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Woezo Africa's Black Arts Development Program: Nurturing Calgary's Vibrant Black Arts Community

Updated: Oct 4, 2023

By Lisa Mackay

Calgary, a city that is increasingly known for its diverse cultural landscape, has seen remarkable growth in its Black arts community in recent years. Through initiatives like the Black Arts Development (BAD) Program, spearheaded by Wunmi Idowu and her organization, Woezo Africa Music & Dance Theatre Inc., opportunities for Black artists to thrive and connect have multiplied. This year, The Black Arts Development Program added one-on-one mentorship to their offerings, and the Rozsa Foundation came on board to support this professional development part of the program. The mentorship program runs January to December, 2023 with eight mentors and eight mentees. Now at the halfway mark, we wanted to check in with the participants to see how things are progressing. In my recent conversation with Wunmi, Cheryl Foggo, a renowned Black filmmaker, playwright, author, and mentor in the program, and Ebony R. Gooden, a Black Deaf artist and mentee, several important outcomes of the program became evident, namely community-building, representation, and allyship. This article explores their insights and offers ways in which the full BAD Program is supporting and fostering the growth of Black arts in Calgary.

Community Building and Representation

Wunmi Idowu is the Founder and Director of Woezo Africa Music & Dance Theatre Inc.

One of the key driving forces behind the Black Arts Development Program was the need to cultivate a strong community of Black artists in Calgary. The program's creation was prompted by the scarcity of Black actors and scriptwriters for Woezo Africa’s annual Black History Month production of UNGANISHA. Recognizing the need for a community that can contribute fully to the arts scene, Wunmi initiated the program in 2020 to train and develop Black artists. “The Black Arts Development Program was created with barriers in mind,” she explained. “We created this program to increase the visibility of Black artists access to valuable programs and opportunities. Supporting various artistic disciplines, such as visual arts, media, music, dance, theatre, and film. Last year, we decided to carry out the mentorship component of the program by enhancing the artistic abilities of our participants by providing them with industry standards that they might not be aware of, supporting them in sharing knowledge from lived experiences, something that would instil a sense of belonging, because the participant that is sharing this knowledge is also Black.” By providing mentorship as well as training, the program aims to nurture talent and foster a sense of community. Cheryl Foggo has long seen the need for a strong Black arts community in the province, as she reflected on the challenges she faced in trying to find Black crew members for her John Ware Reclaimed film project. “I really had a strong desire to have Black people on my team,” she explained. “But the National Film Board did not have those relationships in place. This is in part because of a cycle that keeps repeating in Calgary and across the province, not just in film, but also in theatre and other art forms. Black artists keep leaving due to lack of opportunities. This has been happening for the 35 years I have been working in the creative communities here. Woezo is working toward disrupting that cycle by creating opportunities." This scarcity of Black professionals in various roles within the film and theatre industries prompted Cheryl to take an active role in building connections and mentorship opportunities. “It is very much on our shoulders to create the kind of communities that we need and want to see,” said Cheryl. "We wanted to address the underrepresentation of Black artists in Calgary's arts ecosystem,” Wunmi emphasized. “The BAD Mentorship Program was created to address structural changes and reform old systems to move to a place of renewed support that will contribute to a thriving presence of Black theatre, film, dance, media, music and visual arts in Calgary. By empowering emerging and pre-professional Black artists with training and mentorship, we can promote inclusivity across all aspects of social living in the city.” “I look at this program as a seed,” explained mentee Ebony Gooden. “We're planting the seed so that it can proliferate and grow into something incredible in the future, like trees and forests. So, if you consider that analogy, this is how I see the program; building that connection and establishing our roots within the artistic field within Canada.” “It's very important for me, as a Black person, to have a community a strong community based here in Alberta, specifically Calgary,” she continued, “and connect with those people in a mentorship-type program. It's been about five months that this program has been running, and the experience [has been] invaluable.”

Originally from Washington D.C., Ebony R. Gooden lives in Calgary, Alberta and primarily works with digital media. She is an advocate for accessibility for artists with disabilities.

Allyship and Support

Ebony R. Gooden lives in Calgary, Alberta and primarily works with digital media.

