We shall not be moved: Thomas B. Morton's photographs of 30 years of ODUNDE.
This May 2005 exhibition amplifies an earlier anniversary collaboration (1995) between Thomas B. Morton. Lois Fernandez of ODUNDE, and Debora Kodish of the Philadelphia Folklore Project, showing the significance of this community celebration, and the power of Morton's photographs, and marking the 20th anniversary of ODUNDE. View Exhibition
Odunde is one of the oldest African American street festivals in the country. Run by a dedicated group of family and friends, the event annually draws more than 200,000 people to an historically African American neighborhood in Philadelphia.
Odunde began in 1975. Co-founder Lois Fernandez had been especially moved by the Yoruba ceremonies honoring Oshun which she had seen at riverbanks in cities in the United States and Nigeria. She and others began to plan a festival in their own riverbank neighborhood. She recollects:
"Well, there was so much apprehension. People said it would never work. They said, 'Who's going to allow you?' People thought we were never going to cross that South Street bridge. People said, 'They're not going to shut down traffic and let you go across that bridge, not for Black folks. They're not going to let you throw fruits off the bridge.' In addition, there was a great deal of apprehension that such an event would not be able to take place because of the prevalence of various gangs in the area. At that time, we were still in the middle of gang war. Our mission was to convince community folks that we could have a cultural event that would bring our people together based on culture alone, and that could be healing, rewarding and long-lasting in the midst of this despair. We never thought of this as a one-shot deal. And I was a gang worker at the time. I knew the rhythm of the gangs. I knew we could do it. Afterwards, people said, 'I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't been there.' And that was such a dream, such a thing. It was such a good feeling - and such a feeling of oneness. But anyhow, we did it. And once the festival took place, it was beautiful and peaceful and the feedback from the community was tremendous...."
But things were changing in the late 1970s. This was an increasingly valuable neighborhood close to Philadelphia's Center City, and major struggles over land and property were having an enormous impact on long-time African American residents. Against the backdrop of large-scale political and social changes, Odunde counterposed a grassroots, fundamentally local, and African-centered perspective. While not explicitly political, Odunde quickly became an important vehicle for a sense of community: people came to the festival, they came in greater and greater numbers, they brought their families, they made it their own. Combining the features of a ritual observance with scheduled performances, organized vendors, and block party ambiance, the festival simply "felt right." It became a major African American community event.
Organized opposition began in 1984, when a handful of residents, primarily those newly gentrifying the area, presented a petition stating that the Odunde festival should be moved. Opposition has continued since that time, with Odunde proponents defending their right to keep the festival where it is.
As the 30th anniversary of the ODUNDE festival arrives, I look at the 35 images in this exhibition and I am reminded why I am at ODUNDE in the first place. It is the people, the purpose, and the unbridled pride and beauty. Broadly speaking, the purpose, as I see it, is to remember, celebrate, and recommit us to ourselves as ourselves. Also: to recommit to everyone and everything that has and will ever have a heartbeat.
I find strength and renewal each year in recognizing our unbroken family ties across time and space - whether we know the latitude and longitude of our African home village or not. I am always struck by the leaps at will across time and space. Afro-Philadelphia seems an incongruous but fitting locale for such an event: Philadelphia, U.S.A., 'The Philly Dog,' and 'The Philadelphia Negro.' But the homeland is where we are and we are all over. Home is where the beat is.
The eternal present of the universal symbols of life and spirit - including color, water, fruit, touch, percussion - and our collective ori and ase together at our crossroads together help ODUNDE transcend, enhance and elevate its context. The ODUNDE experience for me is a spiritual homecoming, but I am still alive to enjoy it with others.
The unencumbered deep pride of self, purpose and the overwhelming beauty I feel - I just can't help but try to communicate it.
These photographs were not actually meant to clinically "document." They were just supposed to be true and representative of the moment. I find that the hardest thing is to focus on one moment at a time when there are literally thousands of "moments" at the same time all day! But this is what I try to do. Get into the action and look for the light. Taking and sharing my images is my own participation and my own personal celebration of the public celebration of our deep unity that transcends both 'race' and place.
