By Meng Wei
With a multidisciplinary approach that uses music, dance, theatre, and storytelling, Woezo Africa Music & Dance Theatre aims to ignite an appreciation and love for African cultural values.
At its core, the performing arts organization contracts Black artists and creates opportunities for them to participate in an artistic process free from creative hierarchy. These artists can build artistic integrity and are encouraged to acknowledge their African, Caribbean, and Black roots—an opportunity they may not have otherwise had in the Western art scene.
Within 14 years, Woezo Africa has partnered with over 40 African, Caribbean, and Black communities and 180 organizations across Alberta and the globe. The organization explores who we are as Africans and people of African descent and reconnects the younger generation with their heritage through a wide range of family-friendly activities, workshops, and networking events.
“We are trailblazers; we are inspiring; we are unique. And what we are doing is something that has never been done before,” says Wunmi.
Just to list a few of their programs: Woezo Africa’s Unganisha Professional Networking Mixer (UPNM) event connected professionals, entrepreneurs, university students and creatives from the African and Caribbean communities in Calgary; their annual Unganisha Short Story Writing Competition with their 2020 theme being “discovery,” yielded stories submitted from 17 Black writers.
The winner, Chinemerem Oluchi Agbasi, had her story translated into a stage play, Girl Discovered, and received a $1,000 prize with her story serving as the foundation for the script for 2020 dance theatre production.
For Black History Month in February, they hosted the third iteration of Unganisha: Explore. Connect. dance production event at The GRAND. The event included a cultural fair that featured 17 black-owned businesses and four African and Caribbean community associations as vendors. Within three hours, the fair vendors sold over $10,000 worth of merchandise.
People feel at home returning to their roots. Wunmi talks about an African girl adopted to Canada who attended their Africa is not a country, it’s a continent Arts and Crafts Workshop at the Calgary Public Library.
“She was so excited to learn about her culture and looked forward to seeing everyone at the workshop because they looked like her, they had the same hair texture as hers and the same melanin-rich skin like her.”
In addition to the events mentioned above, the inaugural Woezo Africa Cultural Festival (WACF), themed “Emerge from the Roots,” hosted 14 virtual events for the 2020 Alberta Culture Days and the National Culture Days, including a digitized version of Unganisha, panel discussions, traditional African drum and dance performances, visual arts activities, spoken word performances and various online workshops all live streamed from the homes attracting over 6,000 viewers.
“We saw tremendous results in the impact of our events to the community at large,” says Wunmi. “We strive to present thought-provoking art to empower our audiences and help establish our artistic practice in Calgary.”
The festival paid over 50 local artists, and Idowu says it was the first time that six of the Black artists that performed got paid.
Being a social enterprise, not a non-for-profit arts organization, Woezo Africa’s empowering representation has garnered support from public dollars through Calgary Arts Development’s ArtShare program and support from other funding sources such as local organizations and businesses after many years of pushback from oppressive systems.
“Let’s find other ways to get funding to do what we need to do and be authentic to what we stand for. What we have done has connected us with people globally during the pandemic,” Wunmi says.
In 2020, support came from a variety of sources, such as StoryBook Theatre and Inside Out Theatre who provided a safe rehearsal and venue space and several Black owned businesses who donated over $1800 worth of sponsorship funds for the Woezo Africa Cultural Festival. Such support makes events like the festival possible as we can acquire the resources that support paying artists, renting venues, and streaming our programming online.
Wunmi’s accolades in the arts industry span winning the 24th Annual Immigrants of Distinction Award and the Canada Vendors Entrepreneur Award in 2020, both of which were for the category of Arts and Culture. She also won an Afro-Canadian (AC) Community Leader of the Year Award in 2020. Her recent achievements include nominations for the 2021 Doug and Lois Mitchell Outstanding Calgary Artist Award in addition to Avenue Calgary’s 2021 Top 40 Under 40 list.
Moving on to 2021, Wunmi says everything will continue online. New programs like the Black Art Development Program, Roots to Branches animation project and the second edition of the Woezo Africa Cultural Festival will focus on promoting equity so we can amplify the stories of the Black communities in Calgary.
“Through our presence, our community will continue to feel empowered in their cultural identities,” she says.