The Elements Bring The Future To The Green

Lucy Gellman | September 4th, 2023

The Elements Bring The Future To The Green

Culture & Community  |  Downtown  |  International Festival of Arts & Ideas  |  Arts & Culture  |  New Haven Green  |  ConnCORP  |  Arts & Anti-racism

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Santana Brightly, who later took first place in the "Afro Future, Afro Chic" fashion show. Lucy Gellman Photos.

Santana Brightly rocked her arms and shoulders to the beat, her torso glowing in a green and black peacock print that burst into color. Her feet tapped the stage in time with the music, becoming part of the soundtrack. Above her forehead, her hair fanned out in a French twist that bloomed into a Mohawk. She offered a final spin, and sailed off the stage to cheers and applause. 

Last Thursday, Santana was one of several community members turned models in "Afro Future, Afro Chic," a lunchtime fashion show and impromptu dance party from the Elements of Abundance and the International Festival of Arts & Ideas on the New Haven Green. Part of the festival's weekly program "Rhythm Exchange," the show is part of a wider project to activate the Green through arts and culture each Thursday through November. 

It is supported by the Proprietors of the New Haven Green; a full schedule is available here.   

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Top: The Elements of Abundance are Hafeeza Turé (Wind), Shayla Streater (Earth) and Arden Santana (Fire). Bottom: Emcee Belito Garcia with judges Tea Montgomery, Juanita Sunday, Donald Carter and Elle Dot Kaye. Santana is in front.

"We pulled in community and pulled it together in three weeks!" said Hafeeza "Wind" Turé, who runs the Elements with Arden "Fire" Santana and Shayla "Earth" Streater. Turé praised the judges, DJ Reefa, and emcee Belito Garcia for helping the group turn the show into a celebration of culture and community on such short notice. "It just feels amazing. We wanted to bring a vibe to the Green, and we did."

Judges included Hamden and New Haven-based designers Donald Carter and Tea Montgomery, stylist Elle Dot Kaye, and 6th Dimension curator Juanita Sunday. Beside the stage, a chrome-colored throne surrounded with potted plants doubled as an Afrofuturist backdrop, models taking the time to pose for photos after they had left the stage. The show’s timing is meant to overlap with Sunday's 6th Dimension exhibition and Afrofuturism Festival, running now through Oct. 21 at the LAB at ConnCORP and other locations across the city.   

From the afternoon's first model to its last, the show sought to capture the breadth of a diaspora, with bright prints, free and fiery dance moves, and pulsing music that got the audience on its feet before the rest of the work day. As Beyoncé's "Cuff It" sailed over the Green, attendees-turned-models David Cloud and Tyson Diggs warmed up in a makeshift front row, trying out dance moves that they would later bring to the stage. 

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Both members of TEAM (Together Everyone Achieves More), an initiative  of Children's Community Programs of Connecticut, the two said they were drawn to the show because of a longstanding interest in fashion. Before the show, they’d had a chance to do a masterclass with Carter, who Thursday arrived in restyled bell bottoms, shades, and a voluminous, curly Afro wig. As the two moved to the music, TEAM facilitator Chaila Gilliams pulled out her phone and began to record, beaming.     

It turned out they were just getting started. As Garcia announced that the show would be beginning, the two settled into their chairs, still for what may have only been a few moments. To cheers and chirrups of delight from the audience, photographer and multimedia artist Andrea Tatiana swept onto the stage in a deep green cape, its velvet shimmering beneath the sun. 

On one hip, she sported a low-slung metal chain that matched a cord on her heart-shaped spectacles. Around her neck, a high collar glowed gold, gleaming above her black tank top and pants. As she paused for the audience, the judges scribbled fastidious notes behind her. She rolled a shoulder forward, then back, then headed for the steps that led off the stage. 

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Top: Multimedia artist Andrea Tatiana. Bottom: Gilliams. 

"Afrofuturism to me is expressing yourself in a way that showcases Black joy, Black pride, Black entrepreneurship," she said after returning to the shade of Arts & Ideas' small tent. Earlier this summer, she heard about the fashion show from Sunday, with whom she is working on art for 6th Dimension. As a lifelong New Havener, she said, she's excited to see events like the exhibition and the fashion show spring up around the city.

"Honestly," she added with a smile, there's an ability to make anything into an Afrofuturust masterpiece "if you accessorize correctly."   

Back onstage, things were heating up. Cloud, who had watched Tatiana with rapt attention, floated up the three steps and stopped just short of the judges' table, his eyes wide as he looked out onto the audience. and began to move. Within moments, his limbs were careful and controlled as they cut through the air in front of him. He bent forward a few inches, and then was all legs and feet, the moves casting a shadow over the Green's walkways. 

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In front of the stage, Gilliams held her phone with one both hands, dancing as she recorded. She stayed in position for Diggs, who had been eagerly waiting in the wings. Listening for the beat, he extended his arms to their full wingspan, balling his fists as his ankles rolled inward. He bent back, and it was as if his spine was made of neoprene or rubber. Then he snapped back and looked to Gilliams as his arms wove through the air.  

"He's taking it back to the motherland!" Garcia announced from the side of the stage, his eyes sparkling as one of Mongomery's designs hung delicately over his torso. 

The excitement was contagious: in the audience, Arden "Fire" Santana and her fellow Elements danced along. As Diggs came down from the stage and Gilliams made her way in front of the judges, another round of cheers went up from the Green. The owner of Bodyworkers, Gilliams began with her back to the audience, dancing for the judges. When she turned around, a giant smile on her face, Cloud could hardly contain his excitement. 

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Top: Artist Alana Ladson. Bottom: 5-year-old Logan Miles. 

Their excitement set the tone for several models. After seeing the show from afar, 5-year-old Logan Miles convinced his mom, Deja, that he needed to be up on that stage, strutting his stuff next to the big kids. Artist Alana Ladson kept it classic and edgy in black, with high-waisted cargo pants, lace-up black suede boots, and a cropped tank top that made the glamor and class of her pearls seem utterly unexpected. 

State Rep. Robyn Porter arrived drenched in bright color, with a red-orange top and printed blue skirt that billowed out over her legs as she took her time crossing the stage. 

"It's just culture for me," she said after coming back down, and giving Santana a long, sun-kissed embrace. "It makes me feel like I'm carrying my ancestors with me. Everywhere I go, I carry Black joy, It's a way of being. We can't allow society to steal that. This joy—it's contagious."

"I wish you could feel my heart right now," she added, lifting a palm to her chest. "It's racing. It's that deep Black love that is unshakable."

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Top: State Rep. Robyn Porter and Arden Santana. Bottom: Santana Brightly, Amayah Smith and Neváe Brightly. 

Nowhere, perhaps, were the designs more dazzling—and that joy more unshakable—than as the students of SĀGHE Academy took the stage. In a black, orange, and yellow print that stretched across her dress, fifth grader Neváe Brightly twirled and swayed across the stage, taking a moment in front of the judges' table before making a beeline for the throne. 

In the audience, Santana Brightly and Amayah Smith cheered her on. Within minutes, Santana had also all but hopped onto the stage, in her element as she danced from one side to the other. Only in an interview afterwards did she admit that she'd been nervous at all.

"Once I was onstage, I just moved to the music," she said. While she'd ultimately won the show, she added, she never saw that as the point. "It was so exciting. Even if I didn't win, I wouldn't be sad because I just came to have fun."  

Rhythm Exchange continues this week with Proyecto Cimarrón, which will take the stage at noon on Thursday.