These are reflections, images of my experience. I am only one of many, many ODUNDE photographers and fortunate to be in the mix.
Looking through 3,000 photographs made by Tom Morton at ODUNDE over three decades, I am pouring through a remarkable family album. Photos trace peoples' lives over time and mark passing generations of participants. These are precious photos, preserving images of an event that has become a central annual observance for many, fixing in our minds' eyes people who were important in crafting rituals with meaning, keeping memories vivid. I hope that this exhibition, in pulling together even a small sampling of photographs of such feeling, significance, and beauty, helps to convey something of what ODUNDE means to so many.
Tom Morton has always spoken of how he "is given" photos, rather than "taking" pictures. This is modesty on his part. His appreciation and knowledge of African Diasporan experience and his long-time connection to the people and event allow him to see, recognize, and understand the 'gifts' around him in complex and stunning ways. His photographs are loved and valued within the community partly because he helps people see who they know themselves to be. He gives people unparalleled images of their most free, engaged, and deepest selves, images rarely captured elsewhere.
It is a privilege to offer this first photo exhibition in our new home as a token of our thanks for ODUNDE, for Lois Fernandez, for Tom Morton, for the people pictured on these walls. We are inspired by their long-haul cultural work and dedication. In this time and place, it can be an overwhelming task to sustain culture and traditional arts, to keep alive real alternatives that are life-giving for people.
Thirteen years ago now, the wonderful folklorist Gerald Davis wrote of the "special truths of the ODUNDE festival - and kindred events which fill public spaces in vital demonstrations of power and kinds of Blackness. ODUNDE doesn't enforce a single version of Blackness; its . . . years of endurance are powerful antidotes to the verdicts of institutions, theories, models and definitions which try to render single and over-simple truths. [Zora Neale] Hurston [once] recognized that 'something deep' was going on in peoples' various 'readings' of identity. With thousands of others, we can recognize that something deep is going on in ODUNDE."
ODUNDE always happens on the second Sunday of June. In the late morning, followers gather with their offerings of fruits and flowers for Oshun, a Yoruba river deity. There is an air of anticipation. The Egungun, a Yoruba-based masked character, danced by the Ishangi family for more than twenty years now, prepares. The Egungun will lead the procession, clearing the way. The battery of batá drummers ready themselves and their instruments. They will chant and drum to the Yoruba deities. A Yoruba priest or priestess has responsibility for officiating. He or she begins the observances. A crowd of singing and dancing followers grows. It is like a large family reunion or street fair for many people, and there is a wonderful feeling as many people meet and greet one another. Vendors have set up stands and the aromas of barbecue, island curry and more fill the air. Then, around noon, the procession begins.
01. Skobi, Bob Thompson and others preparing the litter with offerings, c. 1990.
02. Akanke Garrett carries flowers which she will later offer to Oshun, as people gather and vendors set up.
03. Daughter of Oshun, Iya Laura Garrett, carrying Oshun.
04. Sekou Garrett performing a ritual over the offering.
05. Bob Thompson pointing the way, and Peache Jarman, with Ken Fauntleroy, Baba Crowder (partly hidden) and John Wilkie, Kulu Mele drummers, about to begin.
06. Libations: Greg Peache Jarman pours honey on the crossroads for Elegba, before the procession gets underway.
07. Greg Jarman tightens the head of a drum, as the men who will play the bata drums in a battery (Kulu Mele drummers John Wilkie, Peache Jarman and Baba Crowder) prepare.
On the South Street bridge over the Schuylkill River, prayers are offered, the offering of fruits and flowers is made, and Oshun's blessings are bestowed on those assembled. The jubilant crowd then returns to 23rd and South Streets and the festival officially begins.
08. The bata drum battery, sacred drums, lead the procession to the river. Henry Truck Dixon, Peache Jarman chanting, Baba Crowder on bata.
09. The procession returns, on the South Street Bridge. Baba Crowder and John Wilkie of Kulu Mele, Omomola Iyabunmi (head turned) with sekeres, Nana Korantemaa Ayeboafo on right.
