Many local black artists struggle to fit in at MOJA This Ain't My Festival byJoy Vandervort-Cobb 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
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
"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
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
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.
“Sometimes, stretched at ease in the shade of a roadside tree, we watch the motions of a laborer in a distant field, and after a time, begin to wonder languidly as to what the fellow may be at. We watch the movements of his body, the waving of his arms, we see him bend down, stand up, hesitate, begin again. It may add to the charm of an idle hour to be told the purpose of his exertions. If we know he is trying to lift a stone, to dig a ditch, to uproot a stump, we look with a more real interest at his efforts; we are disposed to condone the jar of his agitation upon the restfulness of the landscape; and even, if in a brotherly frame of mind, we may bring ourselves to forgive his failure. We understood his object, and, after all, the fellow has tried, and perhaps he had not the strength, and perhaps he had not the knowledge. We forgive, go on our way, and forget.
And so it is with the workman of art."
-Joseph Conrad, preface to "The Nigger of the Narcissus"