Arts & CultureCampus & City

Black Arts Matter: An Art Festival by Black People, for Black People

Black Arts Matter is Edmonton’s only black arts festival and one you’ll want to keep on your annual radar. The festival is committed to celebrating the best black artists that this city has to offer.

“Black Arts Matter is by black people, for black people,” says Nasra Adem, the founder and organizer of the festival.

Now in its third year, Black Arts Matter is bigger than ever. The festival has more artists involved than ever before and has received grant funding to produce more shows. This year’s festival also featured a greater range of work from the various black artists involved.

“We have a little bit of everything,” says Adem. “We have poetry, dance, fashion, music, art, even theatre!”

Black Arts Matter is also different in other ways this year. For one, Adem is trying out something she’s never done before: having other artists curate the festival. In its first year, Black Arts Matter was largely run by Adem alone, but now a community of people are involved in coordinating and curating the festival.

“I wanted to highlight the [art] collectives that have popped up recently that are run by black people,” says Adem. “Many of them are curating parts of the festival this year.”

One of those collectives is Onyx Creatives, a project celebrating black women in Edmonton, run by Betty Abebayehu. Abebayehu was the lead organizer for Black Arts Matter last year but is now curating her own show for this year’s festival.

“I collaborated with others to create a piece that combines music, visual art and performance inspired by New Orleans,” says Abebayehu. “Black Arts Matter gives black people an opportunity to collaborate.”

But despite all the exciting changes this year, Black Arts Matter remains committed to its initial goal: to celebrate and showcase black artists in Edmonton.

“Black Arts Matter is the opportunity to disprove the myth that black artists don’t exist in Edmonton or in Alberta,” says Adem. “Black Arts Matter is a space to keep black artists in Edmonton.”

Adem laments the fact that black artists often feel unwelcome in Edmonton and feel the need to leave for bigger cities like Toronto or Montreal. In fact, addressing that issue was part of the inspiration for the festival in the first place. With that in mind, Adem and others have worked tirelessly to build a strong community of black artists in the city.

“At first, the challenge was bringing people together, bringing together black artists who didn’t even know each other existed,” says Adem. “There were so many spaces were black artists existed but they didn’t know each other.”

Adem was already trying to build up the black arts community in Edmonton before she started Black Arts Matters three years ago. But when she was approached by Vern Thiessen to curate performances from black artists for the Chinook Series, the larger festival that Black Arts Matter coordinates with, she jumped at the idea. While Adem admits there has been challenges  working with white institutions that have excluded black artists in the past, she remains grateful for all the help she gets from the organizers of the Chinook Series.

“There are so many heavyweights in the arts community that are supporting and working with Black Arts Matter,” says Adem. “Workshop West [which helps organize the Chinook Series] has been a godsend.”

While Black Arts Matter has succeeded as part of the Chinook Series, Adem is also interested in making the festival more independent in the future. Now that the festival is successful on its own, Adem sees Black Arts Matter possibly becoming a part of another black-led arts group in the city. Along with that independence, Adem envisions other big changes for the festival in the future.

“I see [Black Arts Matter] becoming a longer, fuller festival,” laughs Adem. “I want two weeks of black ass programming!”

If one thing is clear, it’s that Black Arts Matter is growing, and fast! From a small beginning three years ago, Black Arts Matter has grown to be a major festival in the city, one with so much more still to come. Adem, Abebayehu and the other organizers are so ambitious; they won’t stop until they bring art that is black and beautiful to the world.

“I want Black Arts Matter to go national,” says Abebayehu. “And international.”

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