Jamaican dance rhythms jive at British Art Center

Beats not typically found on the streets of New Haven were heard emanating from the Yale Center for British Art on Thursday.

The British Art Center held an African dance and drum workshop as part of programming for the current exhibition, titled “Art and Emancipation in Jamaica,” which runs through Dec. 31. Centered on a series of lithographs by a Jewish Jamaican artist named Isaac Mendes Bilisario, the exhibition is the first ever to focus exclusively on the visual culture of Jamaican slavery from the start of British rule in 1655 through emancipation in the 1840s.

The workshop at the British Art Center, which focused on the music and dance of Ghana, was conducted by Abraham Adzenyah, adjunct professor of West African Music, Culture and Dance at Wesleyan University, and Samuel Elikem Kwame Nyamuame, a visiting instructor of African dance also at Wesleyan.

Attendees were introduced to a variety of musical instruments from different parts of the country and watched live demonstrations by drummers and dancers.

Further programming provided by the British Art Center for the exhibit includes lectures, tours, concerts, a film series and more African dance. Since Jamaican culture has its roots in the traditions of West Africa, “Art and Emancipation in Jamaica” was meant to emphasize the links between the two spheres, said Amy McDonald, public relations manager for the British Art Center.

One of the exhibition’s themes is the adaptation and survival of African culture in the Caribbean, McDonald said. By highlighting other West African cultural traditions like dance, the British Art Center is celebrating the origins of Jamaican culture, she said .

“The whole concept was that our culture, our instruments, our art — all these things were from Ghana,” Adzenyah said. “That was the connection.”

For example, Adzenyah spoke of how both Ghanaian and Jamaican storytelling revolves around the character of Anansi, the spider.

The workshop helped to increase the presence at Yale of African dance, an art form that throughout the year finds its campus voice through the dance troupe Konjo!. Founded in 1998, Konjo! practices weekly at the Afro-American Cultural Center and is open to all students.

Robin Wagner ’09, a member of Konjo!, said he thinks workshops like Thursday’s increase student interest.

“I think they are a great idea, especially if they’re free workshops that emphasize teaching students without prior experience,” Wagner said. “We’re always looking to get more people involved.”

Despite the welcoming attitude at the British Art Center workshop last week and its free admission, turnout was low. McDonald estimates attendance was between 15 and 20 people.

The nature of art in exile will be further explored through a performance by The Gerard Edery Ensemble at the British Art Center on Dec. 20. The performance, which will feature traditional music from the Sephardic Jewish diaspora, also recalls Bilisario’s Jewish heritage.

Adzenyah will put on an African drumming and dance concert at the Center for British Art on Wed., Nov. 7, at 5:30 p.m.

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