Each summer, LA Commons, an arts organization in Leimert Park, hosts Day of the Ancestors: Festival of Masks, a vibrant cultural festival and parade celebrating the African diaspora. This year’s theme is “Black Joy as Resistance.” Karen Mack, the founder and executive director of LA Commons, says, “I think what in some ways distinguishes African and African American culture from other ways of being is this finding the joy, finding the laughter while we're in tears. That duality has always been there.”
In previous years, LA Commons has held a series of drop-in workshops in the months leading up to the festival, educating the community on African culture through mask-making workshops, music and dance classes and conversation. This year, those free workshops are happening on Zoom with registration through Eventbrite.
The Festival of Masks grew out of the Egoun-goun traditions of West Africa. Mack says, “One of the founders of the festival is Najite Agindotan. He is a master drummer from Nigeria who worked with Fela Kuti and is really steeped deeply in that culture and its traditions.” The Egoun-goun tradition uses masks to point out challenges in the community. Mack explains, “The idea is they are helping to rise above those challenges and have people change their ways and move forward productively as a community. Najite felt like Leimert Park needed that, and he had the vision to bring it to the community.”
To avoid attracting a big crowd to Leimert Park in a pandemic, the organizers plan to hold a virtual event, a Celebration of Black Joy, on August 30 at 2 p.m. Mack says LA Commons is still in the process of planning the event and working with the local community to determine what would be most meaningful. She says, “There's a little bit of a tension between the opportunity presented by bringing it online, which has the potential to attract a much larger audience, with this desire to have it be a really community-based experience that is contributing to the sense of connection for the folks in Leimert Park.”
Despite the festival’s local focus, over the past several years, Mack and her team have connected with artists around the world and held cultural exchanges with different countries. She believes that most Americans, even those with African ancestry, know very little about Africa. She says, “This is what we're talking about right now in our society, the devaluing of Black culture. And if you go there, you know that it's extremely valuable and a foundation for much of what is called Western culture. So to be able to connect people to that, and themselves in the process, is just a really powerful experience.”
Shifting the festival’s events online means it’s easier than ever before to involve international guests. Mack says, “Africa is a place where people have lived for two million years, so they've survived many plagues and upheavals. Is there something we can learn by seeking the guidance of artists and folks in this place that can shed some light on what the practice of arts and culture has to offer in this moment where we all need to tap into our reserves of resilience?”
This summer, the Festival of Masks is holding several live talks with artists from across the African diaspora. “This is such a poignant moment, tailor made for artists to explore and to interpret and to express what they're feeling and share it with the rest of us,” Mack says.
Maria Elena Cruz is an artist, curator and educator who has been involved in the Festival of Masks since the beginning. On nine Saturdays this summer, she led free hour-long mask-making workshops on Zoom (recordings of previous workshops are available on LA Commons’ Facebook page). She is new to online teaching, but her kids had experience with it from when their schools switched to online classes. She says, “They were my teachers on how to facilitate this.”
A recent workshop included a mix of crafters, ranging from professional artists to parents working alongside their children. Since everyone was on Zoom, they could watch each other work and swap ideas.
Making the two-part ancestor mask requires only basic materials, like cardboard, masking tape, Elmer’s Glue and newspaper. Cruz says, “There are many ways to execute this project, and that's what I love about being a creative person — challenging people to think outside of the box and look at the resources that they have in their home.” If anyone needs help finding mask-making materials, LA Commons is doing their best to make supplies available for pick-up at no cost.
Click through below to see what the Day of the Ancestors: Festival of Masks is usually like.
Cruz offers more than crafting tips and words of encouragement; the mask-making workshop is also a lesson in African culture. At one point, she shows examples of adinkra symbols, which represent different aspects of West African wisdom and power, in case anyone wants to add them to their project.
Cruz’s mask design features a cardboard headpiece inspired by a West African helmet with four faces each looking in a different direction. The original helmet depicted four daughters of white men, who were mistaken for spirits. “The first thing I thought when I saw it was, ‘There’s someone watching all around them,’ which is really tied into the ancestral theme,” Cruz says. Instead of the daughters of white men, she says, “We’re making them the four ancestors that are continuously watching around us. They're our guardians and our protection and our wisdom.”
During the workshop, a few participants shared who they intended to depict on their headpieces. Some paid tribute to civil rights icons, while others honored family members.
In addition to the headpiece, Cruz’s design features a set of circular cardboard eyes with slits in the center, which can be placed over eyeglass lenses. She borrowed the idea from a Ghanaian bird mask. “You see a lot of circular motions and circles within my art that represent a wholeness,” she says. “Our eyes are circles; the sun, a circle; the earth, a circle; this kind of infinite line that takes place in a circle that's going round and round and round, there's nothing cutting into it.”
While the Festival of Masks will culminate in a virtual experience this year, Cruz hopes that people will not only show their work online, but also set up stations in their neighborhoods, too. “At my house, we have done art shows out of my yard to let people who are just passing by and taking their walks come and enjoy the artwork,” she says.
Cruz would prefer to be facilitating the mask workshops out in the community as she has in the past, but for now she’s making the most of the Zoom sessions. She says, “I love seeing their progress and their involvement and the meaning of it is just so timely right now. It's been a beautiful experience.”
To learn more about Day of the Ancestors: Festival of Masks and sign up for any of the associated events, visit the LA Commons website.
Top Image: A little girl at the 2017 edition of the Day of the Ancestors: Festival of Masks. | Photo by Sahra Sulaiman, Courtesy of LA Commons