Africans in Oakland Celebrate “Home [Away From] Home”

The Home [Away From] Home (#HomexHome) festival on Sunday September 14, 2014 graced the beautiful Lake Merritt scene, in Oakland, CA, with an eclectic celebration honoring community and art from the Eritrean and Ethiopian diaspora. The unique series of pop up events that preceded the festival reflected themes, ideas, and products that revealed art as a vehicle for collaboration and positive sense of self. A collective of artists represented visual, literary, performance, and musical artistic practices. These artists came together to share their perspective on what “home” looks like in the bay area for those who are of Eritrean and/or Ethiopian descent.

As resident scholars and researches, we came into this project with a unique perspective of our own. As we focused on the evaluation, impact, and scope of one of the “arts in the community” funded projects, we had the pleasure of finding a broad spectrum of experiences and perspectives from the artists, organizers, and attendees. As researchers who share the same background as the artists and organizers, we challenged the participants and ourselves to accept new ways of understanding the diaspora, and it’s connection to art and community. We learned there is no single story, no homogeneity that could blankly state who this collective was and what they were trying to say. Setting the foundation for the exchange of ideas, philosophies, and stories in a safe and encouraging space, affirming and celebrating our individualism.

The project serves as a metaphor for African immigrants in the diaspora trying to build a home in America while maintaining and sharing their cultural identity in the USA. 10 artists were selected/commissioned through an application process and were then set up into small groups and pairs to explore the home away from home theme. Home away from Home artist Andre Jones aka Natty Rebel states, “the purpose of this project was for me to give the Bay Area a piece of artwork the community could appreciate”.

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Photo Credits: Jon Teklai

We are a community with a rich and diverse history that has the potential to be shared through our own words, paintings, and songs. The engagement aspect of this project was based in an effort to empower individuals in the diaspora, and to be proud of their culture, family legacy, and it’s significant impact on their lives. This project was installed around the Ethiopian/Eritrean New Year; to celebrate the contribution these two rich cultures have made in Africa and the World and to highlight the great civilizations of antiquity.

Artists and organizers came together to build the home away from home central art piece, a “home” representative of homes in Eritrea and Ethiopia. The stories it carried with it were found in the conversations that happened inside and around the hut, and in the crooks and crannies of the paintings, poems, and installations. As it asked the subtlest question: What is home? Home is expansive, transitory, and changing. Art is a vehicle to make sense of the tensions, healing, and celebration of culture and ancestry. It is a reflection of the journey to make sense of self, family, and community. It is a reflection of the positive health and well-being that comes as a result of having a positive sense of self and belonging.

Thus, the celebration was very vital to the local and global community as it brought individuals together to celebrate a piece of home [bay area], all the while connecting with families and ancestors in the other home [Ethiopia/Eritrea, Africa]. There are many critical aspects to this project, especially for the artist. Many were unaware of how instrumental this project would be in connecting with their heritage. In reality, how many of us can say we have knowledge of self? And through this project, we have been given an opportunity to look through and understand from the lens of artists how health and well-being not has the potential to give a platform to find knowledge of self, but takes ownership of our ancient culture(s). Many of the artists were able to identify how to use art to foster their own well-being and connect with their own communities in a non-traditional form.

Photo Credits: Sephora Woldu

In a New Year’s event that we hosted, we highlighted artists that employ various art mediums. Moreover, the night was enriched with the presence of Wosene Kosrof, an Ethiopian born artist who moved to the United States in 1972, in pursuit of his artistic career. Kosrof is the first Ethiopian-born contemporary artist to incorporate “Amharic” characters as a core aesthetic element in his fine art paintings. He cultivated his style by using a piece of home, rendering from his native language “Amharic”. Through such elements, he expressed how he has been able to keep home with him at all times.

A plethora of artistic expressions, articulated insight, and supportive yet critical thinking and self-awareness has characterized our semi- structured narrative. During the initial installation of the home away from home hut, co-founder Sephora Woldu shared her measurements for success, and how “the value and impact of this project will be seen at the end of it, the kids playing, the boon ceremonies, the people watching…I love that we are so out in the open, that thing is here and it is important that we be seen. Everything about this is us, the academics, the artists, the organizers, and the attendees, we have the capacity to do some great work!”

In the spirit of Home away from Home we encourage everyone to think about how they define home? Where is your home, is it where your heart is or a geographical space? Knowledge of self is key to knowing, loving, and accepting “yourself as you are.”

Article By Helen Arega and Huda Adem

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