The Relevance of Black Art & Culture in the 21st Century


The Atlanta-based National Black Arts Festival invited a national body of artists, culturalists, scholars, presenters, students and funders to Atlanta to engage in a two-day discussion on the current and future relevance of Black Art and Culture. The aim of this convening was to address the challenges faced by artists, cultural institutions and communities who are working to preserve and sustain Black culture in the midst of cultural disruption, unprecedented consumption and post-black dichotomy.  The event was curated and produced by Leatrice Ellzy for the National Black Arts Festival’s 25th Anniversary.

Actor Paul Robeson (1898-1976), dancer Carmen De Lavallade (1931-), and filmmaker Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951).

Actor Paul Robeson (1898-1976), dancer Carmen De Lavallade (1931-), and filmmaker Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951). Compilation by M. Asli Dukan.

The opening keynote with James Counts Early, Director of Cultural Heritage Policy Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, provided a historical background. Early talked about the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 70s and his observations in other countries such as Cuba.

The Cyclical Nature of Black Culture (slide) by Nettrice Gaskins.

The Cyclical Nature of Black Culture (slide) by Nettrice Gaskins.

My session, The Cyclical Nature of Culture, explored the recursive nature (recurrence) of culture among African (black) American communities of practice. For example, the 19th century quilt above includes secret African symbols such as the protective hand (“mojo”) and what appears to be Veve symbols that originated as the Nsibidi system of ideographs from Nigeria. I also presented contemporary art influenced by the Kongo cosmogram (map of the native universe) and thematic concepts of water, science, technology, and outer space (Afrofuturism).

Next came The State of Black Arts by Discipline, a series of short presentations by Greg Tate (music), Shay Wafer (theater), Anna Glass (dance), Asantewa Olatunji (film), Carrie Mae Weems (visual art), and Malaika Adero (literature). Tate also showed dancer Storyboard P’s Black Magic (see above) and Kahlil Joseph’s Until the Quiet Comes by Flying Lotus, both featured in my presentation. Black Magic: A Pictorial History of the African-American in the Performing Arts Langston Hughes’s last book, presents the vast, sweeping story of African-American entertainers–the artists and the musicians, the singers and the dancers, the obscure and the illustrious–from the tragic beginnings in slavery to he triumphant artistic achievements of the late 1960s. Storyboard P comes from a long tradition but, as Tate noted, he and others have created their own styles that reflect speculative and technological influences. Poet Tricia Hersey closed for the day.

Left: Deterville's Kongo cosmogram; Right: Kahlil Joseph’s film production still from “Until the Quiet Comes,” an album by Flying Lotus.

Kahlil Joseph’s film production still from “Until the Quiet Comes,” an album by Flying Lotus.

I caught the end of the first Saturday morning panel, Joy & Pain – Presenting Black Art/Culture. I was impressed by curator Baraka Sele’s presentation because she pushed for more interdisciplinary collaborations and synergistic activities. Curator/producer Jason Orr spoke about the FunkJazz Kafe Arts & Music Festival. The next session was The Gap in Black Culture – Building Bridges in the Midst of Ageism, Aesthetics, Socio-Economics & Education. One of the highlights was Atlanta-based artist Michi Meko of the Smoke School of Art.

Curator Rob Fields offered the following tips to close the gaps in curating black art:

  • Be open – banish the idea that earlier works are better and look for new ideas/projects
  • No egos – get out and meet new artists and curators; embrace new ideas/projects and be okay with not knowing everything (the landscape is always shifting and changing)
  • Leverage social media – Twitter curates information
  • Mentor – personally and organizationally

What I felt was missing from this session was K-12 education and the voices of youth artists. I made a comment about STEAM education during the Q&A. For example, the SEAD network met in D.C. last June to discuss research and creative work (white papers) and building a platform (XSEAD) for idea exchange and collaboration. Although nonprofits were not invited to this meeting I can see how beneficial it is to make more of an effort to reach out to black arts organizations.

