African Festival of the Arts Celebrates 30th Anniversary This Labor Day Weekend

By Angel Idowu

“Africa is here and it’s a good thing,” says Patrick Saingbey-Woodtor, founder of Chicago’s African Festival of the Arts, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this weekend in Washington Park.

The festival was initially created to bring attention to Saingbey-Woodtor’s Window to Africa shop and Hyde Park’s Harper Court. It has since grown into an annual weekend celebration that draws crowds from across the country with live music, fine art, food and more.

“It’s grown to the point that it’s become not just a local, regional, or national event, but international. We have people coming from South America, Africa and many other places,” Saingbey-Woodtor said. “There are vendors that come here from Africa and stay here for the summer just to sell their artifacts at the festival.”

“Africa is here and it’s a good thing,” says Patrick Saingbey-Woodtor, founder of Chicago’s African Festival of the Arts, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this weekend in Washington Park.

The festival was initially created to bring attention to Saingbey-Woodtor’s Window to Africa shop and Hyde Park’s Harper Court. It has since grown into an annual weekend celebration that draws crowds from across the country with live music, fine art, food and more.

“It’s grown to the point that it’s become not just a local, regional, or national event, but international. We have people coming from South America, Africa and many other places,” Saingbey-Woodtor said. “There are vendors that come here from Africa and stay here for the summer just to sell their artifacts at the festival.”

Diarra Diaby stands next to collected pieces. From left: a ceremonial Yoruba crown, “Mother and Son” statue, South African cooking pot and “Queen Mother” statue. (Angel Idowu / WTTW News)

Diarra Diaby stands next to collected pieces. From left: a ceremonial Yoruba crown, “Mother and Son” statue, South African cooking pot and “Queen Mother” statue. (Angel Idowu / WTTW News)

One of those vendors is Diarra Diaby, who has been collecting African and African American artifacts for the last 27 years.

“I travel around the United States, every state looking for pieces representative of our culture. Not just African, but African American art all over the world. We have to know our history in order to get a connection. That’s why I collect,” said Diaby.

At the festival this weekend, Diaby will display pieces from his collection, including a “Queen Mother” statue from Yoruba, a South African cooking pot and a ceremonial Yoruba crown. The rest of his collected artifacts can be found at his Chicago studio.

Presented by Saingbey-Woodtor’s Africa International House USA, the festival features the same theme each year: the “Spirit of Africa.”

“Many of the people who attend similar festivals around the country say this is the most African-centric event that they know of,” Saingbey-Woodtor said.

An image from the “Spirit of Africa” exhibition at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. (Courtesy of Africa International House)

An image from the “Spirit of Africa” exhibition at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. (Courtesy of Africa International House)

The festival features an African marketplace where vendors showcase a variety of wares, including handmade fabrics, earrings, hats and collectible artifacts. Two stages feature live music and DJs throughout the weekend. There are also fashion shows, dance troupes, interactive spaces for children to explore and a food court offering foods from Africa and the Caribbean, plus Cajun and soul food and more.

In the lead-up to the festival were celebrations aiming to raise its profile across the city, including an African dance festival at Navy Pier in July and a quilt created by the Needles and Thread Quilters Guild. The detailed work of art features an array of African masks with bright swirls of green, yellow, red and blue. The quilt will be on display this weekend in the festival’s quilting pavilion.

Susan Trice of the Needles and Thread Quilters Guild. (Angel Idowu / WTTW News)

Susan Trice of the Needles and Thread Quilters Guild. (Angel Idowu / WTTW News)

Earlier this month, the festival held its annual “Spirit of Africa” gala at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts in Hyde Park. As a community partner, the Logan Center houses the “Spirit of Africa” exhibit in Cafe Logan, featuring pictures going back to the festival’s first year. Some were taken by Chicago photographers who have been capturing the event for as long as they can remember.

“It’s personal to the South Side of Chicago, because this is the way we close down the summer,” said Chicago photographer Kaye Cooksey.

“It’s a time of togetherness,” says photographer Sonja Hughes. “It’s such a vibrant place, especially for families.”

An image from the “Spirit of Africa” exhibition at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. (Courtesy of Africa International House)

An image from the “Spirit of Africa” exhibition at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. (Courtesy of Africa International House)

The African Festival of the Arts is open 1-10 p.m. Friday; and 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Festival admission begins at $15.

Follow Angel Idowu on Twitter: @angelidowu3

Angel Idowu is the JCS Fund of the DuPage Foundation Arts Correspondent.

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