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Upon entering the North Carolina Museum of Art's East Building, I found a vast collection of African art from the 7th to the 21st century, setting the stage for Elmer Gibson and the United Strings of Color's presentation of Ijapa and Mr. Igbin, an adaptation of the traditional Yoruba folktale, The Tortoise and the Wisdom of the World. The tale follows Ijapa, a young, confident tortoise who, after finding out he may not be the wisest animal in the jungle, goes on a journey collecting all the wisdom he can. At the end of this journey, Ijapa tries to hide his wisdom at the top of a tall palm tree, but struggles to climb it. When Mr. Igbin the snail gives Ijapa an easier way to climb the tree, Ijapa realizes that his quest for infinite wisdom was futile, and he smashes the gourd his wisdom was kept in.
This story, narrated by voice-over actor Henry O. Lovett, was just one part of the performance, though, with music composed by Gibson and performed brilliantly by a string quartet comprised of four high schoolers from around North Carolina representing the United Strings of Color. To top it off, there was a slideshow containing illustrations created by Corneille Little's students at Poe Elementary that offered a visual guide of the folktale. Gibson's music was refreshing, putting music influenced by African, American, and African American traditions into the classical string quartet instrumentation. Lovett's deep, velvety voice offered the mystique we so often associate with fairytales. If I had not been told the illustrations were created by elementary school students, I would not have thought many of them were done by children. But this wonderful presentation meant more than just an hour of mere entertainment.
The United Strings of Color was formed by their director Margaret Partridge to address racial disparity in classical music, an environment that has needed a culture change for a very long time. They perform works by underappreciated composers like Florence Price and Undine Smith Moore, but more importantly, these works are performed by and for young people. In the audience at the NCMA I saw just as many children as adults, if not more. It may not be obvious, and these children may not even realize it, but organizations like the United Strings of Color and the NCMA as well as people like Partridge and Gibson are showing them that art from outside Western traditions deserve the same space in museums and concert stages that works by Van Gogh or Bach currently occupy. There is also a commonly held belief that different art forms are independent entities, never interacting with or influencing one another, but programs like this put that idea to rest. The earlier that children are shown that visual art, music, storytelling, dance, theatre, etc. overlap and inform one another, the stronger the next generation of artists and global citizens will be.
In a short talk following the performance, Gibson emphasized the word opportunity. When he was growing up, there were not many opportunities for people of color and those opportunities can still be limited, even today. Because of this, Gibson knows to take an opportunity whenever one presents itself. The NCMA has offered a wonderful opportunity with this program and their exhibits featuring African works and works by contemporary American artists of color. Take the opportunity to check out the work of the United Strings of Color and Elmer Gibson. Take the opportunity to explore the African masquerade masks and Egungun costumes or to create your own African design in the interactive exhibit. Take the opportunity to ponder not only America's troubled past, but the world's troubled past as a whole. When the day began, I expected to attend a concert and go home after. I was surprised to find out this would be one of the most informative, immersive, profound, and moving experiences of my artistic life.
This experience is as important now, for everyone, as ever.