SF International Arts Fest celebrates return to full lineup
Diamano Coura West African Dance Company
The Diamano Coura West African Dance Company is among the performers as the San Francisco International Arts Festival returns to a full schedule for 2023.
PUBLISHED: June 5, 2023 at 11:10 a.m. | UPDATED: June 5, 2023 at 11:32 a.m.
The San Francisco International Arts Festival is celebrating its 20th season with a return to full programming June 8-18 at several venues in the city’s historic Mission District.
With 20 years of presenting a broad range of the arts — music, theater, dance, and innovative genre-blending forms — the festival includes both international and local performers.
Many of the international artists have had little or no U.S. exposure; some have never performed in this country before. Since its debut in 2003, SFIA, with more than 100 presenting partners, has presented performances by more than 500 arts ensembles from 60 countries — not to mention many from the Bay Area — and conducted numerous educational and outreach activities.
But recent years haven’t been kind to the festival. Policies enacted by the Trump administration beginning in 2016 led to several performance groups having severe difficulties obtaining visas to perform here. Then the pandemic curtailed performances, though the festival managed to present a handful of local productions each in the 2020-2022 seasons.
Now with multiple venues back open, including the Brava for Women in the Arts theater, the festival will be expanding to its former comprehensive roster in the vibrant Mission neighborhood.
More than 40 full-length performances will take place during the ten-day festival — including 16 world premieres in dance, music, performance art and theatre. Artists represent a wide range of backgrounds, including African, Asian, Latino and indigenous cultures — with performances articulating ideas concerning equity and economic, environmental, and social justice.
A stellar example of an SFIAF performer is Diamano Coura West African Dance Company, which is set to perform at Brava Theater on June 18, honoring the Juneteenth holiday. The troupe was founded in 1975 by Dr. Zakarya Diouf, a master drummer and dancer from Senegal, then a professor at San Jose State University. Diouf, a National Endowment for the Arts winner, passed away in 2021.
In its early years, the company was based for a time in Southern California, where Diouf met his wife-to-be Naomi. In 1987 they moved to the Bay Area for its cultural diversity.
In an interview at the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts in Oakland, Naomi Diouf offered her thoughts on the company and the festival.
“I grew up in Monrovia, Liberia, West Africa, and we have always been surrounded by music and dance,” she said. “Even when I was very little, during the holidays my father always had a gathering in our house and in our yard. Our people are of the Igbo ethnic group. They came and put on this spectacular display of our culture’s dances and music. So much joy and energy and so much fire. I was just in awe watching them and thought I want to do this.”
Diouf continues, “I love all varieties of dance, but my passion is African dance. Something about the rhythm got into me.” In high school she spent spent a year in Los Angeles as an exchange student and after one semester graduated. Then she went to junior college, where one teacher asked her to teach African dance. After she returned to Liberia, she was determined to return to California.
When she teaches she tells her students before they even take a step, “I’m an African before I’m a Liberian. I am as diverse as my continent is.” She explains, “ I need them to think about this. People try to compartmentalize dance by country but the truth is that the [different] cultures emerged before Africa was colonized by European countries. Ethnic groups migrated away in different directions and incorporated elements of their new locations.”
Dance companies usually don’t survive without a lot of help. With the passing of “Papa Zak” two years ago, Naomi became both artistic director and executive director. She appointed an associate director, Nikka Maynard, to help carry on the company’s legacy.
Maynard studied with Naomi while a student at Berkeley High School and went on the become her teaching assistant and eventually a company member. Now she is planning for the future. “I see building more of an online presence to where it is employing company members. What I really hope for is to get our own building one day that has a recording studio as well. Our musical director, Madiou Diouf is also a recording engineer and producer. I see the company doing music videos too.”
“Our directors came from the motherland to instill in us the traditional arts. And then for us to pass it on.”
SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL ARTS FESTIVAL
When: June 8-18
Where: Various San Francisco venues, including Brava for Women in the Arts theater, Joe Good Annex, Theatre of Yugen, Dance Mission Theater, more
Tickets: Most events are $15-$25; www.sfiaf.org