BALDWIN HILLS — As creative director of ArtFEST, the artistic counterpart to the Pan African Film Festival with which it shares space at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, Allohn Agbenya is committed to presenting a one-of-a kind experience to the thousands of art lovers that attend.
The showcase of more than 100 artists from across the African diaspora runs through Feb. 23.
“The most important thing is it must be unique and not something a lot of people do,” Agbenya says about the pieces on display at the festival.
Agbenya curated art shows in Ghana, Belgium and France before becoming ArtFEST’s creative director nearly 20 years ago. He said selection of the artist is very important to maintain the quality of the show.
“People come to this festival from all over the world. A lot of them are collectors and they have high expectations,” he said.
A native of Ghana, Agbenya sells his own collection of exclusive “wearable art” at ArtFEST. After selecting the fabric, he dies, paints and distresses it, careful not to compromise the way the fabric falls.
“If somebody’s wearing them, it doesn’t feel like it is something that’s been hand-painted. I’m the only one in the U.S. that does this,” Agbenya said.
In addition to being ArtFEST’s creative director and selling his clothing line, Agbenya creates the sets for the film festival’s interviews and red carpet events. For the past eight years, he also has designed and made the wooden staffs used for the filmmakers’ special awards.
Agbenya said he chose the staff because it is a symbol of authority.
“In Africa, a staff is given to people who have excelled and have become an authority in their profession,” Agbenya said. “I decided to use the same philosophy and create something for the festival.”
Although Agbenya is always on the lookout for new talent, the majority of artists have been participating in ArtFEST for decades and have developed a following of loyal customers.
Ceramic sculptor Sandra Zebi was introduced to the art festival 23 years ago and has traveled with the show as it moved from Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza to Pasadena and Culver City and back to Baldwin Hills. Her whimsical ceramic pieces depict the culture of women in her native Brazil. She said it’s the community that has kept her coming back year after year.
“A lot of them turn out to be friends of mine. So at least once a year, I see my family. It’s not just selling. It’s showing, talking, exchanging culture and it’s warm. The weather is cold, but the people are very warm,” she said.
Artist Martino Dorce came to ArtFEST in 1997. He uses a mixture of watercolor and acrylic on handmade paper to paint vibrant scenes from his childhood in Haiti.
“When you put it in the light, the sun, it never changes. The acrylic is plastic and it keeps the color from fading. This technique is only mine.”
He also sells the black and white sketches that are the precursor to his final pieces. Dorce said many people who collect his paintings, come back every year to purchase his latest work.
Baltimore Bag Company owner Jerey Ojeah is one of ArtFEST’s newer vendors. This is her second year at the art festival. She said clients visiting her boutique in Koreatown urged her to participate in the art show in South L.A.
“My customers are a range of people who are in the know. They told me I needed to be in this festival. So here I am.”
Ojeah’s Koreatown boutique is near the embassy and consulate’s office. She said she got the idea for Baltimore Bag Company from people who would come into her shop seeking something made in America to take home.
“I created Baltimore Bag Company out of that need for something made in the USA. It’s hard to find anything made in the USA, anymore. I named it after Baltimore, one of the original industries that was destroyed as the manufacturing industry left the U.S.”
Eschewing mass manufactured bags from China, Ojeah found a market for her “fine, handmade 100 percent leather goods,” made in the U.S.A. “We have the same quality as Louis Vuitton and Gucci and a better selection at a fraction of the cost.”
Ardena Brooks is also in her second year at ArtFEST. She was encouraged by the exposure she received last year for her photo restoration, photo art and graphic design business, Designs by Ardena.
She said she looks forward to being an ArtFEST veteran and developing relationships with new and returning customers.
“I think people need to see you over and over. It’s a trust factor,” she said. “People are really loving what they’re seeing. Makes me feel like I’m in the right place.”
By Cynthia Gibson