Originally an event held in the Ford Hall event space, this year’s Black Art Matters showcase was held in the Mead Art Museum on Feb. 24 and led by Zoe Akoto ’21 for the second year in a row, this time in collaboration with the Mead. It was sponsored by the Multicultural Resource Center, Department of Black Studies, Black Students Union (BSU), Student Activities, Association of Amherst Students and the UMass Amherst Center for Multicultural Advancement and Student Success. The museum held the show in the Fairchild Room and the Rotherwas Room, which were used to display the 12 original visual art pieces for Black Art Matters.
Akoto came up with the idea for Black Arts Matters last year, after thinking about how African-American art could be better represented at Amherst. Understanding what it feels like to be excluded in spaces as a person of color, I admire her desire to spread black artists’ work and provide a space in which they can exist. According to NPR, in terms of literature, 80 percent of workers in publishing identify as white.
Unlike last year, where every participant in the showcase was an Amherst student, the performers this year come from across the the five colleges. Akoto wanted to increase the scale from last year, allowing for more diversity and inclusion in who submits art and who is in the audience. Akoto personally reached out to the art departments of the five colleges and invited people to take part in the event.
The event spread awareness of black art, so having increased outreach and a grander space meant more people could attend. It also provided a platform for typically underrepresented artists’ work. This inclusion brings a sense of belonging to black artists, and more generally black students, which is something important for all minority groups. Since February is Black History Month, it’s particularly fitting to emphasize recognition of the entirety of black culture and people, past and present.
The event made use of low, purple lighting and an R&B playlist to create a soothing atmosphere that made me want to slow down. It suited the event well and helped me separate myself from the stress of upcoming exams.
Other people also seemed glad to have such a reprieve, and few people left the event early, which speaks to its attraction, given that the event was held over the weekend.
The event space also worked well around the “Timing is Everything” exhibition in the Mead, as people cycled between that exhibit and the student art for Black Art Matters. Once people had looked over both exhibits, they were able to eat food and take part in conversation with one another. The event had a good turnout with Akoto saying “it was exactly what [she] hoped for.”
UMass student Kiana Harper, Hampshire College student Vero Tineo and Amherst College students Joanna Booth ’19 and Latrell Broughton ’19 crafted the excellent work. Broughton made a beautiful portrait of a black woman smiling with her head tilted down, using space as a backdrop and a planetary ring around one of the buns of her hair. Tineo had three pieces on display, two of which were made with fabric, the other making use of the TV as its medium. One of their pieces was a tumultuous capturing of black bodies, made harsher due to the fact that the bodies were made through the use of white outlines on black fabric with the phrase “Black Lives Matter” at the center of the piece, along with other phrases relating to racial injustice.
Booth had three portraits, all depicting women. One of the three was a hollowed picture of a woman without a face, the outline and her clothing being her most distinct features. The piece spoke well in this environment as a reflection of the suppression of blackness and also of one’s humanity in general.
Complementing the visual art portion of the evening, UMass graduate Nathalie Irmer, UMass student Desmond Dane and Amherst College students Ezra Clark ’19 and Amal Buford ’19 performed music and spoken word poems, while BSU members Booth and Matthew Holliday ’19 emceed.
Irmer opened the live performances with two spoken word poems, the first of which was a movement through the injustices of the law in Chicago, switching between her personal narrative of living in Chicago and an analysis of the current president’s rhetoric and negligence of the city’s residents. Her message was that “preserving our culture is the strongest protest” in order to to push back against oppression. The second poem dealt with similar themes and was just as moving.
The next artist was rapper Dane, who performed two songs, both of which were gritty in sound and word choice. The first song, “Roseblood,” critiqued the rap scene while acknowledging Dane’s own skill and potential for growth. His second song, “Imagine,” told of his personal struggle with the loss of a friend, as a commemorate significance of lost loved ones.
After Dane, Clark took to the stage along with Anna Dietrich ’22 on the bass, Diego Ramos-Meyer ’19 on keyboard and Isaiah Lewis ’19 on drums. The first song that was performed started off with a hook and moved halfway through to focus on the instrumentals, working together with the guitar and keyboard, to create a lowkey vibe from a mixture of R&B, jazz and synth pop sounds.
The second song had lyrics throughout and set a nice contrast with the other song while still being similar in musicality. The final performer was Buford, going by his stage name Mal the Oddity. He started off with a song titled “Who You Call When You’re Sad,” a melancholic narrative on dealing with depression and feeling unable to speak with others or gaining little from conversation. He then followed that with his song “Deli Nights” and another new song that he had yet to perform or release.
The sentiment of the new song, he said, could be captured in the line of a poem by his friend Esperanza Chairez ’19 which read: “I get a little crazy right before I cross the finish line.” With that introduction, he took us through the experience of a speaker who never was able to be at peace or feel settled.
In the words of the song, the speaker was always “restless at home.” The musical form of the song did well to parallel the feeling of the words, the lyrics having sudden shifts and a movement between rap and song. It was clear that the audience enjoyed every performance, either from cheers and applause at the end, or from dancing and bobbing along with the music.
Overall, the event had a wonderful reception and an engaging collection of works. I hope to see its return in coming years, as it is an important recognition of diversity in the arts.