evening. Frito Bastien. Oil on canvas, 34" x 34", 2009. "One time I went walking with a friend here, and I liked the neighborhood. I remembered and made this painting. When I start to paint again, I want to try to mix my paintings more to show what I like about both Philadelphia and Haiti. I have been here for 19 years. This is my home. Anywhere you live is your neighborhood. Your people are your people."
  13. Cobra Walking Stick. Isaac Maefield. Carved sumac, 38" x variable circumference, 1981. Isaac's carving was inspired by his father's work in wood. In the 1980s, Isaac was paying special to the Philadelphia tradition of carving walking sticks and canes; he met and documented dozens of other carvers.
  14. Unfinished Walking Stick with adinkra symbols. Mark Brown. Carved wood, 40.5" x variable circumference, started 2006. Mark Brown is Isaac's neighbor and student; Isaac values his innovative use of 22 adinkra symbols in this stick.
  15. To B.B., Walking Stick. Thomas "Ade" Mitchell. Carved wood, 38" x variable circumference, 1983. Mitchell was one of the original Pathfinders, an organization of African American artists started by Isaac c. 1981.
  16. Dogon Mask. Unknown artist probably from Cameroon. Carved and painted wood. 41" x 9" x 6", c. 1975. Collection of African Cultural Art Forum. Sharif Abdur-Rahim traveled to West Africa, trading goods and developing inventory and markets for ACAF, always searching for Black-made goods and ways to connect with people through barter.
  17. The Visionary. Isaac Maefield. Painted and carved wood from recycling center, 32" x 12" x 10", 1990.
  18. The Messengers. Isaac Maefield. Carved wooden frame, 20" x 16" x 1.5", 1990. This frame contains a photo show of images: Isaac's work, community "Rise n' Fly" events, the African Cultural Art Forum, and work by Frito Bastien.
  19. Man with a Dog. Frito Bastien. Oil on canvas, 14" x 11", 1998. "In the morning time, I went somewhere with my friend. At that time, we lost our way. We saw a man taking care of his dog in the early morning and he gave directions to get home! I remember so much in my mind. . . ."
  20. Mask with Cowrie shells. Unknown artist, probably from Ivory Coast. Wood, cloth, and cowrie shalls, 23" x 9" x 8", c, 1975. Collection of African Cultural Art Forum.
  21. April in Philadelphia. Frito Bastien. Oil on canvas, 14" x 11", 1997. "April is my favorite month. It is nice everywhere! You see all the flowers coming up. In almost all of the paintings I make, you can see flowers. I like flowers!"
  22. African Cultural Art Forum product display. See individual prices on products.

  23. The Drum Major. Isaac Maefield. Wood and brass, 24" x 6" x 6", 1983.
  24. Weeding Flowers. Frito Bastien. Oil on canvas, 10" x 8", 1994. "I remember this lady, outside Port-au-Prince. Every morning, she would be weeding the flowers."
  25. Selling Cooked Corn. Frito Bastien. Oil on canvas, 10" x 8", framed, 1970. "Every morning, people make and sell cooked corn, avocado, and piqué for breakfast. They still do that in Haiti. It is a good breakfast!"
  26. Woman with Blue Necklace. Frito Bastien. Oil on canvas, 16" x 12", 1991. "She was a tough woman and a very hard worker, in Jacmel. She was never laughing. She lived alone. Many people would tell her she should get married, but she would say "No.' She finally got married when she was 45. Then she found someone she liked. Her name was Janine. They had one child, a baby boy. After that, her husband died."
  27. Man with Pipe. Frito Bastien. Oil on canvas, 14" x 11", 2009. "That is Sabien, my aunt's husband: a birthday man! He had a pipe and was smoking all the time. He was dressed up for his birthday. All of these portraits are people I remember from Jacmel."

