MOJA at 30: Does new season mark a turning point for festival?

“Harvesting Sweetgrass” by Charles DeSaussure.

Scott Watson is excited. And a little nervous. This will be the first time a major city cultural event, the MOJA Arts Festival, is offered entirely under his watch as director of the Office of Cultural Affairs.

If you go

WHAT: MOJA Arts Festival

WHEN: Sept. 26-Oct. 6

WHERE: Multiple venues

COST: Ticket prices vary; many events are free

MORE INFO: For more, including a full schedule of events, and to purchase tickets, visit www.moja festival.com.

It will be the 30th MOJA Festival and it sets the stage for the kind of artistic explorations, community-wide collaboration and branding that could enable this “celebration of African-American and Caribbean arts” to grow and flourish in the years to come.

A large planning committee, led by Elease Amos-Goodwin, included many of Charleston’s civic leaders, who became excited during the brainstorming phase of the organizational process, Watson said. At meetings one could detect the sense of ownership in the room.

Committee member and visual artist Jonathan Green agreed. There has been more interaction and collaboration, he said, more enthusiasm about the programming ideas, a stronger feeling of camaraderie.

Green, who founded the Lowcountry Rice Culture Project and has for years strived to make clear the connection between historical rice cultivation in the area and the city’s economic and cultural heritage, said he is hopeful that MOJA can ultimately help reinforce that link.

Amos-Goodwin said the committee has been re-energized.

“It’s been a pleasure putting it together this year,” she said. “I did it as program coordinator for over 15 years. But as chairperson of the planning committee, my responsibilities are different but my passion is the same.”

She said it’s important to sustain the momentum and expand the brand.

“There are other entities we need to collaborate with, and MOJA brings a lot to the table.”

Next year will see even more educational outreach, she said. And MOJA can become an active brand during other times of the year.

“We are not limited to, and we shouldn’t just be limited to, this fall festival,” she said. “But it all comes down to funds.”

A lot is at stake this year. MOJA has not always attracted the kind of attention such a festival in such a place as Charleston ought to, observers and past participants have said in recent years.

Watson said he wants to see the festival thrive, and wants to engage more local stakeholders in an enterprise that’s got regional, even national, aspirations.

“I hope we can make this a national event,” he said. “We can’t have somebody come and be disappointed. We have to make sure we are always setting a standard of excellence.”

Charleston is the cradle of African-American culture, he added. If not here, where?

To this end, programming this year has a mix of compelling headliners and community-based events.

The Caribbean Street Parade and Opening Ceremonies (free) is scheduled for 5:30-6:30 p.m. Thursday, to begin at Marion Square and end at the U.S. Customhouse at East Bay and Market streets.

A Reggae Block Dance (free) is planned for 6:30-11 p.m. Friday at Brittlebank Park. Coordinated by Osei Terry Chandler, the block dance will feature a lineup of Reggae artists, including the band New Kingston.

The MOJA Finale (free) will take place 4-9:30 p.m. Oct. 6 at Hampton Park and will showcase the Charleston Latin Jazz Collective featuring trumpeter Charlton Singleton and friends.

“The biggest change programmatically is delivering on all platforms of the planning committee,” Watson said. There will be something in every major arts category, from literary events to music to dance. “The biggest commitment there, is (that) we have contemporary dance back.”

The Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, a culturally diverse ensemble rooted in the African-American experience, will perform 7:30 p.m. Oct. 4 at the Charleston County School of the Arts in North Charleston.

Twelve company dancers essentially will take up residence there all day, working with students, Watson said. This sort of combination between performance and community outreach is what MOJA can and should do more of, he said.

Visual arts will occupy a prominent place in this year’s MOJA Festival. The Avery Research Center will host a juried art exhibition, with an opening reception (free) planned for 5:30-7 p.m. today.

But the event likely to draw the most attention is the “Charles DeSaussure Memorial Exhibition: Through My Eyes.”

DeSaussure perhaps is most popularly known for his outdoor signs: murals he painted for Martha Lou’s Kitchen, Aluette’s, Dell’z Deli, Charleston Crab House, Juanita Greenberg’s and others. He also made paintings meant for framing and display, and favored jazz themes, the old Cooper River bridge (which appeared in his work like a leitmotif) and images that referred to West African traditions.

This spring, DeSaussure met with Watson and others to discuss how he might contribute art to the festival. Watson said the meeting was like a gift and it was quickly decided that a painting by DeSaussure would be used for the poster (a colorful and dynamic painting called “Harvesting Sweetgrass” was selected).

On July 16, DeSaussure died, and festival organizers arranged the memorial exhibition. It will present more than a dozen of DeSaussure’s works, mostly oil and acrylic paintings, at The Art Institute of Charleston, 24 North Market St. The free show runs Sept. 26-Oct. 30.

“I love his visual imagery” Green said. “His idiom is Gullah culture. His paintings are very much connected with West African culture. I could not think of a better artist (to represent MOJA).”

Theater productions include “The Old Settler,” presented by Art Forms & Theatre Concepts, Sept. 26-29 at the Dock Street Theatre; “Miles & Coltrane: Blue(.)” by Concrete Generation, offered Sept. 29 at the Charleston Music Hall; “Da Beat Gwine on Frum Africa ta da Gullah/Geechee Nation,” a mix of music, dance poetry and oral history presented by Carlie Towne Productions Oct. 3 at Circular Congregational Church; and “Five Guys Named Moe,” Oct. 3-6 at the Dock Street Theatre, a musical produced by Midtown Productions that showcases the music and syle of Louis Jordan.

The annual Community Tribute Luncheon, planned for 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Oct. 5 at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, will recognize the life and career of Lucille S. Whipper. Advanced reservations are required.

Two of the big shows feature smooth jazz sax player Marion Meadows, who will perform 8 p.m. Saturday at Family Circle Stadium on Daniel Island, and R&B vocalist Anthony Hamilton, who takes possession of Joe Riley Stadium for an 8:30 p.m. Oct. 5 concert.

Lots of poetry and prose will be celebrated, too. Local and regional poets will share their art for a “Spoken Word” gathering at 9 p.m. Oct. 3 at Huger’s restaurant, 587 King St. Select 4th-graders from various schools will be invited to join a special reading of Judy Blume’s “Iggie’s House” 9-10 a.m. Oct. 4. And a Youth Forum-Poetry Slam with the theme “What is Africa to me? will be hosted by Burke High School at 10:15 a.m. Oct. 4.

A “Literary Corner” featuring author Tina McElroy Ansa is planned for 7-9 p.m. Oct. 1 at the Avery Research Center ($11). “She has been on our radar for a while, said organizer Karen Chandler. “When I read her books, her characters are so visual to me. She’s so very descriptive in her writing.”

Watson said he hopes MOJA will continue to be “an expression of community from the ground up,” but expand to include other aspects of black and Caribbean culture. It would make sense for the festival to forge partnerships with existing arts organizations, such as the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Artists of Charleston, and to extend the use of its brand.

“The optimal outcome for the fourth decade is to make it the centerpiece of the autumn calendar,” he said.

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