Dr. Jelani Cobb answered Did Hip Hop Hijack Black Culture? (his answer was no). Cobb linked hip-hop (rap music) to the Blues. In The Grind: Creating New Work & Finding Opportunities, Boston Fielder talked about his path to music and we listened to his group’s rendition of Minnie Riperton’s Les Fleurs. Next came dancer Carmen de Lavallade, Atlanta-based artist Fahamu Pecou, and speculative fiction author Tananarive Due. I interviewed Tananarive for Georgia Tech’s WREK radio (Sci-Fi Lab) earlier this year. Helene and Celia Faussart of the musical duo Les Nubians spoke about “globetrotting.”

Les Nubians

Les Nubians.

Les Nubians at NBAF.

Les Nubians at NBAF.

Carmen de Lavallade in 1955 and today (right).

Carmen de Lavallade in 1955 and today (right).

The most inspiring moment for me was the closing keynote by actor Charles S. Dutton. Here’s a segment of his presentation.

Dutton said that he was not going to directly address the issue of relevancy or the relation of black art and culture to 21st century issues. However, I think he did. Dutton said that you can’t be an authentic artist and not be an activist in today’s political and economic climate. Artists are supposed to “advance civilization and foster humanity”. Some might say that having museums and other cultural institutions are enough but not if these venues exclude or marginalize ethnic (black) artists and audiences. In Dumbing Down the Art Museum, Caroline Lagnado noted an article in the New York Times that discussed the Brooklyn Museum’s failed efforts at drawing bigger and more serious crowds. I attended one of the Saturday night events and noticed the diversity of the crowd.

The article raises some important questions about how a museum can bring in new crowds without alienating established art-loving visitors. To that end, I have spoken with quite a few art world people who feel uncomfortable at the Brooklyn Museum and try to avoid it. –Caroline Lagnado

Others might say that all art already is advocacy, simply for what it depicts. Perhaps, but since this was a national convening I wanted to hear more discussion about arts advocacy as in having an Arts Advocacy Day where representatives of arts organizations meet with their elected officials to demonstrate their commitment to the arts and arts education and ask their members of Congress to do the same. How about working more closely with other national arts organizations to address 21st century trends such as “creative placemaking“, new forms of programming, or building new audiences? Other national arts organizations are asking similar questions. They are realizing that they can’t sit in their silos. They have to commit to advocacy, developing new platforms for exhibition/distribution and building bridges where there aren’t any.

Josie Covington. "Album Quilt," 1895. Courtesy Maude Southwell Wahlman.

Josie Covington. “Album Quilt,” 1895. Courtesy Maude Southwell Wahlman.

At NBAF I learned a lot about individual artists and arts organizations but I did not feel that black art relevancy in the 21st century was the main focus. Sometimes it’s hard to see the bigger picture when you’re busy trying to survive or compete for dwindling funding streams. Moving forward I want to spend less time comparing African (black) American art and culture to the Western/European canon (or American capitalism) and more time rediscovering native (African) frameworks and systems. Before I exited I was approached by a woman who said she liked my presentation. She said “inspiration wasn’t the right word” to describe her thoughts. She told me that I “connected everything” for her and mentioned the quilt I showed (see above). She works for the San Francisco Arts Commission and wants me to send her some of my writing samples. Leatrice Ellzy told us that this event is just the beginning and to expect to hear more, be invited to engage in more activities to address the topic of relevancy in/of African (black) American art in the 21st century.


I was touched so deeply by Charles Dutton’s closing keynote at the National Black Arts Festival. Dutton implored the NBAF audience to think about what they wanted to see on their gravestones at the end of their lives. He encouraged us to seek to make a difference through our work. I’ve met so many of my (s)heroes since re-entering school as a Ph.D. student. Last year, I won a travel grant and used the funds to study the art of Sanford Biggers whose re-purposed quilts inspired me to pitch a STEAM workshop to the National Science Foundation who just gave us a grant. Georgia Tech granted Sanford a residency and I was granted a residency to create an interactive outdoor mural in New Mexico, with eight bright Latino and indigenous teenagers. My dissertation proposal was approved and last week my research project with Drew Charter School was approved.

  1. 2013: A Year in Review | Renegade Futurism

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