Sunday, September 22, 2013

RIP Donald Agarrat + Kofi Awoonor

Hot Shot Donald Andrew Agarrat
Donald Agarrat (photo © Jen Bekman, from Flickr)
Two days ago, I learned via a Facebook post that Donald Agarrat, a photographer and web designer C and I have known for about a decade and a half, had passed away. There were no details. Subsequent posts from his friend, author, editor and archivist Steve Fullwood, have revealed that Donald was found dead in his apartment. He lived alone in Harlem. While Donald and I were not running buddies, we maintained an acquaintance that became a friendship over the years, especially via the net, and were linked on Flickr, Twitter, and, first and foremost, our blogs (he had inaugurated several different versions of Anzi Design). I first came to know of him online, and then in person via mutual friends, and quickly learned about his web design work, which many people affirmed and swore by. I soon learned of his photography, an art genre for which he had real talent, such that his work was highlighted, as part of its Harlem Postcards series, by The Studio Museum in Harlem. I also would run into him when he worked at Tek-Serve in the Village, but once I went out to Chicago, we communicated mainly online.
Donald Agarrat, the great photographer & person, @ Schomburg Ctr.
Donald in June (photo by John Keene)
Donald was a gentle, witty, often hilarious soul, someone deeply rooted in the communities (black, queer/sgl, artists, tech, and more) to which he belonged, all of which he affirmed in his life and work, and he had eyes and a face so expressive they could stop traffic, a smile that was unforgettable. I associate him not only with the visual but with the music he loved. Many were the times he would send a message letting friends know about an upcoming show he hoped to attend. I feel fortunate to have been able to hang out with him this past June, when my dear friend Tisa Bryant came to town to read and participate in a public conversation at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Donald was there, taking pictures he posted to Flickr, images that capture more than just what happened but the life of any given moment, the person beneath the face, something richer and more soulful, something beautiful. I snapped a photo of him that I have posted above; we talked at dinner little afterwards, and later as we all walked through Harlem. It was too brief; I wish I had called him to hang out more since I've been back. I also don't think he received his due as an artist, but many people I know appreciated him and his work, as I did and do. We will all miss him. As I wrote on Twitter, one of the spaces in which we chatted from time to time, the flowers of his soul will be with us always.''

Donald's family is raising money to bury him properly. If you want to and can contribute, you may do so here: Donald Agarrat Memorial Fund.


Kofi Awoonor
We have all heard of yesterday's horrific Al-Shabaab attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya. As I write this entry, 68 people are said to have been killed, and over a hundred wounded. The Kenyan military has tweeted that it has rescued most of the hostages, but it remains unclear whether or not they have captured or subdued the assailants, who were vowing earlier to no negotations. Among the many killed in this horrible event was one of the greatest living Anglophone African poets, 78-year-old Ghanaian éminence grise, former diplomat and government official Kofi Awoonor (b. 1935), who was attending the Storymoja Hay Festival, a four-day gathering of storytelling and writing in Nairobi, and who was shopping with his son when the Al-Shabaab attackers burst in. Awoonor was slated to read the evening he was killed.  His son, though wounded, is expected to fully recover from his injuries.

Kofi Awoonor was born in Ghana when it was still a British colony known as The Gold Coast, and began publishing his poetry in the 1960s under the name George Awoonor-Williams. His work, which included poetry, novels, plays and essays, is perhaps most strongly informed by his native Ewe oral traditions (his grandmother was an Ewe dirge-singer), though one can also see parallels in the later poems to other emergent African poetries of the independence era and African Diasporic poetries, as well as the influences of the Modernist-era and mid-century Anglophone lyric.

Awoonor studied at the University of Ghana and University College, London, and lived in exile in the United States in the 1970s, where he received his PhD at and served as chairman of the department of comparative literature at SUNY Stony Brook and published two of his major books, the novel-in-verse This Earth, My Brother and the poetry collection The Night of My Blood.

After returning to Ghana to teach at the University of the Cape Coast, he was imprisoned in 1975 on the pretext of participation in a coup, which sparked worldwide condemnation. He also served as Ghana's ambassador to Cuba and Brazil in the 1980s, and as the country's 8th Permanent Representative (Ambassador) to the United Nations from 1990-1994, where he headed the committee against Apartheid. Earlier he had served as Ghana's Chairman of the Council of State.

The University of Nebraska Press, in conjunction with the African Poetry Book Series, established by the editor of Prairie Schooner, the eminent Ghanaian-Jamaican poet and editor Kwame Dawes, is slated to publish Awoonor's New and Selected Poems: 1964-2013 next year, with an introduction by fellow Ghanaian poet and scholar Kofi Anyidoho. It was to be perhaps one capstone to an exceptional career, but the book will now also serve as a tribute to a poet, statesman, teacher, mentor, and friend to countless other writers, across Ghana, across Africa, across Africa, and all over the globe. As Kwame Dawes wrote on Twitter: “Kofi Awoonor's death is a sad sad moment here in Nairobi. We have lost one of the greatest African poets and diplomats. I've lost my uncle. I woke hoping that the news I got late in the night was false.”


The weaver bird built in our house
And laid its eggs on our only tree
We did not want to send it away

We watched the building of the nest
And supervised the egg-laying.
And the weaver returned in the guise of the owner
Preaching salvation to us that own the house
They say it came from the west
Where the storms at the sea has felled the gulls
And the fishers dried their nets by the lantern light
Its sermon is the divination of ourselves
And over new horizons limit at its nest
But we cannot join the prayers and the answers of the communicants.
We look for new homes every day,
For new altars we strive to rebuild
The old shrines defiled from the weaver’s excrement

Copyright © Kofi Awoonor, from Poetry Foundation Ghana, 2013. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. OMG! I didn't even know about Donald! My heart is heavy now. Donald was one of the first people who got me involved in web design and was always a friendly face to see whenever I traveled to NYC. RIP Donald. :-(