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Artist Talks Up Island Influence On Harlem Movement

May 16, 2009 — Caribbean islanders, and Crucians in particular, played an important part in the historic movement called the Harlem Renaissance, and that island spirit is still bringing life to art today, painter and graphic artist Ademola Olugebefola told an audience Friday night in St. Croix.
Born on St. Thomas, Olugebefola moved to New York when he was five years old. Though it was 25 years before he was able to return to the Virgin Islands, the Caribbean has never been far from him and his art, he said. The Caribbean islands influence his sense of "color, rhythm and warmth," he said.
Olugebefola, whose works have been presented by the Smithsonian Institution and are in some public collections, is on St. Croix this week to take part in the Harlem Renaissance Fair at Manor School in Estate Princesse. He spoke Friday at a dinner and silent auction for the event at the Palms Restaurant.
Olugebefola began his painting career in New York, where he shows at Archibald Arts. His first major exhibition ran from 1995 through 1998 and was a career breakthrough. It also helped to put Caribbean art on the map, he said.
"Caribbean art is more than just palm trees and pretty beach scenes," Ademola said. Modern art had long been Eurocentric, but through the Harlem Renaissance, black artists were finally given a chance to infuse the culture and for him the Caribbean Islands influence his art.
The Harlem Renaissance was a period from the 1910s into the early 1930s when Black American culture flourished. Centered in New York's Harlem neighborhood, the movement produced some of the best American poetry, visual art, music and intellectual thought of the 20th century by such figures as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Aaron Douglas and others. And many Virgin Island expatriates took part in that movement.
Ademola said that at first artists from the Virgin Islands had to struggle to be taken seriously, to be considered "authentic" and find a way to fit in because the islands are part of the U.S.. But Olugebefola says that "being part of the U.S. doesn't take away from your Caribbeaness."
Born on St. Thomas, Olugebefola migrated to New York when he was five years old. He ended up in Brooklyn. He said it took 25 years for him to get back to the Virgin Islands when in 1970, he was asked to illustrate the children's book, "1400 Cowries and Other African Tales."
Olugebefola's presentation came after a dramatic presentation on the Harlem Renaissance by Manor students. He ruefully said he hated following them because they'd already told most of what he planned to about the Harlem Renaissance. But then Olugebefola praised the drama students and elicited another round of applause for the student's accurate and lively portrayals of famous Harlemites such as Casper Holstein, Elizabeth Hendrickson, Nella Larsen, Austin Hansen, Frank Crosswaith and Hubert Henry Harrison.
The event is a fundraiser for Manor School's Scholarship Fund. About 40 people attended the dinner and silent auction. Speakers beside Olugebefola included local historian and artist Leo Carty, Dr. Gloria Joseph, and a presentation "Harlemites of the Caribbean," by Manor School Drama students. The event was emceed by reigning Mrs. U.S. Virgin Island, Winifred Loving.
Olugebefola will speak again Saturday when the Harlem Renaissance Festival moves to the Manor School campus. The event runs from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Olugebefola is scheduled to speak at 2 p.m. Tickets are $5, $3 for children younger than 10.
Olugebefola's art work can be seen through June 6 at Cindy Male Studio and Gallery, adjacent to the Toolbox.
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