Black Arts Matter multidisciplinary arts festival becomes an Edmonton mainstay
Marking not only its second year, but a milestone in the development of Edmonton’s arts community, the Black Arts Matter (BAM!) Festival returns with a lineup full of local musicians, playwrights, performers, dancers, creators and workshops.
Last year marked a long-awaited cultural shift both with BAM!, but also with Edmonton’s first Afro Fest, a two-day festival celebrating African culture. And both plan to return bigger and louder for their second years.
There have undeniably been yearly shows and small festivals celebrating African culture in the city before this, but BAM! organizer Nasra Adem found they were only pockets of something that could show the greater community’s reach and strength more accurately. She decided it was high time to put together a festival that showed the talent and art that was already happening, just not always together, in a public place.
“What was happening was there were things going on, but in particular communities,” Adem explains. “It felt like fragments, you know? They were whole in themselves, but I think a lot of it was that there was a disconnect in who got to see who perform and access to that information.”
Questions as to why it took so long for Edmonton to hold such festivals are complex to answer, and hold many contributing factors. As an actor, Adem has seen a few of those factors in past artistic experiences, which ended up being part of the reason she was so driven to create the festival. She found there were elements missing and questions left unasked as a direct result of her peers not being present at the decision-making tables.
“I was continually facing the statement by artistic directors and by people that really held power in the city and across Canada who were just like, ‘Well, the black artists are just not there,’” she says. “I knew that was completely false because I was partying with them every weekend.”
She set her sights on finding a way to bridge the two worlds—Edmonton’s established arts venues and the community of black artists—to create something that could be enjoyed both by those within her community and beyond.
“As a young black actor in the city … it was definitely hard trying to make and visualize a successful career for myself without having to sacrifice other parts of myself within the constructs that had been laid out to me,” Adem says. “I needed a space where my family could enjoy art and experience art and feel respected by the kind of care that goes into creative spaces.”
Last year’s festival drew over 400 people attending the five to six shows scheduled; for this year, BAM! expects even more with more showcases to choose from. For festival organizer and art contributor Betty Abebayehu, it’s important to give a platform for black artists to both be celebrated within their own community as well as the city at large.
“In the mainstream industry, I feel like a lot of times our culture and identity can be forgotten or forcibly removed. And to have a platform advocating for that, I think it’s very crucial,” she says.
Abebayehu, Natalie Meyer, and Camille Maclean will set up a pop-up art installation entitled Art for Her Sole on February 11.
Fellow Edmontonian and poet Brandon Wint agrees and finds the festival’s existence something of a turning point in the history of Edmonton. Not originally from the city, Wint sees an outside perspective of the city and how its arts community specifically has grown and changed in the two years he’s been here.
“It seems like the popular consciousness in this city has reached a point where a black arts festival is absolutely necessary,” he says. “We’re getting to a point of critical mass in the city where the consciousness among black artists makes it possible for a festival like this to take place on an annual basis.”
Wint’s second full-length album, Infinite Mercies will be released during the festival on February 10, when he will perform a full set of the album’s 21 poems, accompanied by a full-band concept.
“Something like this might have seemed impossible 10 or 15 years ago,” he says. “The pool of black artists that Edmonton has always had is growing in richness, to such a point where we can’t help but come out of the woodwork now.”
The festival testifies not only to the resilience of this community, but also to the desire to celebrate what exists and create a place for shared joy. It’s not just Black History Month that makes it important to celebrate the arts of the black community, it’s all year.
“The expression of the willingness of black artists to collaborate and celebrate one another is just going to become stronger and broader and more emboldened,” Wint says.
Thu., Feb. 8 – Sun., Feb. 18
Black Arts Matter
ATB Financial Arts Barns, various locations