Edmonton's Black Arts Matter is an unapologetic celebration of Blackness where you may not expect it
'Black people exist and have existed everywhere, even in the northernmost metropolitan city in the world'
Imagine with me for a moment a festival dedicated to the multitudes of Blackness — the joys, the struggles, the triumphs and the depth of the art we are able to create when we are allowed to lead with something that reaches beyond a singular narrative. Imagine a space centered around local and international Black artists and their work, where our voices are lifted and celebrated. Image two weeks of programming that spans the myriad art forms we have created, participate in, make more robust.
Where do you see a festival like this living? New York seems an obvious choice, maybe even New Orleans. What about in Canada? Toronto certainly comes to mind, or even Montreal could support a vision like this.
What about Edmonton, Alberta?
Growing up in Alberta, I have to admit, it would have been difficult for the younger me to believe that my province — often nicknamed the "Texas of Canada" — would lay the foundation for such a festival. But fast forward to 2017 and the birth of Alberta's first all-Black arts festival: Black Arts Matter (BAM). To dream up an idea like this is, in itself, a rebellion. It takes a place like the Prairies, where Blackness and Black art are certainly not the first things that come to mind, and defies it to mean something more — implores it to take notice of its citizens that it has perhaps forgotten, or cast aside.
Festival founder and director Nasra Adem's journey to Edmonton is reflective of BAM's own origin story. They were born in Calgary, grew up in Toronto and Ottawa, and eventually made their way to Edmonton at the age of 12. As first-generation children of immigrants, we carry an uneven weight. We simultaneously hold within us our parents' homes, our bloodlines — our Blackness — and we also hold our identities as Canadians. And as a result of this tension, we are often left to reconcile the question of how we balance each of those identities as they push and pull against each other.
Nasra's bio states it all: they are a queer, Muslim, Oromo artist and organizer and activist. They were Edmonton's Youth Poet Laureate from 2016 to 2017 and are currently the director of Sister to Sister, an artistic collective dedicated to and led by femmes of colour. A story that winds and bends on itself like Nasra's seems to only be possible in a land of immigrants — an earth that has supported the weight of hundreds of thousands of foreign bodies and stories coming to one place and colliding. Nasra and, as a result, BAM are the only logical outcome of a place that has seen — and indeed, suppressed — such stories. Just like Nasra's movements across this land and across identities, BAM takes up the mantle of embracing all the twists and turns of Blackness that make it so dense, and rich, and beautiful.
It is an absolute declaration that simply because you don't see us, it doesn't mean we do not exist. And BAM ensures that, starting now, you won't ever be able to miss us again.- Gloria Alamrew
Now in its third year, BAM is bigger than ever. Supported by various government arts funding and grants, the festival has been able to fly out international artists from locales like New York and Philadelphia. The team running the festival has grown; artists are being paid for their work; the programming has diversified significantly. But perhaps the most important change is the shedding away of any previously held hesitations. BAM is now in full stride — unapologetic in its Blackness, in its queerness, in its desire to centre femmes, in its Indigeneity. It is keenly aware that a place like Edmonton, Alberta is the least likely home for it and it doesn't care. Most of BAM's artists are local to the city and province, and as such, the festival is a reminder that Black people exist and have existed everywhere, even in the northernmost metropolitan city in the world. It is a reminder that we have been creating magic and warmth for decades — that your unnoticing of us has not erased us.
BAM is what happens when Black folks demand to be seen. Nasra's work is bold and loud. It is purposely in your face, and requires you to do the uncomfortable work of seeing and knowing them. In creating and putting on a festival like BAM, we are stepping out of the margins and into the centre. The name Black Arts Matter is itself a statement of fact — we are no longer asking to be acknowledged because we have acknowledged ourselves. BAM is a proclamation, to all of Canada, that Blackness does in fact exist outside of the obvious hubs of Toronto or Montreal. It is a battle cry that defies any notion of being less than. It is an absolute declaration that simply because you don't see us, it doesn't mean we do not exist. And BAM ensures that, starting now, you won't ever be able to miss us again.
Black Arts Matter. February 7-17 in Edmonton, Alberta. www.chinookseries.ca