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Remembering our Ancestors and Securing our Future at Festival of Masks
By Kimberly Shelby, Contributing Writer
Published June 30, 2022

Stilt walkers lead the procession at Festival of Masks. (Zak Shelby-Szyszko)

A legion of loss has stricken this community in the past two-plus years since the dawn of COVID. Of course, loss is widespread and sundry, ever cycling, ever defining our lives, and it has always been there, tapping, nudging at human trajectories.

And yet we feel, as we reflect on the events of these past 28 months, that there has been more of that loss. The CDC tells us that there has been more. Our hearts know there has been more.

Although in its 12th year, Leimert Park’s “Day of the Ancestors: Festival of Masks” at the Leimert Park Artwalk so thoughtfully addresses these feelings, facts and heart knowledge that it would seem to have been conceived and established in direct response to this challenging period.

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The event has marked a time and space it has created to enable residents to “be fully human, to be fully expressive, to cry, to holler/shout, to laugh, to move, to share news. To mourn. To celebrate.”

Community members participate in the event. (Zak Shelby-Szyszko)

These are the words of Karen Mack, CEO and director of LA Commons, who alongside artists/founders Najite Agindotan and Ben Caldwell, established the annual celebration for the South Central LA community in 2010.

The multicultural, multigenerational arts event that champions the vast identities of the African diaspora took place over the weekend June 25-26 and featured a procession and festival through Leimert Park Village, the cultural heart of Black Los Angeles.

With its return to the “in-person” experience after a two-year pandemic-driven hiatus, Festival of the Masks’ theme (Unity + Legacy = Healing) focused on strategies and practices from across the African Diaspora to promote healing, wellness, intergenerational connection, and a strengthened sense of belonging, as pillars of the community who’ve recently passed on were honored through dance, poetry, musical performances, drum circles and puppetry.

Colorful puppets delight the crowd. (Zak Shelby-Szyszko)

Collaborating partners included:

The World Stage – Honoring Noni Olabisi

Banner by artist Man One

Performer: S.H.I.N.E. Muwasi

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Leimert Park Jazz Festival and Sutro Avenue Block Club – Honoring Derf Reklaw 

Banner by artist Wendell Wiggins

Performer: Dwight Trible

Leimert Park Merchants Association – Honoring Barbara Morrison 

Banner by artist Kayla Shelton

Performer: The Harmony Project Drumline

Black Women for Wellness – Honoring Veronica Mayes Johnson, Loretta Jones, and Lark Galloway-Gilliam 

Banner by artist Raycasso

Performer: Lula Washington Dance Theatre – Youth Dance Ensemble

ECWA – Honoring James F. Jones Jr. 

Banner by artist Wendell Wiggins

Performer: Torrence Brannon Reese and Everything with Soul

People of all ages were invited to commune with their ancestors through mask-making and the learning of movement, rhythm and song. Local artists, culture bearers and youth apprentices led the joyful spectacle and spiritual experience that began with a blessing and libation ceremony, invoking community reflection and healing.  The procession is said to symbolize the people’s power and capacity to take ownership over their communities and overcome challenges.

Artistic Director Tamica Washington-Miller said, “We are exploring the connections from ancestral African roots through slavery, to the Black churches, hip-hop and vogue dance cyphers of today.”

As it connects generations, the event is said to bridge all belief systems as well. Leadership team member Pastor Kelvin Sauls, former minister at Holman United Methodist Church, which is rooted in Christian principles, also believes strongly in the power of art to heal one’s spirit.

Through masks, dance and music, “Day of the Ancestors: Festival of Masks” aims to

create a transformational artistic process that educates, empowers and enriches the community, from the audience to the participants themselves.

“Youth and artists are at the center of our projects,” says Mack. “And it is always so inspiring to see what they create in their effort to tell the story of their neighborhoods. I also enjoy being an advocate for lifting up the voices of youth, artists and community members in the civic conversation as a way to make our city a better place for all of us.”

Walking the walk, L.A. Commons supported its youth apprentices working on the festival with stipends for their participation.

“I think the festival is important because it inspires people to be creative contributors in their community and in their own lives. With this inspiration, it fosters a sense of stewardship,” said Keira Adams, youth participant.

“The biggest challenge for me was having confidence making my mask. But without asking, I constantly got reassurance, it was a wonderful experience. Nothing was as great as to know how to release energy in art,” noted Lewanana Pinkney, another youth participant.

“I learned different ways to connect with my ancestors, and also to make time and space for me to breathe,” shared Paradyse Oakley, youth participant.

Longterm goals for the festival, Mack says, include addressing the longstanding, trauma-induced wounds of African-Americans through the fostering of a sense of wholeness and well-being. There are plans to create a Healthy Culture Hub in Leimert Park Village, a community oasis for recovery and resilience, and a generative, community-activated public health model.

In addition to further cultivating a feeling of belonging that will increase civic engagement, the focus will be on establishing enhanced connection to a holistic cultural framework aligned with an African worldview.

“[We will] promote the integration of arts and culture into the provision of wellness offerings as we partner with institutions that focus on Black community health,” explains Mack, whose vision is clear and sound. “[We aim to] stabilize and ground the cultural worldview of participants as a buffer against ailments resulting from generational trauma.”

A lofty aspiration, but “Day of the Ancestors: Festival of the Masks” is a formidable start.

Visit lacommons.org to learn more and find out how you can get involved.

Categories: Family | Lifestyle
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