AFRAM Expo celebrates the positive Ethnic festival in its 17th year

August 14, 1993|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

Remi Ogungbe was born and raised in Africa, a continent that Harry L. Davis knows only through pictures.

But both vendors at AFRAM Expo '93, which opened yesterday at Festival Hall, make a business of connecting African-Americans with the land of their ancestors.

Ms. Ogungbe, a Nigerian who has a shop in Harlem, offered a rich array of African imports, including Masai belts of beaded cowhide, shell necklaces from The Gambia, Hansa baskets from Nigeria and richly colored kente cloth from the Ashanti people of Ghana.

Mr. Davis, an African-American painter from Wilmington, N.C., displayed his own limited-edition prints and oils on canvas. His work is mostly on rural African themes that he found by poring through black and white photographs in old library books.

The painter traced the explosion of buyers' interest in such art to "The Cosby Show," which presented a warm portrayal of black upper-middle-class life to a mass audience.

"All through his house all he's got is Afrocentric art -- everywhere," Mr. Davis said of the Cosby character. "People who had never seen this kind of art said, 'That stuff looks good.'

"When people buy my art, I think they're saying something positive about how they feel about themselves," Mr. Davis said. "These are people who want positive images in their homes, for themselves and for their kids."

The fascination with the mother continent is such that Festival Hall and environs began to resemble an African marketplace yesterday as vendors in traditional dress plucked brassware, jewelry, woodcarvings and other crafts from huge suitcases and put them up for sale.

While barbecued ribs, snow balls and even egg rolls were on the bill of fare, the AFRAM menu also included Senegalese specialties such as superconia (okra stew) and mufie (lamb in peanut butter sauce).

"When I first came here in 1971 it wasn't really chic to be African," Ms. Ogungbe said. "Now people know more. Horizons are opening. People are beginning to travel to see the real Africa, not the television Africa."

The 17th annual African-American Exposition, as the event is formally known, has attracted 140 vendors from as far away as California and Florida, with another 190 on the waiting list, said Harlow Fullwood Jr., the businessman who is general chairman of the event.

Julia B. Woodland, a retired city school administrator, recalled the first AFRAM as a group of women selling chicken and dumplings from card tables set up on a Dunbar High School parking lot. It was a way of recognizing that African-Americans, like other "hyphenated-Americans" who were popularizing ethnic festivals around the city, had a heritage, too. Now, Ms. Woodland said, AFRAM is one of the largest African-American festivals on the East Coast. It is expected to draw up to 100,000 visitors this weekend, and more than 600 volunteers and corporate sponsors help stage the event on a budget of nearly $300,000.

AFRAM is not just a celebration of black music, dance and art, Mr. Fullwood said. It also underwrites a growing scholarship program for Baltimore high school graduates and a Perfect Attendance Extravaganza that honored 7,000 city students in June. This year the festival is billed as a salute to Baltimore's classroom teachers.

"AFRAM is about more than just finger-popping and eating good food," Mr. Fullwood said. "AFRAM is about the positive things that are going on in our communities. It is a labor of love."

AFRAM continues today and tomorrow from noon to 10 p.m. at Festival Hall. The AFRAM parade begins at 1 p.m. today at Martin Luther King Boulevard and Eutaw Street, and proceeds east on Chase Street and south on Cathedral, Liberty and Sharp streets to the festival site.

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