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Asantewa Olatunji travels globe forging new paths for more women


Cultural Affairs Commission

An Attorney and General Manager for the Pan African Film Festival, Olatunji joins fellow members Ray Jimenez, Eric Paquette, Cathy Unger, and Robert Vinson on the commission, which is headed up by long time entertainment executive Thein Ho. Her appointment by Mayor Karen Bass and approval by the city council makes it a truly multicultural advisory board.

In assuming this position, she and her colleagues will administer the distribution of grants (ranging from $1,000 to $75,000 per project). The commission’s duties include the review and approval of architecture and artwork on or above city property, for the elevation of aesthetic civil design throughout Los Angeles, and reflects the diversity that make it unique among the world’s great metropolitan areas.

This is the latest stage in a journey that began in mid last century in the quaint community of Chalmette, the parish seat of San Bernard Parish, southeast of New Orleans. Olatunji’s origins in the south to a family with a subscription to Ebony Magazine encouraged lively verbal discussion, and differing opinions surrounded each meal around the dinner table.

Shifting geographies

“...these movements have changed the trajectory of the culture I was born into and basically set the agenda for the society in which I have lived my entire adult life and provided me with an ideological point of view and context.”

-Asantewa Olatunji

This tradition continued with her move westward as a six year old to the West Adams District of Los Angeles, as the family received the LA Times in the morning, and the (defunct) Herald Examiner in the evening. Her transition was smooth, even though the south was rigid in its segregation, while Los Angeles was progressive, at least on the surface. Born and bred a Catholic, she got a taste of these west coast racial subtleties in situations where she was excluded from social events, or not given proper recognition for scholastic achievements. These slights galvanized her and prompted her to become what the Freudians call “anal retentive.”

“...I saved every single paper, whether it was an essay or a test in high school, because it was never gonna be done again. I was never gonna be a victim of that excuse again!”

After high school she moved on to Cal State Los Angeles, where she met a kindred spirit in athlete-turned activist, Ayuko Babu, whom she eventually married.

Armed with a degree from USC, she set her sights on a career in law in the early 1970s, which was a smart progression for someone with a strong background in history.

“I wanted to know how the society in which I lived actually worked on an administrative and system level,” she explains.

After enrollment at and graduating from Southwestern Law School, she secured a job at Paramount Pictures, but a combination of her natural inclination, and entertainment’s lack of enlightenment led to her shift into labor law. One of the benefits of the legal profession is that it is easy to change lanes or transition into different disciplines.

“The law touches everything we do,” she notes.

This propelled her into personal injury litigation, a discipline which proved fruitful and enabled her to segue into labor law and gainful employment for years.

Throughout the years, she has focused on improving the lot of the marginalized, perhaps because of her southern roots.

“My focus is always to get opportunities for those for whom opportunities have not been readily available due to discrimination for reasons, be it race, gender, gender identification.”

This focus has not been restricted to just Black people.

By the 1990s she was a seasoned attorney with a resume including civil litigation, as well as entertainment, immigration, and labor law. Looking back on all these legal experiences, she sees them collectively as a push for the betterment of society.

New horizons

In 1992, with her husband, actors Ja’net DuBois and Danny Glover, she started perhaps her most ambitious undertaking, the Pan African Film Festival (PAFF). In the three plus decades since its inception, it has grown to feature some 200 feature-length documentary and narrative films, shorts, and web series from over 40 countries and six continents across the globe. An outgrowth of PAFF includes visual arts and fashion exhibits, along with other cultural events.

For Olatunji, this afforded her the opportunity to travel the globe as a programmer for prospective entries.

All the while she has enjoyed her Los Angeles residency, in one of the most diverse locales on the planet, an experience that will benefit her latest advancement as a cultural ambassador for the city.

Her short time on the commission has already spawned controversy. Still under-construction is the open-air museum, Destination Crenshaw’s Sankofa Park. Among the focal points is Kehinde Wiley’s latest installment of his “Rumors of War” equestrian series. It is a 27 foot bronze sculpture of a dreadlock-coiffed woman on a horse. Wiley’s art is a contemporary riff upon the European images imposed upon the American psyche, in this case the rider is of African descent and wears Nike high-topped sneakers, a contemporary figure posed in an image commonly associated with Confederate military leaders in the south.

All art is meant to arouse emotions on a visceral level, but for an adult woman with southern roots, in this situation those feelings were decidedly negative.

“For me it’s a racist trope that should be retired, period!” she declares.

“As a Black female, I’ve had enough power and domination.”

Her resolve in place, she was overruled.

“I was the only ‘no’ vote.”

Acknowledging this difference of opinion, she is optimistic about her new position.

“The other members of the commission are reasonable and rational people, and they all seem to want to do the best for Los Angeles in terms of encouraging and preserving the diversity that’s here,” she believes.

Looking back on her life, she feels fortunate for the circumstances that facilitated her move to Los Angeles.

“The culture of New Orleans was static in the sense that it was mostly Black and White. It was a rich but cloistered culture.”

The move west opened new vistas with its exposure to different people, places, and ideals.

“For me, that diversity was invaluable.”

Comparing and contrasting another citadel of multiculturalism on the opposite coast, she notes the similarities and differences between Los Angeles and New York.

“New York is a smaller space. Los Angeles because it’s so spread out, it takes a little time to get to those different cultural areas, but it’s all here. And it’s here in huge numbers.

“I want access to all of that.”

As the newly appointed cultural commissioner, she intends to provide access to the city for all the residents of Los Angeles.