Out of Africa

UP FRONT

Afram festival: The weekend celebration of two continents' cultures includes art and artifacts from Ghana and Zimbabwe.

August 05, 1999|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Sun Staff

Ed Dudley has made so many trips to Ghana, in West Africa, it's almost like going home. "I've been traveling to Africa for about 10 years now," Dudley says.

The trips are more than a sightseeing venture. Dudley is a Baltimore businessman who makes the voyage once or twice yearly to purchase authentic African goods to sell here.

He will be selling some of the African fashions and woodcrafts at this year's Afram, which takes place tomorrow through Sunday on the infield at Pimlico Race Course.

There will be live music, exhibits, a health fair and children's activities. Food, crafts and other goods, like the ones Dudley will have on hand, will be for sale.

When Dudley first decided to travel to Africa, he knew no one. Now, he has the process down to a science.

Before he leaves Baltimore, Dudley sends notes to craftspeople in Ghana to let them know when he is coming and what he may be in the market for.

"They know a month before I come, so it is all set up when I get there," he says. Over the years, he has built up a relationship with many Ghanaian vendors and artisans.

Dudley makes his purchases at the open-air markets that are still plentiful throughout many African countries. "It's almost like Afram," he says of the stalls where he buys wood sculptures, mostly of people, trees and huts. He also buys brightly colored, woven and printed fabrics and carved African masks.

Sometimes, he leaves the Ghanaian cities to get even better deals. "I go up into the mountains, where they are actually made," he says of the crafts. "I get to meet the craftspeople who do the work."

Once back in Baltimore, Dudley's purchases end up in his store, African American Fashions, at 7031 Liberty Road.

There is silver jewelry -- earrings, necklaces and bracelets -- in display cases. Other hand-crafted jewelry is made out of cowrie shells.

The store is filled with the woodcrafts that Dudley buys from Africa, and it's bright with loose, colorful, ready-made clothing.

Half of the clothes he sells are made in Africa; the rest are custom-made by Dudley and two designers on his staff.

"We have a design book of some of the fashions that we have already created," he says. "People can look at the book and see what they like. We measure them up and make the clothes right to their specifications."

He says his customers want the African designs for everything from weddings to casual wear.

Dudley didn't always travel to Africa for his merchandise. There was a time when he bought it much closer to home.

"Originally, I started going to the Kunte Kinte festival [in Annapolis] and to New York," he says. "But they were getting their fabrics and woodcrafts from Africa. So I decided to go there."

Dudley chose Ghana because it is a primarily English-speaking country. "It just makes it easier," he says.

Going to the source turned out to be a wise business decision, in effect cutting out the middle man. It also makes for an interesting life. "It feels great going there," he says. "They welcome me like it's another home."

Martin Forrester provides another connection to Africa.

Forrester sells reproductions of work by two noted sculptors from Zimbabwe, Casper Darare and James Tandy.

"They are both of the Shona tribe from Zimbabwe," says Forrester, who lives in Washington and sells at fairs and to galleries.

"The Shona have been working stones for about 1,000 years," he says. The reproductions, made of bronze, copper and nickel, are done by "four ladies in a workshop in the capital of Zimbabwe."

The reproductions, which are busts inspired by the tribes of southern Africa, are signed by the artists. "People say they show such rich humanity, such dignity," Forrester says.

Forrester, who is retired, is the former international affairs director for the Service Employees International Union, which is what first took him to Africa. "When I retired about five years ago, I said, 'I want to represent those guys.' "

This will be his first time at Afram.

This is the 23rd celebration of Afram, which is the city's largest ethnic festival. "Last year's Afram attracted well over 100,000 supporters," says Beverly Carter, chairwoman of this year's festival.

There is a different theme for each year's Afram. This year, the festival salutes Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

The Facts

What: Afram

When: Aug. 6-8, noon-8 p.m.

Where: Pimlico Race Course, 5201 Park Heights Ave.

Tickets: $5; free for kids 6 and under

Call: 410-225-7896

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