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Keeping the past alive

Masud Ashley Olufani is highly anticipated Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Lecture keynote speaker

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Masud Ashley Olufani will discuss his work focusing on erasure of memory at the annual Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Lecture.

Olufani is the featured speaker for the lecture, which is sponsored by the Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, presented by Telfair’s Friends of African American Artists, and funded by the City of Savannah. The Atlanta-based artist will explain his work, “Blocked: A Global Healing Project.”

By chance, Olufani stumbled onto his current work while working on something else.

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“I worked on a project called ’37 Weeks: Sherman on the March,’ which essentially chronicles Sherman’s march throughout Georgia. At the end of the film, they show you areas of Atlanta during the Civil War and a slow fade to show that same area currently,” Olufani recalls.

During this sequence, Olufani learned that the Five Points MARTA station on the corner of Alabama and Peachtree used to be the Crawford Negro Brokerage House, a former site for slave trade.

“Now, when I was a student at Morehouse [College, in Atlanta], I had traveled to Five Points more times than I remembered,” Olufani says. “There was no indicator, no public marker about the history of the site before MARTA got its hands on the site. I was determined that something needed to be done correcting the erasure of memory.”

Olufani got to work creating a public memorial as well as an accompanying exhibition.

“I gave a performance based on digital film footage that I took myself and was able to take a single image of the auction house and fade in and fade out like a ghostly imprint,” he explains. “I had a friend of mine who’s an amazing opera singer moving through the museum. She walked through the crowd in a simple white dress with no shoes on and got up to the auction block.”

The powerful imagery resonated with the crowd.

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“I was aware that people were crying and overwhelmed, and I was overwhelmed by the fact that they were overwhelmed,” Olufani shares. “From that, I was introduced to people who were compelled by the project and didn’t know the history of Five Points—I was able to open the doors. What happened was I thought this kind of erasure in history, I bet, has not taken place only in Atlanta, but other locations around the world.”

Olufani will give his performance in the Jepson Center’s atrium with singers from the Atlanta Opera standing on auction blocks to embody the enslaved people.

“There will also be some performers who remain in the audience, one of whom will be a white singer because I want to break down this notion that history is owned by a particular cultural group,” Olufani says. “I want there to be a collective ownership. These performers will be in everyday clothes and do a call and response with those spirits of the enslaved people to break down the third wall.”

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