African Artists Make Their Mark, Overcome Adversity

Dr. Johnnetta Cole Honored during 80th Birthday Celebration

Kenyan artist Ato Malinda was the first of three honorees to be saluted during the first annual African Arts Awards dinner at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building in northwest D.C. on Oct. 28. Photo by Travis Riddick
Kenyan artist Ato Malinda was the first of three honorees to be saluted during the first annual African Arts Awards dinner at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building in northwest D.C. on Oct. 28. Photo by Travis Riddick

A female pioneer of the performing arts in Kenya overcame childhood abuse to be recognized as a world renowned performance, drawing, painting and installation artist.

Ato Malinda, one of three honorees, received the rising star of the art world award on Friday, Oct. 28 during the first annual African Art Awards at the Arts and Industries Building in Southwest.

“I had a really rough childhood, not financially but mentally,” Malinda said. “My family physically and sexually abused me when I was younger. One of the beautiful things that came to me was my wife’s family.”

“My mother-in-law became a mother and a best friend to me,” she said. “In April of this year during her last days she said to me, ‘I am very proud of the art you have made and I love you.’”

“Five days before her funeral, I was wondering if I was doing the right thing with my life, and then I received the most important letter from Johnnetta Cole saying I had been nominated for an African Art Award.”

Yinka Shonibare MBE, a British-Nigerian, like Malinda hurdled over great adversity to now receiving an internationally renowned artist award.

“I had an experience when I was 19 years old,” Shonibare said. “I remember lying in bed completely paralyzed. I got a virus in my spine and the doctors didn’t know and my parents were told not to expect too much out of me.”

“I have since gone beyond any expectations,” he said. “The power of art is transformative. My art literally saved my life.”

“I don’t believe in marginalization, I’ve always wanted to show my art in the mainstream. Through my work I want my audience to understand colonization,” he said. “Because of what happened to my ancestors, I have to communicate with you in English. The African culture is a very deep culture and the people deserve respect.”

Cole, the director of the National Museum of African Art, received high praise during everyone’s remarks in celebration of her 80th birthday as well as her leadership at the museum.

“This is the second Smithsonian building and the first annual African Art Awards – what a great pleasure to be a part of this inaugural event,” David J. Skorton, 13th Secretary of the Smithsonian said.

“One of my first priorities as secretary was to underscore two important parts of the arts,” he said. “They are absolutely essential to the Smithsonian and our national identity. They reach us in ways nothing else can.”

Skorton asserted that art reminds us every day what it means to be alive and the power it has to bring people together.

“For more than 50 years the African Art Museum has been a leader in that,” he said. “This is a single example of Johnnetta Cole’s leadership. Thanks to Johnnetta for bringing the beauty of African art to our community.”

Along with African visual artists, the awards featured Africans in other fields such as Ethiopian-born James Beard and award-winning celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, who crafted the evening’s dinner menu.

“I know so many young African chefs that want to be creative, but the platform hasn’t been set yet,” Samuelsson said. “The work Johnnetta Cole is doing is showing that you can come from Africa to America and serve tasteful menus.”

Samuelsson asserted that the ingredients on the dinner menu such as yams, wine and chocolate came from Africa not Belgium or any other European country as many has been led to believe.

“David Adjaye, the designer of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, would not be possible without the plowing of people like Johnnetta to make a way.”

About Sarafina Wright –Washington Informer Staff Writer 170 Articles
Sarafina Wright is a staff writer at the Washington Informer where she covers business, community events, education, health and politics. She also serves as the editor-in-chief of the WI Bridge, the Informer’s millennial publication. A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, she attended Howard University, receiving a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. A proud southern girl, her lineage can be traced to the Gullah people inhabiting the low-country of South Carolina. The history of the Gullah people and the Geechee Dialect can be found on the top floor of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. In her spare time she enjoys watching either college football or the Food Channel and experimenting with make-up. When she’s not writing professionally she can be found blogging at www.sarafinasaid.com. E-mail: Swright@washingtoninformer.com Social Media Handles: Twitter: @dreamersexpress, Instagram: @Sarafinasaid, Snapchat: @Sarafinasaid