  28. Male statue. Unknown artist, likely from Ivory Coast. Wood, 23" x 8" x 8", c. 1975. Collection of African Cultural Art Forum.
  29. Ogun. Unknown artist, likely from Nigeria. Wood and mixed media on base, 20" x 8" x 8", c. 1975. Collection of African Cultural Art Forum.
  30. Cousin's Ceremony Treatment. Frito Bastien. Oil on canvas, 24" x 18", 2010. "When someone is sick, they turn to those who know what leaves and natural treatments are good to use to regain health. People know how to use natural medicine. When they did these ceremonies, people would invite my grandmother, and I would come with her."
  31. Damballah Ceremony. Unknown Haitian artist. Wood, 46" x 9" x 8", c. 1980-85. Collection of African Cultural Art Forum. Rashie Abdul Samad traveled to Haiti in the 1980s. Appreciating the freedom available in that country, he began to live there six months at a time, making and trading incense. Living in Haiti allowed him to rethink what counts as "poverty" and what counts as wealth; it also deepened his understanding of the destructive impact of racism. This is one of the works he acquired during those years.
  32. Ceremony Damballah. Frito Bastien. Oil on canvas, framed, 24" x 18", 2009. "This is the same thing: they are treating people to make them healthy." Often depicted as a serpent and associated with snakes, Damballah is one of the most important of all the Haitian loa (spirits).
  33. Ceremonial Kinara. Isaac Maefield. Wood, 26" x 20" x 9", 2000. This Kinara was used by Maulana Karenga at a community Kwanzaa celebration.
  34. Malcolm X. Leon Wisdom. Produced by African Cultural Art Forum. Print on wood, 19" x 15" x .5", c. 1971. One of the first ACAF efforts: culturally-centered art by local artists printed on wood. Other works from this era are #35 and #39 below.
  35. Malcolm X. Isaac Maefield. Relief carved mahogany, 8" x 13" x .75", c. 1991.
  36. Little Black Boy. Artist unknown. Produced by African Cultural Art Forum, Print on wood, 12" x 10" x .5", c. 1968. Another early ACAF print created by an artist from Delaware.
  37. Bob Marley Family. Artist unknown. Photo, wood, ceramic mosaic, 12" x 12" x .5". Collection of African Cultural Art Forum, c. 1960s. From early on, local artists would stop by ACAF to sell or barter their wares for cash or products. ACAF built both trade and an important collection as a result.
  38. Prototype for Nelson Mandela award. Carved mahogany, 11" x 13" x .75". c. 1990. This piece was commissioned by the United Negro College Fund and presented to Mandela shortly after his release from prison. This work led Isaac into making other portraits in wood, including a work similar to this for Denzel Washington and another commissioned by Jonathan Demme for Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
  39. Three Women with Tray. Artist unknown. 17" x 21", Collection of African Cultural Art Forum, c. 1991. Another early work by a local artist.
  40. Martin Luther King Jr. Calypso. Print on wood. Produced by African Cultural Art Forum, c. 1968. From the beginning, ACAF recognized the need for culturally meaningful and positive art and images for the community.
  41. Twin Towers. Frito Basten. Paint on canvas, 44" x 28", 2005. "These were the first buildings I saw when I came here in 1992. When you tilt your head to see them, it will give you a headache! I was still thinking about them in 2005. To keep my mind relaxed, I painted them. I wonder what people will think about them."

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Thanks: We are grateful to Rashie Abdul Samad and Sharif Abdur-Rahim (African Cultural Art Forum), Frito Bastien, and Isaac Maefield. The exhibition was curated by the artists in collaboration with Selina Morales and Debora Kodish. Isaac Maefield installed the show. Thank you to Eric Joselyn, Mia-lia Kiernan and Kate Farquhar for help. PFP funding was provided by the William Penn Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Philadelphia Cultural Fund, and The Pew Center for Art and Heritage, through the Philadelphia Cultural Management Initiative and Heritage Philadelphia programs, and by PFP members like you.

The Philadelphia Folklore Project is committed to paying attention to the experiences and traditions of "ordinary" people. We work to sustain the diverse folk arts of the greater Philadelphia region, build critical folk cultural knowledge, and create equitable processes and practices for nurturing local grassroots arts and humanities. We're a 24-year old independent public folklife agency; annually, we offer exhibitions, concerts, workshops and assistance to artists and communities.

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