Portraits and texts by Lori Waselchuk.
Kofi Akakpo is a visiting advisor and project designer for Kwasi Ohene-Ayeh’s SPACES project. Kofi and Kwasi met eight years ago while in college at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Ghana. They have been friends and collaborators ever since. “We are both interested in how people interact in space,” Kofi explains.
For the project exploring communality through relational procedures (open mics, artist talks, film screenings), Kofi helped Kwasi brainstorm ideas to visually represent the live performances and spontaneous interactions of the open mics and artist talks. Kofi conceptualized the structural component of the project: he designed and animated two site-specific structures which the audience could participate in the making. (See here)
Niém Gilmore, a.k.a. Grandson, is the storyteller of The Village. He improvises his tales with a mic in his hand. He rhymes about his life, his friends and experiences.
“You gotta tell a story, you gotta paint a picture.”
Grandson has lived in The Village since he was a child. His uncle, James “Big Man” Maxton, was a master mosaic artist and he worked closely with the founder of The Village, Lily Yeh. Grandson began helping his uncle at 8-years-old. “It kept me out of trouble,” he says. Grandson’s improvised raps are filled with local characters, shared stories and humor. When Grandson takes the mic, the audience is spellbound. His raps receive raucous applause, shouts and whistles. The enthusiastic response to his performances has encouraged Grandson to think more seriously about his music.
“I’m starting to see myself as an artist.”
Grandson is grateful to Kwasi for initiating the open mic series. “It’s a platform to get to know people and learn about their talent,” says Grandson. “It be like new faces all the time. Kwasi came and put it together.”
Donnie Cottman was 10 years old when he discovered YouTube.
“I fell in love with making videos, entertaining people, making money.”
He started paying attention to movies, directors and actors. He desperately wanted to learn how to make videos but his mom didn’t have the money for cameras. So he looked for schools that teach video and found The Village of Arts and Humanities, just five blocks from him home. Donnie has been involved in The Village in many different capacities since then. He’s been a student, an employee and now a collaborating artist with Kwasi’s project. Donnie didn’t know what to make of Kwasi. “I thought he was kinda weird – more kind than people here.” But in Kwasi, Donnie found someone who shared the same interests.
“I started coming to his house day after day. We talked about movies, video games, Ghana, Kensington.”
Donnie videotapes the open mic events, then works with Kwasi in the studio in post-production. Donnie says he has learned much from Kwasi’s insights and feedback.
“He [Kwasi] showed me things about my own work that I didn’t see before.”
Eva Bryant has contributed her energy and creativity to The Village for 25 years. Eva is a retired herbalist, naturopathic doctor and small business owner. She is also a gemologist, jewelry designer and ceramicist. Eva has had a front seat to the changing landscapes and personalities at The Village.
“I see much! I know what it is really like here!”
Eva lives on the same block as Kwasi. She took it upon herself to show him around and acclimate him to the neighborhood. Kwasi consistently engaged her as collaborator seeking her advice often as he developed his project, benefitting from her knowledge and experience.
Taíon Carter is a chef who has collaborated with Kwasi throughout the project. Taíon is actively involved in “2512 Sessions” – the monthly discursive artist talk and film screening events at Kwasi’s house. Taíon enhances the convivial sessions by designing the moments and interactions through the dinners he cooks.
Shaheed is a local entrepreneur who has contributed to the project through his deep knowledge of North Philadelphia and network of people in the neighborhood. He mainly developed methods by which the team could reach out to people in the neighborhood inviting them to the open mic events.
Ethan Mintz is the Co-Owner and Founder of Marsten House Recording studio, in North Philadelphia. Ethan coordinates the recording and sound mix for each open mic. The professional studio uses the events to train the studio’s interns techniques in recording live performances. Ethan says it’s a great opportunity for students because recording live performance is much more unpredictable than studio recording. The post-production takes many hours. Ethan is impressed how Kwasi is becoming part of a Philadelphia community. And he interested in Kwasi’s behind-the-scenes approach to the open mic events and documentation.
“He [Kwasi] is a curator. He collects, reflects in a candid process. It feels free form.”
Michael Williams A.K.A Mike Raw is a 19 year old rapper from North Philadelphia. “Music helps me express myself in ways I cannot explain” he says. His music talks about his experiences in life, especially the people he has lost who were was close to him. Music is his way of life.
Read more on the project here.