Post-independence Senegalese playwright Abdou Anta Kâ deftly wrote that “one had to find inspiration in myth to write today and tomorrow’s histories. Men have a tendency to change but not the gods–the gods are eternal.”
It is within this framework of renewed interest about their cultural origins and ancestry that many writers and artists of African descent, whether living in post-colonial Africa or in the diaspora, have sought to rediscover and reexamine their identity.
Artist and educator Asha Elana Casey connected with the following words of American playwright, poet and Black feminist Ntozake Shange so strongly that it has become the underlying theme of her artistic practice: “I found God in myself and I love her fiercely.”
Inspired by a desire to connect with her ancestors, Casey discovered Ifa, the religion of the Yoruba people who live in the West African nations of Nigeria, Togo, Ghana and Benin. Their belief system is one which she has come to espouse as her own.
A DC native, Casey grew up in one of the verdant neighborhoods abutting the sprawling forests of Fort Dupont Park and later moved to Hillcrest. An avid drawer since childhood, when it came time to look for high schools, her mother’s co-worker recommended she attend Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Georgetown, which has been a magnet school for cultivating excellence in the fine arts since the early 1970s.
While the immersive arts education at Ellington allowed Casey to flourish, what solidified Casey’s calling as an artist was a residency at Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Aspen, Colorado. “I decided that maybe I could be an artist,” she concluded after her time in the Rockies.
While Casey credits the skills she learned at Ellington for laying the foundation for her artistic career, she recalls having a very different experience in college. “At the Corcoran, I learned how to be an intellectual. I felt I had to over-explain my work and defend my intelligence. I got a taste of what it meant to be a Black artist in America.”
She remembers that “it wasn’t until college that I started reading Black Feminist literature and looking into African spiritual systems. My journey started after reading an article about the artist Laolu Senbanjo’s work. Then I read the book ‘Flash of the Spirit’ by Robert Farris Thompson. From there, I sought out community resources to learn more about the tradition. But again, I know next to nothing still. It is a life-long journey of discovery.”
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