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.
Unlike most art festivals that are congregated in one area or venue, the NBAF is spread all over the city of Atlanta and even into surrounding counties. While this can prove a bit frustrating for attendees who want to cram in as many sites as they can, it has the advantage of bringing many different neighborhoods and types of people into the festival. For example, the International Marketplace of more than 100 vendors was held for the third year at downtown's Centennial Olympic Park, a central location that lured thousands of non-African-American tourists who normally would never have stumbled onto the black arts festival.
Attendees at Centennial Olympic Park were treated to a dazzling lineup of musicians on the main stage on Saturday and Sunday: Afro-Cuban jazz artist Omar Sosa, R&B crooner Donnie, British singer Julie Dexter, Atlanta-based jazz singer Kathleen Bertrand and Latin band Rio Negro, among many others. There was also a Children's Education Village at the Park that offered games and activities for kids, in addition to a miniature replica of the boyhood home of Dr. Martin Luther King that sits on Auburn Avenue.
The NBAF's version of DanceAfrica was on display at Georgia State University's Rialto Center on Saturday and Sunday, with several exciting works spanning the African Diaspora curated by Chuck Davis, founder and artistic director of the African American Dance Ensemble. On Saturday morning, the public was invited to participate in a community master dance class with DanceAfrica. Apparently everyone made it through the 90-minute class without any paramedics being summoned.
Atlanta has received considerable attention in recent years as a new locus of black music. The reasons behind this well-earned reputation are explored in a new film, Diary of a Decade, which was screened during the festival. The documentary — which features appearances by Cee Lo Green, George Clinton, Roy Ayers, Erykah Badu, Cornel West, Jill Scott, Public Enemy and Andre 3000, among many others — traces Atlanta's musical heritage and chronicles the generation of artists who have emerged in the past decade.
The primary fundraising tool of the NBAF is its annual black-tie gala, which was a dedication to the achievements of African Americans in the film industry, held at the Ritz-Carlton in Buckhead. The men wore tuxedos and the ladies wore black and white gowns as they danced the night away to big-band tunes and participated in live and silent auctions in a ballroom decked out in Hollywood-inspired décor.
This is just a sampling of the arts feast that Atlanta presented at this fabulous event. If you live near Atlanta, or even if you don't, it's not too early to start making plans to hit up the capital of the South next July. It's no risk at all to guarantee that you won't be disappointed.
Nick Chiles is a writer based in metro Atlanta.