Sharing dreams, wares and history

Diversity: Families, vendors and their stories converged at the Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival.

August 15, 2005|By Greg Barrett | Greg Barrett,SUN STAFF

The tale of how Maryland artist John Ashford conned his way onto a Warner Bros. lot and sold his paintings as backdrops for the sitcom Martin is great storytelling, but to hear it yesterday you had to linger among the vendors at the Kunta Kinte Heritage Festival.

At this weekend's 18th annual celebration of African ancestry, entertainment wasn't limited to hip-hop, jazz, gospel and rhythm and blues. In the suffocating heat of the vendors' tents were the colorful nuances of a culture as diverse as its native continent.

Various talents, from the high priest of the Israelite Church, to a crusading Atlanta entrepreneur, to a Silver Spring painter whose career was launched by his Hollywood antics - could be found along the festival's fringes.

FOR THE RECORD - A photo caption in yesterday's editions of The Sun accompanying an article about the Kunta Kinte Festival in Annapolis misidentified the Spirit Lifters group as the Soul Lifters.
The Sun regrets the error.

Yesterday, 92 vendors - educational, food, or arts and crafts - framed the Anne Arundel County Fairgrounds, the most ever for the family-oriented picnic.

"We have vendors from as far away as Wisconsin and Canada," said marketing director Dena Holland-Newman. "This festival has grown, and we are well-known now ... and we try to have a diverse group of people."

It's the second year at the festival for the Israelite Church, whose members are more often seen shouting their message at congested street corners. The church argues that African-Americans are not African; rather, they are Hebrews chased from the Holy Land about A.D. 70.

"Everyone likes to track the history of the black man to slavery," said Rick Clavery, referring to stories such as that of Kunta Kinte, a slave from Gambia made famous by Alex Haley's book Roots. "But our history dates back to Jerusalem and the 12 disciples of Jesus Christ."

Clavery, known by the church as Ahyashshamadba, the high priest of its Maryland branch, is a 49-year-old security guard in Baltimore's public schools. He said the church's attendance at the festival represents its evolution from confrontation to education.

"We've never been confrontational, really, but on the street corners people confront us, so we might appear that way," he said. "We're not a hate group - we're just here to teach the truth."

But black history, as taught by Atlanta's Julian Madyun, can also be spread by pithy quotes and $5 African-American historical art prints. Madyun, 58, a former Black Panther and a Vietnam veteran, travels the nation selling a vast collection of his prints and quotes that he hopes will serve as an antidote to the effects of popular culture.

His wares span generations, with quotes from Tupac Shakur - "If we're all saying that rap is an art form, then we gotta be more responsible for our lyrics." - and Malcolm X - "Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today."

Madyun considers his work a ministry. And on this hot Sunday afternoon, a speech from Malcolm X titled "The Ballot or the Bullet" played from his stereo. He said he travels about 50 weeks out of the year.

"When much is given, much is required, and I have been given much in life," said Madyun, who freely acknowledges that his venture is more than humanitarian. It has also helped to send his two daughters to the University of Maryland and Duke University.

Ashford says he also has been given much in life, particularly the big break he received 11 years ago from Martin Lawrence's sitcom. Ashford, 35, traveled from Silver Spring to Los Angeles and convinced Warner Bros. that he had an interview with Leon King, the show's art director.

Ashford got a five-minute meeting. "With my portfolio in one hand and my heart in the other, I walked onto that set," he said. "I had always wanted to see my stuff on TV, but I thought I'd be in my 50s before that would happen."

He was 24. The studio bought more than $1,000 of his paintings, and his work has appeared on the Martin set, the Jamie Foxx Show and The Parkers. It's all there still, in reruns.

Today, Ashford is an art teacher at a Bronx, N.Y., middle school, and when students see his paintings on TV, he gets their instant respect. Ditto for the general public. His first painting that appeared on TV - Midnight Mango - jumped in price from $300 to $5,000.

"Because of TV, I was able to get the credentials without necessarily having to go through the galleries," he said. "What a huge break."

And a great story.

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