It’s the Mother of All Black Arts Festivals

From the recognizable sounds of the O'Jays to the lesser-known art of Thornton Dial, this year's National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta offered a little bit of everything.

The O'Jays; Thornton Dial
The O'Jays; Thornton Dial

There is a magic to almost any arts festival. You can feel the joy and affection flowing through the eager crowds of like-minded people who have come together to revere beauty, creativity and vision. For African Americans, there is no grander celebration of the community’s talents than the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, which ended on Sunday. While the music pulses every year at the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans, the words are onstage at the Harlem Book Fair and the drums can trigger thrilling movement at DanceAfrica in Brooklyn, N.Y., the National Black Arts Festival is an amazing amalgamation of each of these art forms, and much more.

From music to visual arts, writing to drama, dance to film, it’s a 10-day feast of black talent. Not only can festivalgoers revel in their favorite forms of creative expression, but at NBAF, which began in 1988 and became an annual event in 2003, they also get introduced to new artists and art that can change the way they see the world. Indeed, this year’s festival was titled “Unexpected Encounters.”

Every year the festival honors some of the most important performers the black community has ever produced. This year the centerpiece of the 2011 Legends Celebration was the O’Jays, who for more than 50 years have provided the sound track to African-American life with hits like “Back Stabbers,” “For the Love of Money” and “I Love Music.” Like comfort food, these are the songs that warm our insides and remind us that we’re surrounded by love. Music is always a highlight of the festival, and the O’Jays were part of a slew of outstanding musical artists, in genres ranging from the blues to gospel, jazz to R&B.

While it reconnects us to the familiar, the festival always manages to surprise as well. One of these surprises was provided by the Bill Lowe Art Gallery in midtown Atlanta, which featured a breathtaking exhibit celebrating the work of one of the most important visual artists the South has ever produced — an 83-year-old, self-taught Alabama native named Thornton Dial, whose work is revered throughout the international art world but whose name is far from familiar to most African Americans.

Dial creates massive 3-D assemblages on canvas, made up of discarded materials like shoes, window frames, doors and broken dolls. His works sell for amounts well in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The exhibit, which ends Aug. 27, is called “Disasters Areas” and features the art that Dial created from the detritus of natural disasters such as the tsunami in Japan and the hurricanes, tornadoes and floods that have ravaged his native South.

Other noteworthy visual art events included renowned artist Radcliffe Bailey’s exhibit at the High Museum of Art — the first-ever headline exhibit by an Atlanta-based artist at the High, the leading art museum in the Southeast — and Texas-based Trenton Doyle Hancock’s exhibit at the Savannah College of Art and Design’s ACA Gallery, inside the Woodruff Arts Center. As usual, there was also the showcase of dozens of brilliant artists with works for sale at Greenbriar Mall.