We talk with J.J. El Far, founder and Creative Director of the Harlem Arts Festival
This past weekend, the first ever Harlem Arts Festival took place in Marcus Garvey Park over two days. The festival was totally free and featured local art, dance, theater, poetry, and yoga. I was able to speak with J.J. El Far, founder and Creative Director of the Harlem Arts Festival.
Can you comment on how you think Harlem has changed artistically in recent years?
I think Harlem is a community in transition, and it’s experiencing a rebirth… sort of a “Second Renaissance,” as people are calling it. But with that come some internal growing pains as well. In our experience, it very quickly became very clear that there was sort of an old guard, very committed to preserving the historical and cultural legacy of Harlem, as it is rooted in the African American community; preservation of this is one of our priorities as well at the Harlem Arts Festival. However, in addition to that, we feel that there is a new generation of possibly more diverse individuals moving into the neighborhood that bring a new vitality and a new energy that is palpable. You can really see it going on all the time, popping up at new artistic and cultural events, including the Harlem Arts Festival. We sort of identify and have been identified with that newer group, all of us being in our 20s, so we’re all recent transfers into Harlem. We’re all relatively new in the community, but we’re just as committed. We share the values of preserving that legacy but also moving it forward.
What do you think is the artistic center of Harlem right now?
I think that there’s not one heartbeat. I think that there are several establishments like the Apollo, Harlem Stage, Harlem School of the Arts, and Dance Theater of Harlem. All of them have been producing consistently-excellent work for years. Then there are other New York groups, including the Harlem Arts Festival, who are slicking things up a little bit but also providing an expansion of what’s existing. We do know there’s lots of gospel, lots of jazz – that’s what Harlem is known for. The National Black Theatre has also been around since 1967. All of these establishments have their history, but now they’re able to do a lot more programming, which we’re excited about.
I think there’s a dialect between those older establishments and this new generation, both of which I think make up the artistic hub of Harlem. I don’t think it’s located in one place.
Can you tell me some of the highlights of the Harlem Arts Festival?
We featured a main stage, which was the amphitheater, and that seated about 2000 people. On the main stage we had music, dance and theater. We had Queen Esther and Francesca Harper perform “Billie Holiday Project Variations;” that was our closing event on Saturday night. We also had the Harlem Symphony Orchestra, Ben Barson band, Shawana Kemp of Shine and the Moonbeams, and Illstyle and Peace Productions; they were all fabulous. (We had) really excellent local artists that mainly had been produced downtown but never really had ample opportunity to present in their own community.
We also had a second stage for smaller performances and acoustic performances, some of which were really memorable. We had this fabulous drummer, Isaac Katalay from Congo, and we had an indie soul singer, Lynette Williams, who really shined on that stage.
We also had a Kids’ Corner with kids activities. They were making art all day Friday and Saturday with masks, puppets, and face paint. We also had programming for kids in the library across the street from the park, which included dance, theater, and poetry workshops. And along the walkway of the park, we had a Gallery Walk, featuring visual artists and sculpture. On Saturday, we had vendors, as well.
How do you think literacy in the arts can help the immigrant populations in Harlem?
I think that there is tremendous potential for transcending barriers through the arts. I think that theater, dance, and movement are their own forms of communication and expression. They create a sense of solidarity and inclusion and formless communication that can transcend language barriers. (At the festival) we had one piece that was performed by a solo jazz dancer, and I feel like the expression of the body can say so much even without language.
If I could offer one challenge, I think that spoken word is a really popular genre, and I would really love to see more spoken word in other languages, or more experimentation with how to translate that into other languages besides English.
What are some other educational opportunities in the area of the arts that would appeal to the immigrant population?
I really would encourage them to get out and see dance and dance theater because that is the best medium for transcending linguistic barriers. Participating in a theater workshop is a fantastic way to improve language skills. I actually teach theater workshops with my theater company, Hybrid Theatre Works. I teach with recent immigrants at the International Center of New York, which I think went out of business, sad to say. We did a series of workshops, and I know a lot of other people do similar work. But it’s encouraging them to tell their story and speak with gestures and sort of communicate beyond language. That’s very important skill building.