February is Black History month, which has been recognized nationwide in Canada since 1995. It is an opportunity for all Canadians to learn more about the contributions that Black Canadians have made to our society. This year the theme is “Black Excellence, A Heritage to Celebrate, a Future to Build.” There will be a full slate of events taking place throughout the month and the city, providing Calgarians with many opportunities to learn about and connect with the diversity of the Black stories in our city. Many museums will have special exhibits, and plenty of Black artists in Calgary will be sharing their stories.
One such artist is Ọláwunmi Idowu, also known as Wunmi (pronounced Woo-me). In 2021 she was named one of the Top 40 under 40 in Calgary by Avenue Magazine. Idowu is the founder and director of Woezo Africa Music & Dance Theatre Inc and the Black Arts & Culture Council (BACC). She is a talented artist in her own right, and also a champion and major supporter of Black arts and artists in Calgary.
Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Idowu began dancing at the age of three, starting with traditional dances of the Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa peoples, the three largest ethnic groups in Nigeria. She did dance training in school and competitions outside of school. Responsible for leading different dance groups, she eventually branched out into performing on her own.
When Idowu moved to Edmonton, Alberta with her family at the age of ten, she continued dancing and participated in a dance group that travelled all around Canada. “That’s how I got my foot wet in learning more about cultural dancing and also learning about what culture means to those who are here, apart from what I took culture as” she recalls. “People are just interested in knowing who you are, and because dance and music are very universal, being able to share your own stories through your movement really connects to other people, and I loved seeing that being on stage dancing.”
Through her company Woezo Africa, Idowu has made many major contributions to the development of Black artists in Calgary, especially through her UNGANISHA series. The word ‘unganisha’ comes from the Swahili language (the most widely spoken language in Africa, with around 200 million speakers), and means “connection”. Under the banner of UNGANISHA, Idowu has certainly facilitated an impressive amount of connections.
UNGANISHA was born with the intent of celebrating and sustaining the presence of African diasporic communities in Calgary. It has been an annual dance theatre show, but also so much more; UNGANISHA grew to include a short story writing contest, a cultural fair, and even networking events. This year UNGANISHA will manifest as a documentary film and panel discussion entitled UNGANISHA: Explore. Connect. Dance.
“We’ve had success with four runs on stage, we have trained dancers, actors and scriptwriters, and we’ve seen them do great things on our stage showcasing Black stories with Black characters. I feel proud to be able to say that we’ve done what we needed to do, we have coordinated a lot of great acting, dancing and scriptwriting, and now we need to move on to something else for Black History Month. So this 2024 production is a film amalgamating our 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2023 stage productions into a documentary.”
Through UNGANISHA: Explore. Connect. Dance. Idowu hopes that viewers will come to understand the origins of dance coming from enslaved Africans who were displaced from their countries and brought over to the ‘New World”. Oftentimes these African origins and influences on dance styles are minimized and obscured in North America, so this project seeks to highlight the influence of the African diaspora on several modes of modern dance. The film blends archival and modern footage in an exploration of nine distinct dance forms: Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Cuban, Hip Hop, Jazz, Step Dancing, Samba, Capoeira, Salsa, and Tap.
While this documentary is the final iteration of UNGANISHA: Explore. Connect. Dance, moving forward, Idowu also plans to enter the film into festivals all around the world. “I want people to see Calgary-based dancers, and the story of the history of dance coming from a company based in Calgary… our goal is to put Calgary on the map, globally.” Thus as much as this is the final chance for viewers to enjoy UNGANISHA: Explore. Connect. Dance. in Calgary, ideally, the legacy of this production will continue to travel the world.
UNGANISHA: Explore. Connect. Dance. will screen on Saturday, February 24th at the Contemporary Calgary Auditorium, at 2 pm and 7 pm. Tickets are available on Eventbrite.