By Jeff Guerra
Photos: Raúl Tobón
Some of today’s most powerful works of art continue to explore this same question; in Colombia, none more gracefully than those produced by the Sankofa Afro-Colombian Cultural Corporation. Founded in 1997 by its current Director Rafael Palacios, the organization seeks to build and maintain a bridge between Colombia and the African continent through artistic creations that use dance to illustrate ancestral foundations while also addressing contemporary day-to-day life. Sankofa is an African term derived from the words SAN (return), KO (go), and FA (seek/take/retrieve), and is symbolized by a mythical bird that flies forward with its head turned backward.
Promoting the value of looking back is a powerful idea in a country whose recent past is in many ways still too painful to reflect upon, but Colombians are resilient people, and their cultural leaders have long since realized they must confront their past in order to move forward. Sankofa is surely one such leader, and they have chosen the creative arts as a means to make the point that the only way forward is together.
Indeed, celebrating Afro-Colombian heritage through the arts provides salient commentary on the greater Colombian social landscape: despite having the largest Afro-descendent population among Spanish-speaking countries, the nation has yet to wholeheartedly embrace this rich sub-populace as its own in a meaningful social or economic way. Rather than deny their roots and beg for social inclusion, Sankofa have gone another way, fortifying the link to Africa as a means of elevating community pride and thus ultimately the cultural value we can realize with a racially integrated Colombia.
The quiet dignity inherent in this path is a reflection of its leader; formally trained in the disciplines of ballet, modern, jazz and both traditional and contemporary African dance, Palacios has performed in numerous productions across Latin America, the United States, Europe and Africa. This experience combined with a similarly impressive background as a creative director and choreographer imbues Sankofa with the sort of credibility required for such an important undertaking, especially given its potential in the international spotlight at a key moment in Colombia’s cultural history.
This potential began to manifest shortly after the company’s foundation with performances in Paris at the Don Quixote Theater Festival and across Spain in such cities as Malaga, León and Barcelona. A long list of international appearances would soon follow, and in 2005 Sankofa was recognized by Colombia’s Ministry of Culture with a National Dance Scholarship. Further accolades followed in 2008 on the strength of two company productions: San Pacho Bendito was awarded the National Dance Award by the Ministry of Culture, and Pasos En La Tierra was recognized by the United States Embassy with a Preservation of Tradition Scholarship. The following year, Palacios took his company to Burkina Faso, Africa as participants in an artistic internship that included support from both the Colombian government and French embassy.
These experiences no doubt informed Sankofa’s 2010 production La Ciudad De Los Otros (“The City Of The Others”). Set in a contemporary urban environment, the work illustrates the challenges inherent in a society where multitudes of people, each with his own unique origin and method of viewing the world, are forced to share a common space and thus adapt their behavior in order to facilitate a larger social functionality. It quickly becomes obvious how this process can lead to stereotypes, and La Ciudad De Los Otros articulates the challenge we face in trying to break these molds while maintaining the essence of what makes us human.
With support from Colombia’s Ministry of Culture, Sankofa plans to develop a pair of new works in 2012. They’re also set for a July performance in Canada, and have additional plans for a European tour later in the year.
We’re at a unique moment in human history: recent economic turmoil in some of the world’s fading first world capital markets has coincided with blistering growth in the so-called developing world, forcing us to begin asking structural questions about how we manage the extraordinary cultural shifts that are already underway both at home and abroad. Art has helped us address such challenges at numerous key points in the modern timeline, and will continue to do so through projects such as Sankofa.
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