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Black is Beautiful and It's History, Too
Voza Rivers, founder and chair of the Harlem Arts Alliance

After years of struggle and considerable hurdles, "Black art is in good hands," concluded Kwame Brathwaite, president of the National Council of Artists (NCA) New York chapter, during a conference at Columbia to commemorate Black History Month.

Speaking at Davis Auditorium during panel discussions on topics ranging from the Black Arts Movements to raising the bar for arts support, Brathwaite traced the history of black cultural awareness. That sensibility, he said, began with the birth of the Harlem Renaissance. From there, its lineage can be followed through the Works Progress Administration, a federal initiative during the Depression to subsidize labor projects for the unemployed, and the Black is Beautiful movement of the 1960s, which celebrated African culture and established a benchmark for aesthetics that recognized beauty in non-European physical features.

Today, said Brathwaite, thanks to the efforts of many organizations like the NCA, which was founded in 1959 and is the country's oldest visual arts organization that promotes black visual arts, "black art is flourishing." One example, he added, is the vital gallery scene and arts venues in places such as Williamsburg and Fort Greene in Brooklyn.

Speakers at the conference, which also took place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and included the presentation of Black History Makers Awards, took up the theme of how black communities have embraced their own culture. Elombe Brath of the African Jazz-Art Society & Studios, founded in 1956, said the growing awareness of black culture in the 1950s and 1960s was an outgrowth of the Civil Rights movement and the effort to decolonize Africa.

"We came together to deal with the arts, to tie them to what was going on in Africa," Brathwaite said of the time. "We had the idea; you can't divorce art from the struggle." As a result, "artists were no longer artists, but the organizers of a movement. We replaced the word 'Negro' with 'African.'"

Looking back on the progress that has been made in the field, Beuford Smith, of Kamoinge Artists -- an association of black photographers, founded in 1963, that had grown out of the Black Arts Movement of the 1970s to advance awareness of contemporary black artists using photography -- recalled "The Negro Woman" exhibition in 1965–1966. The show, Smith recalled, caused an outcry because it raised issues about being black -- the exhibition focused on the black female body, presenting images of women with "natural" hairstyles, reflecting increasing awareness of black pride.

Now, he said, the organization intends to be more involved in "blackness" and the community, and teaching kids about the power of photography.

Voza Rivers, founder and chair of the Harlem Arts Alliance, who also received an award for arts organizing, spoke in a personal way about his role in black arts and culture -- especially in theater -- and how the speakers at the conference had influenced his awareness.

Recalling his efforts to use the theater as a tool to break down racial barriers, Rivers noted that he had brought the South African play Sarafina, an eye-opening production about the harsh realities of apartheid, to the United States It was an achievement that "got the message out about the African National Congress and resonated around the world," said Rivers.

The experience, Rivers concluded, and his work with the 375-member Harlem Arts Alliance, has made him realize that "we are all caretakers of our culture." The alliance, which is also involved in bringing Peter Brook's Tierno Bokar to Columbia, provides an opportunity for people to connect with their past and to "recognize their current status as stakeholders" in the black cultural community.

Arts and education came under scrutiny in a second panel, with speakers focusing on how educational groups can influence the younger generation and increase awareness of black cultural past and future.

Emmett Wigglesworth, of the Children's Art Carnival, said his group had taken up the slack in arts education because the public school system had dropped music and art from its curriculum. His goal at Children's Art Carnival is to use art as a way to teach other subjects, such as math. Maintaining interest in art among students is crucial, said Wigglesworth, because the arts are a "humanizing factor in our culture."

Herman Bigham, a real estate developer from Philadelphia who is also active in promoting exhibitions of African art, urged African Americans to make a greater effort to understand and promote their culture. By doing so, Bigham explained, "We acknowledge and validate ourselves. We control our own cultural materials."

For his part, Bigham is part of a collective of primarily African art presenters, preservers and scholars who believe that mainstream museums in the United States, even those with significant collections of African art, do not present these works as cultural icons that represent a system of cultural values to African Americans.

To this end, Bigham has organized several exhibitions, including "The Majesty of African Motherhood" and "African Sculpture: Symbols of Culture," which presents masks, animal and human figures and objects of spirituality. Concluding his remarks, Bigham urged the participants to continue their efforts to perpetuate the black community through culture. "We have the tools and the power to express ourselves in this world," Bigham said.

Published: Mar 09, 2005
Last modified: Mar 09, 2005

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