A modern painting with a human figure surrounded by colors

Paul Jackson ’22 / 27 Club: Digital artwork

Its purpose, to center and celebrate Black artistry, was the same as ever. But in some ways, Amherst’s fourth annual Black Art Matters festival, known as BAM, was very different from the first.

When Zoe Akoto ’21 organized the inaugural BAM in the spring of 2018, “it was a lot more DIY then, for sure,” she says. Akoto, then a first-year student and a program coordinator for the Multicultural Resource Center, asked around among friends to find Black student artists to show their work, and she personally carried the display easels into the Greenway dorm event space, where some 30 people gathered to admire and discuss the art.

In the years since, Akoto’s idea has grown into a partnership between the MRC, Mead Art Museum, Black Student Union and Arts at Amherst Initiative. “BAM really just has been taking off,” Akoto says. The 2021 festival took place in multiple spaces, both physical and virtual, and reached well beyond campus.

The virtual component took place on Zoom in early March, when members of the Amherst community and general public gathered to see works by, and hear live commentary from, BAM participants—like Lauren Bell ’22, a psychology major and portrait artist who says her work is influenced by such Amherst courses as “Black Sexualities” and “Drugs and Society.”

There were also pre-recorded performances by musicians including Maya Roberts ’23 and Jonathan Paul ’22, and by dancers such as Abadai Zoboi ’24, who says, “I move in a young Black woman’s body, and my existence alone is an act of defiance.”

The artworks are also professionally displayed in the Mead’s historic Rotherwas room, where they’re “getting the full museum treatment,” says the Mead’s marketing and public programs specialist, Danielle Amodeo ’13. On-campus students, faculty and staff enjoyed them in person this spring. “We don’t often do promotion of student art—there are other places on campus that do that more than we do—so it’s a nice opportunity for us to show students on campus that there’s room for them in the museum as well,” says Amodeo.

Student Museum Educator DeLyna Hadgu ’21 echoes this point: “My goal was to create a space where Black students can feel comfortable within the Mead, because I know a lot of them are intimidated. I was intimidated before I started working there.”

Hadgu curated an exhibition for this year’s BAM, titled The Living Room, in a Mead gallery space. In addition to works from the museum’s collection that depict Black life and are created by Black artists—including Zanele Muholi, Romare Bearden, Walter Williams, Amalia Amaki and Jonathan Jackson ’19—The Living Room features an actual living room: an inviting space with armchairs and a TV playing scenes from Black sitcoms of the ’90s.

Both Hadgu, an art history major, and Akoto, a double major in American studies and French, aspire to continue working in museums once they graduate this spring. And the Mead and MRC are co-funding a BAM student coordinator position, to support the festival for years to come. Akoto hopes that, after the COVID-19 pandemic, BAM can once again feature Black student artists not just from Amherst but from throughout the Five Colleges—and that eventually it can expand to other schools in the region.

“It’s one thing to be celebrated within your own community, which I think the Black student community on campus has done,” she says. “But to feel celebrated and seen and recognized on a wider scale, on a larger platform like the Mead now, is so meaningful.”

Black Art Matters Festival Participants

Ashanti Adams ’24

A young woman smiling at the camera

Adams is interested in majoring in sociology and perhaps statistics.

My intersectionality as a Black woman adds the most to my life experiences and how I view the world today. Medusa is obviously based on the gorgon from Greek mythology. There are multiple versions of her story: one is that Medusa was raped by Poseidon and punished for that by Athena by having her hair turned to snakes. Another is that the sex was consensual and Medusa was cursed essentially for being sexually promiscuous. The final significant version says that she was raped and Athena gave her snake hair as protection from men. My piece was meant to be able to accompany any of those interpretations of Medusa’s story, but I made her Black to highlight the issues Black women face regarding sexuality and rape. I want my art to work as a voice for Black women as a glimpse into our lives, both the good and the bad. Since this is a predominantly white college, it’s important to me that the Black experience is represented and that it is being represented by the students themselves.

Michael Gibson Jr. ’21, Danielle Reed ’21 and Isabelle Geneve ’23

Dance and Step at Amherst College (DASAC) engages with and spotlights styles of dance rooted in Black American culture and the larger Black Diaspora. The club creates a space where Black styles of dance—like hip-hop, step, majorette and more—are not only highlighted but celebrated. Each semester, students choreograph their own original pieces and teach fellow students. Through this process, students learn about the Black history behind the styles of dance they’re practicing and find their own unique flair within them. This semester, we adapted to COVID restrictions and moved our in-person show online. We held socially distant in-person rehearsals for our 30 on-campus members and Zoom rehearsals for our four remote members. Dance is an art form that is accessible to everyone. This accessibility should not lead to a watering-down of the culture, however. By educating ourselves about the history of these dances and crediting the dancers and choreographers who popularized them, we as a club are better able to participate in, enjoy and celebrate these dance styles.

