Kuumba Kicks Off 17th Annual Black Arts Festival

Photography, large portraits, gold-leafed basketballs, and other pieces of art stretched across the walls and surroundings of 29 Garden St. last Friday, marking the kickoff of the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College’s 17th annual Dr. Walter J. Leonard Black Arts Festival.

This year, Kuumba chose the theme “Reflections on Freedom” after considering other options such as joy, struggle, and love last spring, according to Cherline Bazile ’17, the chair of the festival.

Consistent throughout various short presentations was an emphasis on the representation of black artists and culture in classes, museums, and the broader media.

Julian Plowden Photographs
Julian Plowden exhibits his photographs of the aftermath of the Michael Brown shootings at the Black Arts Festival kick off on Friday afternoon.

“Often, black people feel like there’s something that’s given to them, so it’s a very different thing to carve out this space and be like ‘here’s your space to create, here’s your space to be free without these stereotypes,’” Bazile said.

Multiple artists, photographers, and sculptors from Rhode Island to Georgia gave brief addresses to expand on the inspiration behind their work. Many were attracted to the event after the "I, Too, Am Harvard" campaign hosted a conference last fall.

Some art directly alluded to perceived racism in the criminal justice system in the aftermath of two separate non-indictments of white police officers who each killed an unarmed black man last year.

Nafis M. White, a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, displayed two pieces in the exhibition, one of which was a neon sign that glowed with the phrase “Can I Get A Witness?” Accompanying the display was an elongated list—several sheets of paper long—on which she printed names of those whom police officers had killed in recent years, according to White.

Nafis White Presentation
Nafis M. White, a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, discusses her artwork on race relations and civil rights. She displayed two pieces at the 17th Annual Black Arts Festival.

White also presented a display of 10 basketballs which she had wrapped in gold leaf to convey a message about the perceived commodification of black basketball players and the discrimination they may face when off the court.

Many of those who organized or displayed art spoke highly of the collection, highlighting that events showcasing black art are uncommon.

“It’s so strong because we rarely have this kind of filling of a space for people who have so many things to say,” White said.

Cecilia B. Sanders ’16, the co-chair of the festival, pointed to the power of the collection of art in speaking to larger issues of race-related activism.

“Their vision collectively has created this interesting patchwork that’s better than anything that we could have planned or prompted,” Sanders said.

Other festival programming in the next several days will include a panel discussion on social consciousness in black art, vocal performances, and a benefit concert whose proceeds will be directed towards the creation of a scholarship fund for music lessons, according to the group’s website.

—Staff writer Noah J. Delwiche can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ndelwiche.


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