Oronike Odeleye’s mission to build creative bridges

Oronike Odeleye (Photo by Roni Nicole)

Oronike Odeleye knew almost nothing about Panama when her mother suggested she go 15 years ago. A family friend was taking a group of art students for ethnographic research, and he needed Odeleye as an English-Spanish translator.

Odeleye, who seems to have a preternatural gift for recognizing open doors as opportunity, went without a second thought. But when the Syracuse film graduate, now 35, arrived in the port town of Portobelo, she wondered whether there was anything to translate at all.

“We saw a couple of black men sitting there with gold teeth and sneakers, playing a rap song on a boom box,” she says with a laugh. “I thought, did we just fly four hours to end up right back in Southwest Atlanta?’”

That feeling—an instant sense of familiarity among new faces in a new country—is something that has continued to bring her back to Portobelo in the years since, now though, as executive director of Creative Currents Artist Collaborative. The Atlanta-based organization hosts year-round experiences to raise awareness of and engagement with the arts and cultures of Africa and the African Diaspora. It’s a passion both personal and professional to Odeleye, whose parents both found a career in the arts. “Black artists don’t often get the chance to work outside the United States in an African Diaspora with people who have a history and trajectory similar to their own,” she says.

Odeleye works to provide that chance through Creative Currents, which began as a grassroots movement among a handful of like-minded, artistically inclined thinkers in 2003. In an effort to scale and fundraise, the organization itself has recently become more structured—the group plans to obtain 501(c)(3) status this year—but the programming aspect remains organic.

Artists typically propose ideas, such as a writing and yoga retreat, and Creative Currents builds a trip or program around them. One of the organization’s longest-running programs is the Congo Carnival Music and Culture Retreat, an annual celebration in Portobelo of the emancipation from slavery that combines music, costumed dancing and storytelling. For this year’s edition in February, Odeleye will bring local musician Mausiki Scales and his Afrobeat band, The Common Ground Collective, to collaborate with Panamanian comparsa band Barrio Fino.

This exposure of one black artist community to another isn’t just important for the artists themselves but also for non-blacks, who are encouraged to pitch projects or attend Creative Currents programming.

“We want people of all races to know that their opinion in this conversation matters,” Odeleye says. “Because for the most part, they are part of the African Diaspora. The food they eat, the clothes they wear, the music they listen to has all been influenced by the movement of African people around the world. You cannot take out the influence and contributions of black people in America.”  

More Info: www.ourcreativecurrents.org.

—  Feifei Sun

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