Its purpose, to center and celebrate Black artistry, is the same as ever. But in some ways, Amherst’s fourth annual Black Art Matters Festival (BAM) will be 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 three years since, though, 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 ever since we started collaborating with the Mead and other campus partners on it. And this year is by far the most extensive and the biggest iteration of it yet,” she says. The 2021 festival will take place in multiple spaces, both physical and virtual, and its reach could be worldwide.
The Amherst community and the general public are invited to a Zoom session on Thursday, March 4, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., 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 has been influenced by such Amherst courses as “Black Sexualities” and “Drugs and Society.” There will also be 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.”
Danielle Amodeo ’13, marketing and public programs specialist for the Mead, sees the Zoom event as “a great way to reach out to folks who are interested in this specific program but maybe aren’t familiar with the Mead or aren’t familiar with Amherst College.” But she adds that the artworks will also be professionally displayed—“really getting the full museum treatment”—in the Mead’s historic Rotherwas Room, where on-campus students, faculty and staff can enjoy them in person (within COVID-19 safety protocols) from March 3 through April 18. “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.” She is curating an exhibition for this year’s BAM, titled The Living Room, that will open in a Mead gallery space on March 3. 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 will feature 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.”