Artists in Exile Exhibition

Die Jess Sah Bi

Artists in Exile: Photographs by Thomas B. Morton

Over the last decade, Philadelphia's neighborhoods have been enriched by newcomers from Western, Central, Eastern and Southern African cultures. Often fleeing war and tragedies, these immigrants bring with them generations-old family and community traditions of art-making. Too often, immigrants put aside these arts, however sustaining, because they need to make a living, because such arts are held in little regard here, because this society follows a different rhythm. The eleven artists depicted in this modest photo exhibition are exceptional artists, singers, dancers and drummers. They are depicted rehearsing and performing during a rare opportunity to come together to practice their arts, for a Philadelphia Folklore Project program called "Philly Dance Africa."

 

Introduction

Over the last decade, Philadelphia's neighborhoods have been enriched by newcomers from Western, Central, Eastern and Southern African cultures. Often fleeing war and tragedies, these immigrants bring with them generations-old family and community traditions of art-making. Too often, immigrants put aside these arts, however sustaining, because they need to make a living, because such arts are held in little regard here, because this society follows a different rhythm. The eleven artists depicted in this modest photo exhibition are exceptional artists, singers, dancers and drummers. They are depicted rehearsing and performing during a rare opportunity to come together to practice their arts, for a Philadelphia Folklore Project program called "Philly Dance Africa." "Philly Dance Africa" and this companion exhibition are modest attempts to raise our collective consciousness about resources: about important local artists and art traditions that exist outside public view. Often, people assume that art is something that needs to be brought to urban communities. Here at the PFP, we are committed to getting the word out that artists are alive - maybe not so well, but definitely ALIVE - in our gritty city. "Artists in Exile" is one in a series of Philadelphia Folklore Project (PFP) exhibitions that work to make more visible some amazing artists living in Philadelphia's diverse urban neighborhoods.

Thomas B. Morton is an African American photographer, born and raised in Philadelphia. He has pursued his interest in the significance of culture in many ways: through formal study of photography and linguistics, field research and through various jobs. He has worked in the Peace Corps and in human relations and mediation. All photographs were taken either with a 35mm "point and shoot" or a single lens reflex (Nikon) camera. All were taken in available light during the fall of 1997 during informal gatherings, rehearsals and performances for what became "Philly Dance Africa," produced by the Philadelphia Folklore Project.

"If I was to say it in my own language..."

"The way I see it - because I have not voluntarily joined people in exile - I was forced out of my home, my people, my roots, my whole life.

I have spent now more than twenty years trying to make people, more especially in Europe and America, to understand exactly where I was coming from. But it is hard because you have to crack at this big opaque wall until you can be allowed in. So you have to come with a very, very, big hammer to hit, and sometimes you don't have that hammer to actually crack through. I mean that before people can understand, you have to make a very big impact.

The society is not going to open up, because of their teachings about who we are. The colonialism has messed up the relationships between people at large. The problem also of being controlled by the media causes a harder and harsher sense of relations between Africa and the other world. So I said, you have to make a very big impact - whether you come being a writer, whether you come being a musician, a dancer, a painter, whatever, you have to make something that is going to shake them in order to get them to start looking - not listening - just looking to see who is making this noise.

And some of this is very dangerous, because the government that has let you in exile doesn't like your views, because you have opened up the Pandora's box. Miriam Makeba has put it this way. She said, "I have seen how I have lost everything that I had by simply being an African and a good woman, and by giving myself and my head to be chopped off." Meaning every time I give myself to this new society, they chop my head off. And this has happened to very many, many exiles, including myself.

You have to be twice as good as others to be accepted. Also it is very hard for me in America because the race issue just hits you in your face. In Europe there is a race issue, but there is an understanding of culture. Americans are not wanting to understand who you are. Everything you do is looked at, as "He is an African - how does he know this?" Africa is looked at as a destitute continent, where people are not supposed to know anything. People assume that you are primitive.

These are the things that are very hard in exile - let alone practicing your own rituals, your own language. Once you stop practicing your own language, when you stop speaking your own language... it kills a man's pride. It kills you. Because that is the way you can communicate best... Now you have to be looking at your issues and where you are. So you study the people outside you. You do more to study the people outside you than yourself. It demands you to move away from yourself....

