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Do We Need A National Black Arts Festival?

Over the past month, I’ve been thinking a lot about Claude Monet. Partly because I live in Atlanta and the High Museum of Art is featuring an exhibition of his Water Lilies right now, but also because I keep trying to figure out why Impressionism, the style in which Monet painted, seems so universally beloved.

Do most people think of Claude Monet first as a great artist or as a great Impressionist? Do we ever think of him as a great Frenchman? What about as a great Caucasian artist? It seems ludicrous to bring up Monet’s race, doesn’t it? Because it doesn’t really matter what his skin color was back in 1908, when, in 2009, we’re standing in front of a 42-foot canvas admiring those lilac and green brushstrokes. Yet, Monet’s nationality and culture were a big part of who he was and why he painted in the style he did. (Not to mention the fact that his biggest influence as an artist came from Japanese printmaking, many miles — and cultures — away from his gardens in Giverny.)

Which brings me to the title of this blog: in the age of Obama — a time in which all Americans should aspire, more than ever before, for cultural harmony and the blurring of prejudicial lines in our own country — do we need a National Black Arts Festival? Yes or no? If you’re wondering, my answer is “Yes” (make that, “Hell, yes!”).

The broader reasons and implications about why I support the National Black Arts Festival are too complex for 750 words, but my discussion here is not really about race, it’s about arts and culture, and there’s a big difference. Even so, I think raising the question about how we categorize the arts is a valid one.

Outside of Africa, more than 14% of the rest of the world’s population is of African descent, and preservation of the cultural history of the African Diaspora is as important now as it was in the 1960s, in the 1920s, and back in the 1800s. When the Fulton County (Georgia) Arts Council commissioned a study to explore the feasibility of creating a festival dedicated to celebrating and advancing the work of artists of African descent in 1987, that study provided compelling reasons why such a festival should even exist, and why Atlanta was the right place for it.

So, since 1988, people of all ages (and races) have come together at the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta to enjoy the work of the likes of Maya Angelou, Charles Dutton, Wynton Marsalis, Amiri Baraka, Avery Brooks, Nancy Wilson, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Spike Lee, Ousmane Sembene, Pearl Cleage, Kenny Leon, Carrie Mae Weems, Radcliffe Bailey, Sonia Sanchez and literally thousands of other artists from this country and beyond.

This year’s lineup (July 29-August 2) includes the Pan African Film Festival, Dianne Reeves, Robert Townsend, Les Brown, and dozens of other exhibitions, events and family educational activities such as “Growing the Dream,” a child-size replica of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s boyhood home. Philanthropically, the festival is a solid choice, because, in addition to the annual events in late July, it supports educational arts programs year-round. And the August 1 NBAF Gala (which this year will celebrate the culinary, musical, and artistic influence of Brazil’s African heritage in a magically-transformed space inside the world’s largest wholesale marketplace, AmericasMartAtlanta), is a key conduit for financial support to the festival.

NBAF is a very worthy assemblage of artistic endeavors, and Atlanta — and the nation — would be far less culturally rich without it. As far as categorizing it as “black,” I think the same question could be asked of any compartmentalizing label. Should jazz not be jazz? Should Cajun food not be Cajun? Should Impressionism not be Impressionism? I guess what I’m getting at is this: should art be appreciated unequivocally? Or is our interest generated in part by our ability to quantify — to exercise our power of judgment and put our opinions in neat mental boxes?

The National Black Arts Festival is purposeful in its categorization. It exists to honor, to remember, to look forward, and to celebrate the cultural contributions of all people of African descent — here and now. The fact that we have a black president doesn’t change that.

For more information about the National Black Arts Festival, click here.


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