10. Egungun dancer, and drum battery on South Street Bridge.
11. Drum battery.
12. Woman in the procession, with crowd.
13. Woman in the procession, with battery.
14. Olatunji blesses a woman at the river. Lois Fernandez looks on.
15. Olatunji blesses a man at the river.
16. Arisa Ingram holds a woman overcome by the spirit, at the river.
17. Bob Thompson at the river, preparing to make an offering to Oshun.
18. Making an offering off of the South Street Bridge: people at the bridge.
19. Woman with flowers, making an offering at the Bridge.
Going down to the river at the beginning of ODUNDE is always an intense experience. The atmosphere is thick with expectation. There is often some feeling of tension. One year, on the way to the river, at every street corner, Babatunde Olatunji stopped and did a short ceremony to Elegba, the Yoruba deity of the crossroads. He put rum in his mouth, lifted his head and sprayed it in four different directions. When he came to a corner where the police were stationed, he went directly up to one officer. Everyone watched in suspense. The officer apparently didn't know what was going on. Olatunji went up to him. I don't know if he was talking to him in English or Yoruba, but the officer seemed to be paying attention. Olatunji touched him, and sprayed the rum around him. The officer could have completely gone into a confrontational or defensive mode, but he didn't. By the time Olatunji had finished, the officer was smiling. Once the ritual was done, the procession continued. If you knew the characteristics of the orishas, then you understood. Olatunji was making peace with Ogun - the Yoruba deity of iron and war. He was asking for permission. The officer's (Ogun's) positive reaction was key. Now, Olatunji, since he is Nigerian, there were certain barriers that he just walked right through, but the non-threatening respectful message was so clear that the officer just smiled. And peace was assured." --Thomas B. Morton
20. Olatunji makes peace with Officer Lawrence Riddick.
21. Olatunji consecrates the space during rituals for Elegba.
22. After the return from the river, Batunde Olatunji pours libations on the steps to the stage. c. 1984. Bob Thompson to the right with bells.
Over the years, major African and African American artists have performed for crowds of more than 200,000 during the day-long festival. Local dancers, musicians, rappers, steppers, poets, drummers, and entertainers always have a featured place. Two stages provide continuous performance. Ten city blocks are filled with a vibrant marketplace of vendors from the Diaspora, selling many kinds of crafts, goods and food. Offstage, corners and side streets offer other performances: impromptu drumming, verbal styling and visual display. Folks of all ages, ideologies and class backgrounds are here. All mingle and co-exist comfortably. One important truth about this festival is that many powerful moments are overlaid, lapped, layered. That is part of the richness and meaning of the event.
23. Kulu Mele women dancers making prayer together for a moment before performing.
24. Dottie Wilkie of Kulu Mele, in a war dance.
25. Saudah, Beatrice Foreman and other Kulu Mele performers in a war dance.
26. Ama Schley of Kulu Mele, as Oshun.
27. Performers from New York.
28. Groove Phi Groove on stage.
29. Senegalese-style dancer from New York takes the stage. Dollars on the stage are offerings of appreciation, 1983. Note the shadow of the photographer.