So the same applies to most of us who have been in exile for a long time. Most of the time, the hostility builds. Things like that change you - the anger, the hostility. You still want people to understand that you are a human being. But the whole country does not deal that way. They are not taught that way. It is a hard experience even to talk about. These are the words that I can even get out, but something deep is embedded and my tongue cannot say. Because, also it is the problem of language. If I was to say it in my language, to my people, just as much as you are understanding the feelings that you hear - just imagine if I was to tell it in my own language....

The poor in America and the poor from where I come from see things very differently. Back home they understand what makes them poor - it is the oppressive state of the former government. What about it if you speak for justice? It is about speaking the truth. But there is all us, there are a lot of us in exile. And as for speaking the truth, we don't have any other choice...."

- Mogauwane Mahloele

transcribed from interviews with Debora Kodish and Teresa Jaynes

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Artists and their origins

"Here, it is a completely different story altogether..." - Dan Nii Armah Hammond

01. Victoria Laryea has been dancing all of her life. Born and raised within the Ashanti region of Ghana, she learned to dance by watching elders at family functions. At age six, she joined the Pioneer Cultural Group, formed by President Nkrumah to preserve the culture of Ghana. She has been involved in many other dance ensembles, and has toured internationally. In 1996, she moved to Philadelphia, where she has had few opportunities to dance. Here, she is in Dan Nii Armah Hammond's cab, arriving at a rehearsal for the "Philly Dance Africa" program co-ordinated by the Philadelphia Folklore Project, from which these photographs come.

02. Jess Sah Bi ordinarily plays the kolon, but here, caught up in the spirit of the moment, this Ivorian musician and artist picks up a drum to join in a song. Artists who didn't know one another came together to rehearse and the gatherings became enjoyable social events, attended by family and friends.

03. Emily Ratswana and Nomsa Majola-Smith, South African dancers, are both from Soweto. They met here and have been dancing together, with other women from different South African regions, sharing their knowledge of dance with one another, piecing together a collective South African heritage.

04. Ismaila Adjin-Tettey was raised in Accra, Ghana. He was drawn to the drum when he was very young, and learned many traditional rhythms while watching elders including his grandfather, Yacub Addy, known in the United States as leader and master drummer of the performing group Odadaa.

05. Mogauwane Mahloele, South African artist and drummer, was born in Storomo and raised in Mamelodi ya Tshwane, South Africa. He was born a drummer, playing music "since his mother's womb," he says, because his mother was a traditional dancer and so he, too, danced, even before he was born.

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The powerful meaning of music and dance

"When I am dancing, it lifts my spirit away from that...." --Kormassa Bobo

06. "I never went to voice training school. And I was born writing and singing. And then learning from other people, too.... Everything we did, even when we went swimming, we got a song we used to sing.... Everything that we do, for the birth of a child, the death of somebody, for weddings, for every occasion. But when I sing, I feel good. I smile to myself. I feel like I am home." --Hawa Moore, Liberian singer

Hawa Moore

07. "My father died and my mother, sister and brother are in refugee camps. When I am dancing, it lifts my spirit away from that.... I am so happy to be here. But there have been things I didn't expect. A lot of laws stop non-qualified citizens from doing this or doing that. That hurts. I have been here over 11 years. I am not a criminal. The laws treat me like a criminal, and I am not! I want to help people here, to do my art. Over all that, I really want to get my mother and brother and sister out of the refugee camp. I don't want them to die there. It is so hard. During the war, they burned my town down. I have no home but here now." --Kormassa Bobo, Liberian-born dancer

Kormassa Bobo, #7

08. "It is complex. I traveled down here to further my education in building construction. I went to school and I couldn't afford the fees to become an engineer so I changed to nursing assistant. And I went to Bronx Community College to be a carpenter, like I was back home. I couldn't get a job as a carpenter. The music is already there in me. So I thought I would put that to use." --Dan Nii Armah Hammond, Ghanaian drummer

Nii Armah (photo #8)

09. "I just want people to know about the instrument that I play. ...I use the kolon to make a mix of music because music is universal. I just want people to learn to be together...." --Die Jess Sah Bi, Ivorian musician and artist

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Trying to sustain arts here

"Back home, it is easy to get people to join you. Over here, it is not easy at all." --Dan Nii Armah Hammond

10. Kormasa Bobo, Nomsa Majola-Smith and Hawa Moore dancing together. Liberian-born Kormassa is a dancer and performer from the Lorma ethnic group. She was performing by the time she was four with her family's dance troupe, an ensemble that was very well-known in Liberia. This was just the beginning of her career, which was cut short when she left Liberia in 1985 to escape the war. Hawa Moore, also Liberian, and a well-known singer in her native land, came here in 1991, also interrupting a thriving career. Working in food service industries, and as domestics, these Liberian women raise their families, sacrificing their arts and talents.

