Art is Life and Life is Art

By Chike Nwoffiah, Founding Director, Silicon Valley African Film Festival

From the griots of the 12th century Mali Empire to the rappers of present-day America, the artist continues to be the mirror that reflects who we are or should be as a people. I come from the Igbo ethnic group of South East Nigeria, a culture where life’s daily activities are often interwoven with one form of artistic expression or another. Art, therefore, assumes agency for the spiritual wellbeing of the community.

As we sort our way through a COVID-19 world and adjust to new ways of being and doing things, there is no doubt that these are unprecedented and challenging times. Unfortunately, for people of color, the challenge of COVID-19 is only an added burden to the long list of challenges of racial injustice and historical marginalization that is baked into the fabric of American society. Our country and communities have become very polarized with binary fault lines and otherness, in all its forms, has become a flashpoint in our daily discussions. People of color, apparently, bear a huge burden of the vitriol that now dominates our lives. For many of us, navigating daily life sometimes feels like living in a lockbox and at the edge of suffocating all the time.

Our world needs healing, our community needs healing and we must, as a matter of urgency, find a way to our common humanity, else we step off the cliff. This is where, I am convinced, Art has a big role to play.

In times like these, the Arts provide marginalized communities a safety valve and space for affirmation. The Arts open the windows to our hearts and invites all of us to a shared celebration of our rich and varied voices. From molding to movement, sculpting to singing, drumming to dancing, art on the wall or off the wall, on-stage or off-stage, when emotions are high and words fail us, art gives us language that transcends cultures and provides a pathway to courageous conversations and healing. This shared experience that art uniquely offers us must be nurtured by all stakeholders in order to breathe new life back into our communities. Art blurs boundaries of space and can transport minds, young and old, to new dimensions of thought. When art flourishes, our communities flourish and we are reborn into new hopes and dreams.

As artists, we must also understand the awesome power of our calling. Our process of creating art is a meticulous one that finds its fullness only when an audience encounters our art. Thus, Art finds its true meaning and purpose when it is shared. My prayer and hope, therefore, is that through art, especially at this moment in time, we can break down barriers, peel off the layers of learned “otherness” and perhaps, actualize the words of Langston Hughes in the last stanza of his poem “Freedom’s Plow,”

Thus the dream becomes not one man’s dream alone,
but a community dream,
not my dream alone, but our dream,
not my world alone,
but your world and my world,
belonging to all the hands who build.

Chike Nwoffiah is an actor, theater director, educator, award-winning filmmaker, and a member of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA). He is the founding director of the Silicon Valley African Film Festival (SVAFF). Now in its 11th year, SVAFF is the only film festival in California that is exclusively focused on films by African filmmakers and provides a platform for Africa’s seasoned and emerging filmmakers to share their stories with a global audience. He was listed as one of the “Top Ten Most Influential African Americans” in the San Francisco Bay Area by CityFlight Magazine in 2000, and has served on several regional, national, and international arts policy and grant panels including the National Endowment for the Arts — Education Leaders Institute. He served 8 years as a Trustee and Grants Committee Chairman of the Arts Council Silicon Valley (now Silicon Valley Creates). In 2013, he was appointed by the California Superintendent of Education to serve on the California Blueprint for Creative Schools Task Force. Nwoffiah is a past president of Mountain View Television (KMVT Channel 15), and former Arts Advisory Commissioner for the San Diego International Airport. He presently serves on the President’s Community Advisory Council of Silicon Valley Community Foundation, and is on the boards of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts (ACTA), Pan African Film Consortium, and Families Without Borders. Nwoffiah is a Class XXI Senior Fellow of the American Leadership Forum — Silicon Valley.