Art Museum Recognizes Black History Month With Celebration Of Haitian & African Culture

Feb 14, 2019

If you plan to visit the Milwaukee Art Museum in February, you can expect to be immersed in Haitian culture — by watching performances, or creating your own Haitian-inspired art. The museum is using Haitian dance, music and storytelling to celebrate Black History Month.

On Feb. 9, dozens of adults and kids headed to the second floor of the Milwaukee Art Museum to see the Ko-Thi Dance Company in the Haitian Art Gallery.

The group performed in a lakou, a square space with arched pillars in the center of the exhibition. In Haiti, the lakou is considered the communal center of life.

Three drummers and three dancers dressed in colorful, authentic African costumes energized the crowd with lively music and dance rooted in African and Caribbean culture. They welcomed visitors with a lively drum piece.

Members of the Ko-Thi Dance Company.
Credit Teran Powell

The performance was more than just for the audience’s viewing pleasure – the crowd also was encouraged to participate. Demar Walker, artistic director of Ko-Thi Dance Company, broke the ice with a call and response activity. According to Walker, “Buaa,” means “Hello” and “bi siε” means “I am well” from the Mende language of Sierra Leone.

He said oral tradition has always been huge in African culture and it’s been used through generations to preserve history.

Demar Walker talks about where the African dances originated.
Credit Teran Powell

“It’s also a way to really incite and to get everyone involved and encouraged and to let people know that this is something that’s really, really special. It’s just something about the way that it’s able to permeate through spaces and make people feel a connection with other people around them, and just understanding the power from not only within yourself but also with people who are connected to you,” he said.

In addition to learning Buaa, bi siε, Walker also taught the audience some history about the dances. Like Kassa, a harvest dance from Guinea West Africa. I spotted a toddler trying to mimic the moves of one of the dancers.

One of the drummers also led a discussion about the different types of drums, what they’re made of, the sounds they make, and what they’re used for.

One of the drummers (left) leads Drum Talk.
Credit Teran Powell

Antonide Arthus was enjoying the performance. She’s Haitian and said she liked how the performers represented the connection between African and Haitian cultures. And she even learned something new.

“My favorite part was actually the teaching part about the different materials they use for drums because even I’m Haitian and I didn’t know what some of the materials they use to make the drum, so I thought that was very interesting too,” Arthus said.

This is the third year the Milwaukee Art Museum has used a month-long celebration of Haitian culture to recognize Black History Month and honor the African diaspora, according to Brigid Globensky, the museum’s Senior Director of Education. She says the decision grew from experimenting with how museum visitors interact with the Haitian art collection.

“We wanted it to be not a standard display of the artwork, but a display that respects the artwork and also provides a broader context and more interactive elements to learning about the art,” Globensky said.

A museum tour guide explain several portraits in the Haitian Art Gallery.
Credit Teran Powell

The museum's collection includes work from three different schools of Haitian masters. Globensky said it's the responsibility of the museum to create exposure for different cultures.

“It’s just such an important collection of Haitian art that we feel it’s our responsibility to really make sure that it’s well known,” she said.

The museum's Black History Month events also include guided tours of the Haitian art gallery and the chance for visitors to create their own Haitian-inspired art.

The music and dance performances will continue Feb. 16 and Feb. 23 at Milwaukee Art Museum.

Support for Race & Ethnicity reporting is provided by the Dohmen Company.

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