11. Dancing South African indlamu dance, Nomsa Majola-Smith and Emily Ratswana. Both women learned dance by watching elders. Neither danced publicly or as performers in South Africa. Both came to the dance here, as young women, choosing their own identities.

12. Victoria Laryea has spent countless hours dancing. When she was seventeen and a member of the Wulomei Group, a traditional cultural performing group, she would train as many as nine hours a day. Her breadth of experience is also wide: she knows the dances gahu, kpanlogo, otufo, adowe, bobobo, and many others from the Ewe, Ga and other ethnic groups in Ghana. Few can match her knowledge of Ghanaian dance traditions, but she performs rarely, as opportunities are scarce.

Victoria Laryea #12

13. Victoria Laryea and Ahmed Adjin-Tettey dancing the Ghanaian social dance kpanlogo in a rehearsal. Kpanlogo originated among Ga drummers in the early 1960s in Accra. Known as "everybody's dance" in Ghana, it is pan-ethnic and a favorite Ghanaian dance.

14. Ghanaian Dan Nii Armah Hammond drums, while Vuyisile Smith plays cowbells.

15. A battery of percussionists: Ghanaians Dan Nii Armah Hammond and Ismaila Adjin-Tettey, native Philadelphian Robert Kenyatta (front); Victoria Laryea, Nomsa Majola Smith, Kormassa Bobo, rear.

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Facing challenges

"Now people are beginning to understand that we have a culture and a background...." --Nomsa Majola-Smith

16. "It is difficult that a musician cannot do as you used to do back home,. You cannot do it like back home, exactly. We are in a different culture and place." --Dan Nii Armah Hammond. Mixing traditions, making here and now feel like home, when these artists performed at a public event, "Philly Dance Africa," the evening began with a traditional libation. Victoria Laryea is to the left, drummers to the rear.

17. "Trying to get people to open their minds up to what you believe in, and to make them understand why you are here to begin with: these are the problems we have to face. Coming wasn't something that we had wanted to do, but things weren't getting any better. You try many ways to figure out what is safe, and what will be a way to have a future. With South Africans, people never thought of us as anything else than fighting apartheid. Now people are beginning to understand that we have a culture and a background and that we have something to add to the art work of the world. From the point of view of people here, South Africa is just now becoming a place and an art that people can know. It is almost as if it is a new country." --Nomsa Majola-Smith

Nomsa Majola-Smith #17

18. "When you are ripe, the older people will show you more. They will say, 'It's not yours as yet.' You can play it, but you have to have yours." --Mogauwane Mahloele. Mahloele speaks of his own training. Here is Ismaila Adjin-Tettey and his drum.

19. "Sometimes, I make believe that I am in Africa. And if I'm with my friends, they say, 'You're not in Africa, Hawa.' But I make believe I am." - Hawa Moore. American Nana Akosua B. Agiriwah dances with Liberian Hawa Moore.

20. Victoria Laryea leaves rehearsal.

21. "If you are lucky, you may be heard." --Dan Nii Armah Hammond.

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Credits

Artists in Exile: Photographs by Thomas B. Morton is one in a series of ethnographic photo exhibitions organized by the Philadelphia Folklore Project, and installed in community sites. The Philadelphia Folklore Project documents, presents and supports Philadelphia's community-based cultures. This project is supported by grants from The Pew Charitable Trusts, the National Endowment for the Arts, Independence Foundation, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and PFP members. We are very grateful to all of these funders, and to Fran Aulston and Naomi Nelson, of the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance and the Community Education Center, respectively, with whom we are collaborating in this project. Thanks also to William F. Bucher for his care in installing the exhibition, and to Stacey Ford, Joan Huckstep, Teresa Jaynes and Pauline Wong, PFP staff, for their assistance. Finally, and most especially, thanks to all of the artists for their patience, wisdom and assistance in carrying this exhibition out. For more information call us: The Philadelphia Folklore Project, 735 South 50th Street., Philadelphia, PA 19143. 215.726.1106.

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View Exhibition

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Exhibit Links:
Introduction
Artists & origins
Music and dance
Sustaining arts
Facing Chalenges
Credits

  • This exhibition is on display at the Paul Robeson House, of the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance (WPCA), 4949-4951 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA. For more information, contact the WPCA at 215.747.4675, or wpca@wpcalliance.org