Jazz, Fashion, Doll-Making: How one Staten Island Artist Inspires the World Community

By Lori R. Weintrob

“Jazz speaks to everyone, of every culture and ethnicity,” explains Sajda Musawwir Ladner, executive director of the Universal Temple of the Arts (UTA). The Staten Island Jazz Festival, like so many of the UTA undertakings, simultaneously promotes African-American pride and spiritual messages. Sadja spoke to me recently at R.H. Tugs Restaurant & Bar, New Brighton, across the street from Snug Harbor where the 22nd festival had taken place. “Jazz is arguably the music that put America on the map,” she said. “Before Hip Hop, it was the African-American contribution to the world of music that spoke to everyone, of every culture and ethnicity.”

In her 20s, Sajda Musawwir Ladner adopted the “afro,” a more natural hairstyle and symbol of African-American pride.

Sadja was born in Harlem Hospital, the daughter of Russell and Ismay Wilson. She was brought to Staten Island to stay with her aunt Pearl and Uncle Graham Torian, both southerners, because her parents worked. Sadja credits her spending holidays, vacations and most of her spare time in Harlem as a major factor in her development and outlook on life. She attended P.S. 18, then Curtis High School, graduating two years early at age 16.

By then, she had begun singing in a quartet, the “Lovettes,” whose musical director Elaine Billups (the aunt of City Council member Debbie Rose) became a successful singer and film director in Los Angeles, California. They practiced three times a week at the Billups Funeral home. The “Lovettes” won first prize in a competition at the Apollo theater in the late 1950s and also were offered a contract at MGM records. They brought popular talent such as Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers from Harlem to their Staten Island abode. The group eventually fell apart and Sajda began working as a legal secretary. In 1961, she met Edward Curtis Ladner, her husband of 45 years. He was a scholar, historian, teacher, artist and “most importantly, a loving person.”

Sajda Musawwir Ladner dances in one of her Saadia Fine Art Fashion creations at Wagner College on February 20, 1970. Black Concern, an African-American student organization, asked her to perform and hung the photo of Malcolm X in the background. Photo credit: Manuel V. Rubio.

In 1967, at the height of the civil rights movement, Sajda and Edward worked with Staten Island artists Maurice and Andrea Phillips, Asheber Hicks and Sheila Rohan to found the Universal Temple of the Arts (UTA). “Maurice helped me understand the role of the artist,” Sajda remembers. “He would say: the artist is given certain abilities and vision, not to say look at me, but for a purpose to uplift, to educate and to inspire the community, the world community.” The historian and educator Evelyn Morris King was also Sajda’s role model for making a difference.

“The late 60s and 70s was a time that African Americans were celebrating their cultural heritage on a positive note,” Sadja explains. “The Civil Rights movement inspired African Americans to identify with their cultural heritage. Prior to this period, only negative stereotypes of Africans were taught in school. The only films that were produced were Tarzan movies that depicted Africans as a people devoid of culture and speaking a “booga-booga” language. Malcolm X and The Nation of Islam, both strong forces during the civil rights era, promoted an ideology of “black pride.” The Nation of Islam founded schools and businesses within its structure, giving followers a sense of accomplishment and self-worth. This message was inspirational.”

The young artists decided to further their artistic and cultural activities by opening Sadja Fine Art Fashions. “Up to this point in time, African-American women’s emphasis on fashion was built on their tradition of wearing custom hats to church,” says Sadja. From 1967-72, the boutique, first on Castleton Avenue, West Brighton and then on Richmond (now Port Richmond) Avenue, featured jewelry and articles of clothing made by Sadja, Maurice, Andrea and other local designers and craftsmen. From Bay Ridge to New Jersey, people came to the store to buy a dashiki, a typical African tunic, velvet suits, long robes and even wedding attire.

Sadja Musawwir Ladner at a 1989 fundraiser in Mariner’s Harbor for David Dinkins during his campaign to become New York City’s first African-American mayor (1990-1993).

Sadja Fine Art Fashions would present fashion shows that incorporated poetry, music, dance and other affirmations of identity including the introduction of the “Afro” hairstyle. “When Saadia Fine Arts Fashions presented a fashion show and the African-American models wore their hair ‘natural’, without a press and curl or perm, those in the audience may have laughed, but in no time the hair style became fashionable.”

An oil painting by Sajda Musawwir Ladner from the late 1960s, inspired by UTA co-founder Maurice Phillips’ vision of men and women embodying similar qualities. Photo by Portfolion Photography, Snug Harbor.

Her work on Staten Island resulted in opportunities to travel abroad. Sajda went to West Africa and the Caribbean as well as throughout the United States. Her trips came from working as wardrobe mistress and costume designer for the Nanette Beardon Contemporary Dance Company. More recently, Sajda also worked as a designer for the Boys Choir of Harlem, traveling with them around the U.S. and to Turkey. These travels confirmed for Sajda, that truth is both universal and community-minded. “Christianity exhorts: `Do onto others as you want others to do to you.’ Islam proposes: `You must want for your brother what you want for yourself.’ Judaism’s golden rule is `Love your neighbor as yourself.’ For Sajda, this foundation, as well as what one learns from family, religion or school, is but a starting point for a higher consciousness of our interconnectedness.

As the UTA enters its 42nd year, Sajda continues to make a difference here in building bridges between cultures. “We were multi-cultural before the word even existed,” Sajda declares. Its headquarters opened in 1990 at 425 Jersey Street, a huge step forward in promoting the arts, cultural pride and universal truths. They also undertake environmental, fashion and literacy programs at schools, senior centers and churches. With children at P.S. 14, “we researched eighteen countries, including Japan, Brazil and Ghana, and made dolls for those nations. Sewing boosts literacy and math skills as it requires you to read and follow patterns.” The “Treasure to Trash” program creates art by recycling throw-aways. Two of Sajda’s daughters, Rashida and Hasifa, have recently brought their journalism and marketing skills to benefit UTA. Another great joy in her life is her four grandchildren.

Sajda Musawwir Ladner stands next to a few of the dolls she created with students at P.S. 14, and her husband’s self-portrait, at the UTA headquarters, 425 Jersey Street, Tompkinsville.

While Sadja has witnessed many transitions in African-American history, “two profound victorious memories” stand out. “I was invited to dance a duet in Harlem with the beautiful dancer and teacher Sheila Rohan before President Nelson Mandela when he was released from prison. And, I got to live to see the election of President Barack Obama.” Recalling the words of a favorite poem by Langston Hughes, she offers final words of advice: “My advice to young people is to bear in mind that everyone on this planet has a purpose—value and respect that while holding on to your dreams.”

Excerpt from Dreams, by Langston Hughes

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

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