National Black Arts Festival Fosters Reflection on Atlanta’s Future

Image courtesy the National Black Arts Festival.

When I moved to Atlanta from North Carolina in 2006, I was more excited about getting to know a city that gave birth to OutKast and Goodie Mob than studying for my MFA in photography, the reason I came here in the first place. At first I only paid half-ass attention to the professors because I couldn’t get past the feeling of being disconnected as the only black person in the class. It was like high school all over again. It wasn’t until the following summer that I learned about the National Black Arts Festival. Four years later, I’ve gained a bit of perspective, so I decided to speak with three local artists, Fahamu Pecou, Masud Olufani, and Larry Walker, and write this article as a way of sorting through what I’ve learned.

When the National Black Arts Festival (NBAF) kicks off its summer celebrations for one bloody-hot week every year, Atlanta’s galleries are flooded with black artists that I’ve read about in textbooks, periodicals, magazines, and blogs. This year’s theme, Unexpected Encounters, includes exhibitions featuring works from Thornton Dial, Trenton Doyle Hancock, and Radcliffe Bailey to name a few. (Click here to read BURNAWAY’s review of Radcliffe Bailey’s exhibition at the High Museum of Art.)

Cosmo Whyte, CP Time Machine, 1/24 die-cast model. Image courtesy

Artist Fahamu Pecou, an ATL favorite, curated an exhibition at Chastain Arts Center called Home featuring Georgia-based artists Kombo Chapfika, Terra Coles, Stephen Hayes, and Cosmo Whyte. Pecou is a peculiar man because he has been behind the scenes changing the NBAF’s visual identity while continuing to produce bodies of work that investigate the psychology and representation of black masculinity in popular media.

“This disconnect happens for people when they can’t separate the ‘me’ from the ‘concept,'” said Pecou. “I always argue [that my] works are not self-portraits. It is done to force a different conversation out of people. When you are confronted with the issues my work is dealing with, you have to reassess what you think you know as opposed to me using someone from the street. It’s easy for someone to disassociate themselves from someone on the street versus the artist. It automatically takes you out of your comfort zone of prejudices and forces you to level the playing field of what you’re thinking.”

Radcliffe Bailey’s ongoing exhibition at the High Museum, Memory as Medicine, presents itself as a reminder to his audience of the global African diaspora and provides an interpretation of how he connects with his family roots. Many do not have that ability to connect to their roots, and many will not understand the bold yet subtle nature of his works. It is hard for me to read a review or listen to lectures by people who do not understand the strong symbolism embedded into works by African and African American artists. Something is clearly missing: an active knowledge of the expansive history of the African Diaspora.

Larry Walker—the Atlanta-based artist, father of renowned artist Kara Walker, and retired Georgia State University professor—explained how he defines African American art in the twenty-first century: “The term ‘African American art’ or ‘black art’ was generated because of a need to give some sort of recognition to African American artists in world. Somewhere along the way, questions developed as to what that meant. And when you think about all the various categories people have given art such as African, African American, Asian, or outsider art, we keep giving terms that create a certain characterization of our work. Looking at African American artists, the variations state that one approach doesn’t hold up.” Walker’s mixed-media paintings draw inspiration from his interests in how we “interface, connect, or disconnect with fellow humans” and his exploration of urban spaces.

Radcliffe Bailey, Windward Coast, 2009-2011, piano keys, plaster bust, and glitter, dimensions vary. Photo courtesy the High Museum of Art.

The NBAF celebrates blackness and the global diaspora that I’ve come to learn more about on my own and through attending a historically black college. Meeting living legends such as Dr. Cornel West, Jessica Care Moore, Carrie Mae Weems, and Thornton Dial are important when filling in the holes that Western history has left behind for the African. It is hard for me to accept the concept post-racism and post-black art since racism was created in order to keep a group of ethnic people in a constant state of second-class citizenship.

My voice often gets pulled into the ABW group—Angry Black Women—but I am not angry. I’m just irritated from always being lumped into that category. When the Rialto Center premieres Funk Jazz Kafe: Diary of a Decade—a documentary about one of Atlanta’s coldest parties that featured guests like Cee Lo, George Clinton, Erykah Badu, Andre 3000, and Joi—maybe then I’ll be less irritated. If you’re a transplant to Atlanta and you’ve never heard about Funk Jazz Kafe, you really haven’t experienced Atlanta.

Our movie culture has taught us to believe that, if you are black and interested in black history, then you are an Angry Black Man or Woman. The NBAF showcases challenging films such as The Inheritance, an exploration of a family’s legacy in which the cousins collecting the inheritance must respect the traditions of their elders before they receive their prize.

Films like The Inheritance compliment artists like Masud Olufani who tries the bridge the gaps within his family history. “For me it’s really about family dynamics and how relationships within families help to define how we develop,” said Olufani. “They give you a set of structures and beliefs to help you navigate through the world or make it more difficult. I’m interested in family structures, and my work is rooted there. Unhealthy relationships can hinder healthy development. Within the black community, this is something we haven’t been able to discuss from our own perspective without feeling shame about it.”

Yanique Norman, The Undergarments of the Jezebel, graphite and charcoal on paper, 40 x 30 inches. Image courtesy

Even in 2011, there is still a disconnection between what the art world knows as black art and black artists who are actually producing work. As the twentieth century started coming to a close, the black experience has shifted and changed. A generational gap grew out of educational desegregation, increased employment opportunities, American pop culture going global, and hip-hop becoming a mainstream voice for the oppressed. Thelma Golden was too early in coining the term “post-black” in 2001 for the Freestyle exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Many young artists that I’ve met worldwide are still exploring the fabrics of their own black experience and what it means to them.

Our identity is something that we barely understand due to the biased nature of American history. With the ability to access large volumes of information on the Internet and utilize them for our needs, we now have the ability to dig deeper into our historical backgrounds and craft a new identity for ourselves—one that includes the folklore of ancient African kingdoms, breaking the psychological effects of the transatlantic slave trade and the traumatic stress of being labeled a minority, while celebrating our distinct and diverse individuality.

“Up until the late 1990s to the early 2000s,” Olufani continued, “it became about identity politics and affirming who we are in a society that has defined us for us. We now have more freedom to tell our own personal stories because the dialogue will be about not having to make grand theoretical gestures about black identity. We are free to speak about who we are personally.”

Larry Walker’s insight takes things a little further: “There’s no one definition that sticks when you look at the works of Romare Bearden and contrast it to Richard Hunt—even Radcliffe Bailey or Martin Puryear. I hope that in the future, ‘African American art’ as a term will become more universal as it should. It will be more commonly associated with quality as opposed to ethnic characteristics.”

In the end, many black artists wish for all audiences to enjoy the power of their work, whether it is through music or art. Every year, the NBAF finds ways to produce exhibitions that educate and entertain audiences. In a city like Atlanta, which is 54 percent African American according to the 2010 census, there are many voices that are shaping the history of the black experience by producing art that forces audiences to engage with our country’s grotesque past. Obama may be president, but America ain’t post-racial yet.

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