I asked Wunmi, Cheryl, and Ebony how the rest of the arts sector can be active in supporting the growth and development of the Black arts community in Calgary, and they shared several valuable insights. Wunmi encouraged individuals to attend Black arts events, engage with the work being produced, and share their experiences and connections through social media. By amplifying the voices and creations of Black artists, the wider community can play an active role in promoting their work and increasing their visibility. “It is crucial to share connections and resources,” she added. “With the support of the larger arts community, we hope to provide resources that will allow these artists the creative freedom, agility, and provide ample opportunities to self-generate artistic works and residencies, regardless of racially stratified arts structures. We hope to inspire new communities, innovations, and arts outlets in Calgary

Ebony emphasized the importance of intersectionality and encouraged people to show up with an open mind and heart. She stresses the significance of recognizing and respecting the unique experiences of individuals who belong to multiple marginalized communities. “Amplify our voices,” she added. “Because people tend to want to talk for us, but we can lift up our own voices. Just show up and support the Black Deaf community or Black arts community. Instead of trying to make an impact for us, just allow us the space to make that [impact] and then share that with other people! It so helpful if you just show up for [and] make space for our productions.”

Cheryl emphasized the need for solidarity and dispelled the notion that supporting the Black arts community takes away from opportunities for others. “One [suggestion] is for non-Black artists to be rock solid in your understanding that [Black artists] are not taking away from the community,” she said. “We are not trying to shrink the pie or keep all the pie for ourselves, we are making a bigger pie.” She urged all artists to challenge this kind of faulty thinking when they hear it, as it hinders collaboration, and instead recommend Black artists for job opportunities and recognize the broad skill sets they possess. By actively advocating for diversity and inclusion, the growth and success of the entire artistic landscape in Calgary is enhanced. This program must continue to provide a platform for Black artists to thrive and contribute to the cultural landscape of Calgary."

Cheryl Foggo is an award-winning playwright, author and filmmaker based in Calgary. She is dedicated to sharing Black perspectives and stories from the prairies.

The Future

Cheryl Foggo is an award-winning playwright, author and filmmaker based in Calgary.

Reflecting on the milestones achieved so far, Wunmi remarked, "As a result of this program, we have witnessed tremendous artistic growth and the unlocking of untapped potentials from the participants. Many of our mentees have been recognized for their work like never before, some have received grants for projects created from the program, and some have showcased their art in collaboration with various arts organizations. It is incredibly rewarding to witness the progression of their artistic journeys unfold."

Cheryl also commented on the impact of the program. "The Black Arts Development Program has challenged preconceived notions and opened doors for Black artists. It has fostered a sense of belonging, provided mentorship, and facilitated invaluable connections. The program has shown that when provided with the right support and opportunities, Black artists can thrive and make a significant impact."

To Wunmi, the future for the program is brimming with potential. She envisions expanding the program's scope and diversifying its offerings: "We aim to introduce workshops, masterclasses, and collaborative projects that encourage interdisciplinary exploration and innovation. By embracing a multidimensional approach, we can further empower our artists and inspire groundbreaking artistic expressions."

Cheryl emphasizes the importance of sustainability: "As we progress, securing long-term funding and institutional support is crucial. We want to ensure that the Black Arts Development Program becomes an enduring resource for generations to come. This program must continue to provide a platform for Black artists to thrive and shape the cultural landscape of Calgary."

"I want to see the Black Arts Development Program evolve into a hub where Black and Black Deaf, Disabled and/or Mad artists with different levels of experience can come together, learn from each other, and collaborate,” asserted Ebony. “By fostering inclusivity and recognizing the value of diverse perspectives, we can create art that resonates deeply with our communities."

The Black Arts Development Program in Calgary has already made significant strides in nurturing the Black arts community, creating opportunities for growth, and fostering connections among Black artists. Through mentorship, training, and community-building initiatives, the program is working to empower Black artists to see themselves as creators and apply for funding to bring their artistic visions to life.

For the wider arts community in Calgary, supporting the growth and development of the Black arts community requires allyship, amplification, and recognition of the value that diverse perspectives bring to the cultural landscape. By attending shows, sharing experiences on social media, recommending Black artists for opportunities, and challenging misconceptions, individuals can actively contribute to building an interconnected and vibrant artistic community in Calgary.

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