When Amoye Henry co-founded the AfroChic Cultural Arts Exhibition with a group of like-minded individuals seven years ago, it was deemed too “revolutionary” for Toronto, she recalls.

“We were under supported,” she says. “It was just a little bit too ‘aggressive’ because our focus was really Black women and we were really unapologetic about that.”

Some people in Toronto didn’t fully understand the important void AfroChic filled as an event that combined a fashion show, art exhibit, local vendors and musical performances catered to and organized by Black women. Henry and team didn’t let the resistance stop them though. What started in 2010 with approximately 50 people in attendance grew to attract close to 400 people in 2014, before a three-year hiatus.

Then, recently, Henry was “told there’s a lot of anti-racism initiatives, anti-Black racism initiatives that are happening in the city,” explains Henry, “you need to reclaim your place because you have been talking about this and addressing this for years.”

And, reclaim is exactly what AfroChic did.

The 2017 event, AfroChic: Reloaded, held at Toronto’s pristine Design Exchange venue, focused on “reclaiming our identity and giving our audience an introduction to African spirituality,” Henry explains.

Led by Henry and business partner Paulina O’Kieffe-Anthony, this year’s event centred around paying tribute to Yoruba Goddess Oshun and featured an impressive line-up of artists, fashion designers and small business vendors.

On the runway, models strutted high-end styles ranging from Chine Design’s sleek, sophisticated pieces for women to the dapper custom men’s suits from C.E. Clothier Inc.

Performers included singer-songwriter Shi Wisdom, rapper Sydanie, spoken word poet Faduma Mohamed and Afro-Cuban folkloric dancer Consuelo Herrera – just to name a few.

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“AfroChic represents a necessary space that will help us basically take care of ourselves.”

Sharing messages that resonate

Shi Wisdom, who captivated the audience with her set, says the fact that AfroChic was specifically geared toward Black women is why she couldn’t turn the opportunity down. Having frequented, and performed at, numerous events in the city she says she often feels women like herself are not represented in various spaces.

“Participants, audience and organizers – all Black,” she says, “I really rate that. I would love to see more events like that.”

Shi performed songs that deeply resonated with her audience – which, as she points out extended beyond Black women to include Black men and other people of colour – as evidenced by the expressions on their faces. First “Penny”, a track she wrote about herself as a Black woman and the ideas of being rejected like the coin; next “Affirmations”, a brand new track never performed before about being insecure living in the age of social media and closing out with “Young Gunner”, which is a powerful song speaking to the racism and injustice faced by Black boys and men in society.

“I mean it relates directly to our struggle as Black people so anytime I get into a space where I know there will be plenty of Black people, I perform that song,” she says of “Young Gunner”.

Creating space that’s needed

For visual artist Kofi Frempong, popularly known as Kofi’s Art, AfroChic represents the place where he got his jumpstart. When he participated in 2014, Frempong, who does abstract realism paintings mainly using acrylic, says he had a bit of a buzz, but the event exposed him to new audiences.

When he heard of the event’s return, Frempong says he wanted to give back. That’s why he participated in multiple ways this year – displaying his art, doing a live painting and helping to facilitate the body painting of models walking around the event. Beyond giving back though, AfroChic aligns with his mission as an artist, which he says is to create a narrative that’s not mainstream.

“In terms of the mainstream – it’s very Eurocentric,” Frempong explains. “There aren’t that many spaces for people of colour. So, for me any kind of space that’s for us, by us, it’s really important and vital. That’s what AfroChic represents – a necessary space that will help us basically take care of ourselves.”

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“We will continue forever to be pounding on people’s doors and letting them know that supporting Black women, celebrating Black culture is important.”

Breaking through obstacles  

While the space may be crucial, getting it off the ground again, was no easy feat. Her first time as Artistic Director and Production Manager, O’Kieffe-Anthony, whose background is in grant writing, says she was a little thrown off by the lack of financial support the event received. Though one government grant came through, corporate sponsorship not so much, making the planning difficult as the budget was uncertain.

“That challenge was just interesting to navigate – but it’s fine, I took a lot of learning from it,” says O’Kieffe-Anthony. “And we will continue forever to be pounding on people’s doors and letting them know that supporting Black women, celebrating Black culture is important.”

Despite the challenge, AfroChic pulled off an event that one vendor – Ananda Douglas of EYENI  – rated a straight-up 10 out of 10, saying: “I felt good about the whole experience … I encourage other like-minded people or entrepreneurs to come out next year.”

The six-hour show, which O’Kieffe-Anthony appropriately deems “an experience” versus an event, even included Grammy-nominated Jidenna of Janelle Monáe’s Wondaland Records for an intimate and interactive one-on-one with Amanda Parris, host of CBC’s Exhibitionists and Marvin’s Room.

O’Kieffe-Anthony says the decision to bring in an international artist wasn’t solely about the audience interacting with him, but also about introducing him to the vibrant, rich Black culture the city has to offer. That mission appeared fulfilled as Jidenna mingled with the audience before and after his speaking engagement, taking in performances, watching the fashion show, snapping selfies with fans and shaking hands. He genuinely seemed to be having a good time.

After this year’s event Henry and O’Kieffe-Anthony are one step closer to their big picture dreams for AfroChic – growing it into something comparable to Essence Fest in New Orleans and inviting guests like Solange and Janelle Monáe to its stage.

Jidenna had these words of advice to aspiring artists during his talk: “The truth is if you make your art pure and your product pure then your spirit will break through all those obstacles.”

That philosophy seems to hold true when it comes to the AfroChic movement.

Photos courtesy of AfroChic

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated from a previous version.

Priya Ramanujam is the editor of Urbanology Magazine. She co-founded the publication in 2004 with Adrian McKenzie, while a journalism student at Humber College.

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