Time travel doesn’t require a DeLorean or 1.21 gigawatts of power. Sometimes, all it takes is the collective will to look backward. At least, that’s the concept driving Jennie Wright’s Sankofa Experience, an immersive art project that uses performance, curation and cosplay to transform the People’s Liberty Globefront Gallery into a time-warp portal.
The name Sankofa —a Ghanaian phrase that means “go back and get it” — represents a desire to return to happier moments in history while learning from those memories.
“The concept is based on the idea that our past holds these amazing keys and learning opportunities to our future,” Wright says. “Going back and exploring the culture — the good, bad and ugly — and deciding what things we should grow from and which things we should never do again. We can bring that into our present life and teach the next generation.”
For the first stretch of Sankofa, which kicked off Feb. 2 and runs through March 24, the space transports guests to The Cotton Club, a Harlem venue that flourished in the mid-1920s, hosting now-legendary performers like Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Josephine Baker.
“As far as art and culture goes, the Harlem Renaissance is an exceptionally rich period of painters, singers, writers, dancers and poets,” Wright says. “For African-Americans, it’s one of the richest periods of the arts.”
“The Cotton Club Experience,” which functions as a museum Tuesday-Friday, will conclude with two celebrations: a Rent Party (7:30-10 p.m. Feb. 23) and a Dance Party (noon-6:30 p.m. Feb. 24).
During the Harlem Renaissance, rent parties were casual social functions where tenants would bring Jazz bands into their homes to perform and pass a hat to help pay the month’s rent.
“Rent parties came to be after the Great Migration, with so many African-Americans from the South moving up to the industrialized North,” Wright says. “This created a housing crunch. People would be paying astronomical rent for literally closets and day-shift sleeping. To make the rent, people would hire a band, make plates and charge a dollar to get in.”
The Cincinnati Lindy Society will help teach attendees the popular dance steps of the Roaring Twenties, while pianists attempt to outdo each other in a cutting contest: Jazz’s equivalent to a Rap battle.
After a brief hiatus, Sankofa will return March 2, this time, offering visitors a chance to revisit the 1980s and 1990s.Sankofa’s second half, titled “These Are The Breaks,” shares its name with a 1980 single by rapper Kurtis Blow, notable for featuring six instrumental breakdowns that have been sampled or repurposed in hundreds of other beats.
Wright will revive elements of Hip Hop’s golden age — graffiti, poetry, freestyle Rap — to transform the storefront. Born in 1973, she considers the rise of Hip Hop a major influence on her formative years.
“It’s one of the newer, most groundbreaking genres of music that African-Americans have introduced to this country,” she says. “Hip Hop’s what I grew up with and what I love. You’re starting to see that part of the culture come back around, but I think people definitely don’t know the full roots of the genre.”
Wright’s idea for Sankofa partially extended from an appreciation for cosplay and a desire to make its surrounding community more inclusive.
“I’m a self-proclaimed ‘blerd’ — a black nerd,” she says. “I love sci-fi, I love the opportunity to dress up, and I love our culture. To be able to merge these and bring it to Cincinnati is amazing. Black cosplay is something is something I hadn’t really seen here. I’d been to a few other events where there was some representation from people of color, but very little.”
A former nationally-ranked slam poet and current booking agent, Wright shares a passion for the arts with the members of her team, Siri Imani and Alexis Thompson, who make of two-thirds of local Hip Hop crew Triiibe.
“I came up with the idea, but they were the ones that helped me flesh it out,” Wright says of Triiibe. “Being artists still performing in the city and gigging like crazy, they know a lot of amazing local talent we were able to tap into and showcase — finding people who could embody the characters they play.”
Sankofa Experience runs through March 24 at the People’s Liberty Globefront Gallery (1805 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine). “The Cotton Club Experience” runs through Feb. 24; “These Are The Breaks” runs March 2-24. Weekend experiences are $10; the museum exhibits are free and open to the public and operates Tuesday-Friday. More info: experiencesankofa.com. More info: experiencesankofa.com.