30. Okikilu Hardy, Kwamenam Ingram, Samel Goggins, and John Wilkie, on stage.
31. William Powell (left) and Kenneth Skip Burton (right) drumming on the street at ODUNDE.
32. Quensheba (left) and Omomola Iyabunmi (right).
33. A young festival-goer at the Nation of Islam stand.
34. Nanikha member, Nia Bey Al-Rasul, and her grandchild.
35. Lois Fernandez on the South Street Bridge.
"That first Odunde (we called it the Oshun festival then) was small. That morning everybody came to my house to get dressed, to give the kids a sense of belonging. My sister xeroxed the song "Odunde," and as we left the house we were singing. Arthur Hall was with us and his group. The officiating priest at the first Odunde was Obailumi Ogunseye - one of the very Yoruba who we had met at the Christian Street Y back in 1963, and then my brother-in-law. My sister, Omowunmi, was also central to the procession to the river which became the focal point of the event. Our kids from the neighborhood were part of the program for the day: doing karate, drills, dance and other of our own folk arts. Anyway, it grew. And one of the mothers wrote a letter about Odunde recently to the editor of the Philadelphia Daily News, saying 'Now we bring our kids... leave it where it is.' And we will." (1995)
I want this to show what ODUNDE has done for our people in the city. Folks in 75 after the Black Power movement, people were saying "We're black." And we were saying, "No ,we're African people. Black is a color not a people." So we had to come up under that. To be able to tell people that you are of African people, as my father told me as a child. And I hope we can move for our people to be able to claim, "I am of Yoruba stock, or from Ghana, or Cape Verde." ODUNDE has contributed to that learning process of our people, to know what it is to be of African descent, that we are Africans here in America.
This is the peoples' festival. The people made it. We could not have done it without the people. Make no mistake about it.
It has certainly not been easy. It was always for the culture. It was always for the people. So when people wanted to kick us of South Street, we had to use survival skills. This is our neighborhood. This is our community. The souls of our ancestors are on South Street. And that's why we took our stand, that we would not be moved from where ODUNDE started, in an historic African Amertican neighborhood.
The procession is what sets us apart from other festivals. The procession attracts folks from all walks of life. Everybody goes to the river and they make their offerings and we have a commonality there. Thirty years ago, people thought we were pagans, heathens. People said, "Going to the river? To do what?" We always said, "The river is an element. It is Oshun that symbolizes that power."
Oshun has sustained us for 30 years and that is why we are here. And the spirit of Oshun is what is felt there - you see it in the peoples' faces. You go up on the bridge, you come down on the bridge and all of these greetings - you get all this feedback. I can't do anything but feel it. It is the power of Oshun that comes down.
I can only say it was the spirit that moved in me that moved me to do it. As I look back, when I met the Yorubas in New York - When I first saw them, I was moved. I felt it in my guts. And I talked to them. And I watched the women with all those bracelets on their arms. I changed my whole dressing style, then finally I changed my whole wardrobe to African. That was one of the ways that this started. Nana Oserjeman was one of those who first opened my eyes, there, with the first Yoruba temple in New York City. I dedicate this show to his memory.
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.
He is completing his Doctorate in Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. He holds an M.A. from the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Temple University, and a B.A. in Graphic Design/Printmaking (with a minor in Photography) from Tyler School of Art of Temple University.
ODUNDE, Inc. is a 30-year-old community-based African-rooted cultural and educational organization, that produces programs year-round that feature African Diaspora culture as well as the ODUNDE festival - one of the oldest cultural street festivals in the country, and the longest-running African American public festive gathering in Philadelphia. ODUNDE annually draws upwards of 300,000 people to an urban neighborhood on the second Sunday in June. ODUNDE maintains a commitment to keeping African American arts available in the community for the community, and to honoring the wide range of arts and experiences of the diaspora. For more information about ODUNDE, call (215) 732-8508 or visit www.odundeinc.org.
We shall not be moved includes 35 photographs by Thomas B. Morton, a selection from more than 3,000 negatives, taken over the course of 30 years. The exhibition was was curated by Debora Kodish. Selenium toned gelatin silver photographs were printed by Robert Asman and installed by Kim Tieger. We are grateful for support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the Philadelphia Cultural Fund and Philadelphia Folklore Project members. The exhibition also reflects an earlier partnership exhibition. "ODUNDE African American Festival: Twenty Years On Philadelphia's South Street (1995)" was one in a series of traveling folklife photo exhibitions organized by the Philadelphia Folklore Project. Exhibition texts were originally excerpted from essays by essays by Karen Buchholz, Lois Fernandez, Thomas B. Morton and Debora Kodish in the Philadelphia Folklore Project's Works in Progress 6:2 (1993), a special magazine issue on ODUNDE. Research was supported by grants from the Samuel Fels Fund and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
The exhibit opens in a new browser indow and requires Flash Player 7.0 or greater. Includes music by Kulu Mele.