Three people sitting in a room filled with blue light wearing face masks

From left: Geneve, Gibson and Reed.

Paul Jackson ’22

Paul Jackson

Jackson is a political science and computer science major currently interning at Apple.

During the pandemic I found that Amherst provided a full suite of Adobe tools. I requested an account and began to teach myself some of the tools. This art is an expression of my experience and identity of being Black in today’s America. It is a range of emotions, many good, many bad. But at the core of most of my work, I look to understand the connections between everything. Some of my favorite artists are Picasso, Yayoi Kusama, Van Gogh and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Kendall Greene ’24

A young woman in a face mask poising for the camera

I’ve been shooting on film for the past four years, and I’ve fallen in love with the process of developing and creating images. My artistic practice is informed by the friendships, relationships and natural ecosystems that I interact with at any given moment. I am a biracial Black person at a predominantly white institution, and I’ve connected with other Black students who love being immersed in nature as much as I do. I wanted to document our experiences relaxing and exploring the outdoors. I consider each of our adventures sacred. The photo here is of my friend Ayo.

The work is especially important to me because of the endless stream across our newsfeeds of Black people experiencing trauma and violence by law enforcement. I was interested in documenting moments of joy, stillness and intimacy to create an alternative reality to my newsfeed.

Professors Rhonda Cobham-Sander, Justin Kimball and Adam Levine have all informed my artistic practice. In Professor Cobham-Sander’s “Black (0n) Earth” class, I explored the present-day and historical relationships of Black people to the natural world. I took these photos for my “Art Can Help” class, taught by Professors Kimball and Levine. They gave me the feedback and support I needed to create the images that I had been imagining.

Maya Roberts ’23, Sterling Kee ’23, Rebecca Awuah ’23

We call ourselves Black Tie, and we decided to sing together to highlight Black voices and artists. “Imagine Me” was one of our first arrangements during the pandemic. A couple of us were afforded the opportunity to arrange and perform songs by Black artists as part of an independent study with Professor Shayla Lawson for her book launch in New York City. Because of the pandemic, we were unable to travel to perform our arrangements, but we still gained a greater appreciation for and understanding of Black music through our participation in the course.

Three people smiling poising for the camera

Black Tie includes Roberts (left), Awuah (middle) and Kee (right).

Lauren Bell ’22

A young woman poising for the camera

My work is entirely based on my identity. I am heavily invested in Black culture, and it shows through my artwork. I use symbolism or abstraction to reference the Black writers and musical/visual artists who inspire me. Most importantly, my art usually consists of self-portraits that illustrate my Black female mind, experience and features. Art, psychology, Black studies and sociology courses have provided me with the crucial material behind my artwork. Since my first-year seminar, “Art, Politics and Protest,” I have used course material to share a message of Black activism with the greater Amherst community.

Maya Roberts ’23, Jonathan Paul ’22

We’re both from Trinidad and Tobago. Fun fact: Trinidad is so small our families knew each other well before we came to Amherst. Trinidad (the birthplace of the steelpan and calypso music) has always been a place filled with music. Since we both grew up in this environment and were part of families heavily connected to the music industry, we’ve always had a passion for music. Maya started singing in musical theater when she was 6, and Jonathan has been playing sax for nine years. We both have a special appreciation for Black American music.

Two people outside singing and playing a saxophone

Abadai Zoboi ’24

A young woman poising for the camera

My identity and my dance are inseparable. I move in a young Black woman’s body, and my existence alone is an act of defiance. Dance is the reclamation of my body’s autonomy, my body’s space and my body’s humanity. I come from a history of African women who found ways to live and breathe in their body. Utilizing my body to create art is paying homage to those women. I am because they were. Dance serves as a reminder of who I am. Dance is my therapy and my release. It conveys every emotion I hold in my body without me saying a word. In every way, my dance is Black, my dance is woman, my dance is me.

Zora Duncan ’23

A young woman poising for the camera

The show included a series of seven works by Duncan.

Outside of literally using myself as a reference for my work and thus my work reflecting my skin tone and other physical features, I also draw from and am inspired by my cultural roots, and I feel as though I’m relating to a history that is my own. I’ve taken a couple of art classes at Amherst, but most of the art I’ve loved making has come from work I made outside of class. However, classes provided me with new materials and mediums and forced me to work with things I wasn’t entirely comfortable with, which has helped me to grow.