11th annual Festival of Masks remains virtual this year

By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer

LEIMERT PARK — The 11th annual Day of the Ancestors: Festival of Masks, set for June 27, will not take place in person at the Leimert Park Artwalk, but will once again be virtual, and organizers promise it will be no less exciting or inspiring.

“It’s a bit hard, I have to say,” said Karen Mack, the founder of LA Commons and the festival’s organizer. “So much of the festival is about connecting people to each other. Face to face is extremely powerful. It brings community members young and old together, to explore.

“It’s hard to have a visceral connection in Zoom-land. It will be a good show anyway. It will be powerful. It’s unique. How often do we get to connect to this part of ourselves?”

For the second time, the annual celebration, considered a day to learn about, honor and celebrate the cultures of the African diaspora through artmaking, a procession and stories told through music, dance, and masks will be held in a virtual format from noon to 1:30 p.m. The festival will be live on Zoom and streamed to Facebook and YouTube.

Shifting the vibrant cultural festival’s events online makes it easier to involve hundreds of artists, international guests and community members from Leimert Park, all in an effort to cultivate a connection to the ancestors.

“By bringing it online, it has the potential to attract a much larger audience,” said Mack, a married mother of one. “But my desire is to have it be a really community-based experience in Leimert Park, which is Los Angeles’ African-American cultural hub.”

This year’s theme is “Thiossane (cha-sahn): Looking Back, Moving Forward,” the Senegalese way of taking cues from the past to live well in the present.

“With Thiossane, they think about their ancestors,” Mack said. “For instance, think about how powerful the drum is. It’s an embodied force. It’s not a piece of wood and some skin.”

This year’s festival is hosted by Bruce Lemon and features performances by Magatte Fall and Maxx Percussion, the world premieres by S.H.I.N.E. Muwasi & Rene Fisher-Mims, the Lula Washington Dance Theater featuring Katalyst, Malik Sow, Ranika Adachi, Noni Olabisi, Kehinde Najite Agindotan, and Olokun Cultural Group, and a blessing by Imodoye Shabazz. S. Pearl Sharp and Triniti Daniel-Robinson will read poetry and Sankofa Leaders.

Although it’s virtual, Mack said this year’s festival continues to foster “inspiring artistic connections,” not only in online workshops among local youth and community members, but in conversations that bridge the Atlantic to explore the compelling history and culture of the West African nations of Senegal and Mali.

“Each year we have a country that we focus on,” Mack said. “This year it’s Senegal and Mali. It’s hard to separate Senegal and Mali. The Mali empire was powerful from the 1400s to the 1600s, yet we didn’t learn anything about it. This is a window of opportunity for people to learn.”

The Festival of Masks was founded in 2010, by Ben Caldwell of KAOS Network and Nigerian Master Drummer Najite Agindotan, in collaboration with LA Commons.

It grew out of the Egun-gun traditions of West Africa. The founders wanted the festival to be steeped deeply in that culture and its traditions.

The Egun-gun tradition uses masks to point out challenges in the community.

“The idea is they are helping to rise above those challenges and have people change their ways and move forward productively as a community,” Mack said. “The purpose of the event is to connect us with our ancestors and each other in South L.A. and L.A. overall.”

Mack said the festival, a multicultural, multigenerational and multimedia arts event, is an opportunity for members of the community to tap into their creativity and imagination and invoke that connection and the larger Diaspora.

Despite the festival’s local focus over the years, Mack and her team have connected with artists around the world and held cultural exchanges with different countries. She believes that most Americans, even those with African ancestry, know very little about Africa. She believes the Black community needs those connections.

“All the challenges we have as Black people, we were most successful when we were taking care of ourselves,” she said. “It’s about building bonds to let us feel responsibility for fellow community members. It’s powerful to support advancing the Black community in L.A.”

The Day of the Ancestors is designed to engage and support talented local artists and culture bearers and provide them with opportunities for exchange with artists from across the Diaspora, as well as young people, who serve as apprentices, who have the opportunity to learn from respected creators with a focus on the cultural traditions powering the work. Excelling as visionaries in their own right is the goal.

For Mack, honoring the ancestors is where Black people’s power comes from.

“When I think about our ancestors and how wonderful they were,” she said. “We live in a society that is anti-Black.

“African Americans should know the wisdom of the ancestors, the tools for living, the grounded-ness, and the greatness they possessed. They should also know that systems here are not designed for us. In fact, it’s against us.”

Designing the festival each year feeds Mack’s soul.

“I am a person who really values context,” she said. “I feel like doing this event really gives us a context for living. We’re learning from other cultures.

“I have always been fascinated by other cultures. To put the festival on each year for the community — that is a gift for us. It aligns with our mission to tell the stories and bring people together.”

For more information on Day of Ancestors: Festival of Masks, please go to: https://www.lacommons.org/2021-festival-of-masks.

 Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at ddonloe@gmail.com.

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