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Scented burning candles and floor mirrors along with delectable Haitian food, conga music and a talented Vodun-inspired dancer greet visitors at the Pilsen art gallery opening. Called “Diaspora/Dyaspora: Haiti to Chicago and Back Again (A Migration Story),” the exhibit at Rootwork Gallery, 645 W. 18th St., opened Friday and remains until July 23. It features the spirit-soaked work by painter Alexandra Antoine, 27, a young Chicago-based teaching-artist with roots in Leogane, Haiti, who said “the soulful spirits of the Haitian and African ancestors comes through me in my art.”
A virtual Who’s Who in the Haitian-American community was there to meet her: Haitian American Museum of Chicago co-founder Elsie Hernandez; Jean Yves Hector, 22, her-painter-nephew from Haiti; Fritz Villevoix, a famous painter living here in Chicago; Leslie Oliver, who has Haitian and Nigerian ancestry and studied the beauty of Haitian Vodun. They all could not stop smiling as they viewed their culture displayed on the walls and in the air. Even to the non-initiated, it was clear the saints were in the house. Rootwork Gallery owner Tracie D. Hall explained, “We placed the candles on the floor so if negative energy entered the room, it could burn there, and the mirrors simply reflect the real you. And we featured brilliant dancer Sadira Muhammad, who studied Katherine Dunham’s Haitian movement, to bring more authenticity to the place.” Rootwork Gallery’s website features Muhammad’s video as well as one by this reporter that explained Vodun (voodoo) is simply West African religion brought to the Western Hemisphere, and not like the Hollywood stereotype.
The African Diaspora International Film Festival opened the same night and same time at Facets Cinematique, 1517 W. Fullerton, with “The Valley of Black Descendants” about Blacks in northern Chile that are not counted in the census or included in any official records of ever existing.
The next film that also included discussion of internalized hate and internalized racism in a colonial context was “The Afro Mexicans in Southern California,” co-directed by Lizz Mullis, followed by a 7:30 p.m. reception and 8:30 p.m. screening of “Everything But a Man,” a commercial romantic comedy directed by Nnegest Likke, who is both Ethiopian and Black American. Lively conversation followed the screening of this funny film and Senegalese food was served at its reception.
Meanwhile, Mullis, a graduate of University of Southern California Film Program, who is White, told me that “While our film was received positively by both Latino and Black audiences, Black viewers were much more welcoming and accepting. Mexicans were slower to openness. That said, while a couple of our subjects who exhibited self-hate in the beginning of our production, they smiled with self-affirmation by the production end because they were no longer lost. They had been found.”
On Saturday, the film festival opened with “Gurumbe: Afro-Andalusian Memories” about the African presence in Spain and musical bio-pic “Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band,” directed by Carol Bash, about the dark-skinned, Black feminist composer whose innovations were often ignored by a patriarchal color-struck music industry. The Festival also screened “Paris Noir,” a wonderful documentary on Black American expatriates, and “Adopted ID” about a Haitian adoptee named Judith Craig, who lives in London and Toronto, but returned to Cap Haitien in Northern Haiti to try to find her biological parents after being raised by a kind White Canadian couple. “There’s a lot of pain in trans-racial adoption,” she said. “This film helps us learn why we need to care about adoptees more.”
Both weekend events spoke directly to and about global Blacks. This was most evident at the “Adopted ID” screening, where several Haitian-American notables, including the consul-general as well as the leaders of the Dusable Heritage Foundation, were present. There was a question and answer session with painter Alexandra Antoine and Judith Craig, the subject of “Adopted ID.” Prior to the screening, with South African food and wine flowing and the same spirits present at the film festival that were swirling at her exhibit, Antoine told the Defender, “Whether we were born here in the United States or not, as Black people who are part of diaspora as well as The Great Migration, we need to learn how we traveled from place to place, and why.”
It was the 25th anniversary of the Diaspora International Film Fest, the 15th in Chicago. It began in New York, then spread to Chicago, Washington, D.C., Curacao, Paris, and other cities, according to Festival co-founder Dr. Reinaldo Barroso-Spech, a Cuban of Jamaican and Haitian ancestry and a former Columbia University Teachers College instructor who holds a doctorate in anthropology and education. “One of the goals, aside from bringing diversity into this experience, was to create a teaching structure within the Festival to expose the largest number of students possible to the films and to show educators how to use the films in the classroom as a teaching tool,” he said.
On Wednesday, June 14, the Festival features “Egypt Past and Present Program” with “Nasser’s Republic: The Making of Modern Egypt” at 7:30 p.m. and “Sins of the Flesh” at 8:30 p.m. On Thursday, June 15, it features “Mama Africa-Miriam Makeba” with a reception sponsored by the South African Consulate in commemoration with Youth Day – the annual South African celebration of the June 16 Soweto Uprising. It closes with “Hogtown,” directed by Daniel Nearing, which is set in 1919 Chicago against the backdrop of the race riots of that year, the Spechs said.
In some regards, the Spechs — a husband and wife team — are the embodiment of this diasporic theme. Diarah, who is French and Malian, is fluent and literate in two languages. She has a B.A. in economics from SUNY, Albany and an M.B.A. from Columbia University in Management and Marketing. She and Reinaldo select all of the films in the festival and co-develop the publicity and marketing of these films, as well as co-host the festival screening.
So I asked her: “How are Black American expatriate artists navigating the tough terrain of on one hand being ‘American first, Black second’ in a hyper-militarized fortress France that increasingly discriminates against its own Caribbean and African Blacks, while African Americans are slow to embrace their brothers and sisters?” Diarah said: “I am both French and Malian. While I celebrate my French birthplace and my Malian ancestry, I recognize that some within the French government may not feel the same way towards me and others like me as we feel ourselves. Black American ex pats visiting France, who might get some temporary relief from America’s racial noose around their necks, might be somewhat reluctant to publicly show support for their Black French counterparts for a variety of complex reasons.”
“Paris Noir” associate producer Julia Browne agreed and added, “Luckily, the Black Lives Matter Movement in France has bridged the gap between Black Americans and Black French people. Finally, we’re all on the same page. That’s a hopeful sign.”
Videos and photographs from the film festival and gallery can be seen on the NYADIFF and Rootwork Gallery Facebook pages.