Black Arts Festival creates space for representations of black creativity

A woman holding a book speaks into a microphone in front of a chalk board that reads "Black Arts Festival 2/22"
Eliamani Ismail SC ’21 was one of many performers at the Black history month arts festival hosted at The Motley on Feb. 22. (HuxleyAnn Huefner • The Student Life)

As students nestled into worn, cozy sofas, warming themselves with hot coffee and tea inside The Motley Coffeehouse’s familiar red brick walls, the aura Saturday afternoon was a pleasant one. Many smiles, laughs and cheers graced the inside of the café as black 5C students packed the place in a show of support and pride. 

Watu Weusi, a black student support collective at Scripps College, hosted its eighth annual Black Arts Festival Feb. 22. The event drew a sizable crowd of students and spotlighted black and African art and culture.

The festival kicked off with gallery-style presentations. Fastened to the back wall was abstract digital artwork from Rose Gil SC ’22, who addressed themes of love and black artistry. Alongside Gil’s work were faceless digital recreations of well-known movie posters and cartoon characters designed by Tsion Mamo SC ’23.

“There’s something [interesting] about being able to [immediately] recognize something that your mind sees without it being explicit, without it having great detail to it,” Mamo said of her work.

Along The Motley’s north wall were paintings from Mouminatou Thiaw SC ’22 and Marcus Jackson PZ ’22. 

Jackson, an abstract artist, found it valuable to share his passion for art with the 5C community, noting the lack of visibility for black artists at home. 

“It’s been beneficial to come out here and have this close community and then be able to showcase my work with them,” he said.

Thiaw, also an organizer of the festival, presented an oil painting of a black man behind a white peony, speaking to a balance between gentleness and strength shared by the two. 

“[I] wanted the media and art that I produce to reflect the kinds of black men that I’ve had in my life which have been really strong, kind and beautiful men,” she said.

Xavier Williams PO ’22 performed a poem titled “This Drip,” a juxtaposition of the systemic oppression of black Americans and the appropriated representations of black culture in the mediums of art and fashion. 

Booming over the mic, Williams delivered his final lines, emphatically stating, “This drip don’t come easy, it’s all they let me buy. Don’t ask me why I wasted money on this drip, you know damn well why.”

Artists like Williams, who don’t have extensive experience showcasing their talents, found themselves artistically putting themselves out there anyway — and this was no accident. Thiaw, Watu Weusi’s outreach head, wanted artists to build one another up in a tangible space and event, allowing perhaps less experienced or less confident artists to be motivated and affected by other presenters.

“As an artist, you’re pretty collaborative, and you [can] give and take from other artists around you,” she said. “[I wanted artists] to feel inspired and excited by their fellow artists.” 

Audience members treasured the opportunity to hear their voices represented on stage. Aleecia Sharpe SC ’23 said the festival presented art she could relate to, something atypical in her life at the 5Cs. 

“These events are so valuable to me because, being [in Claremont] … I feel like I’m not represented [and] I can’t relate to a lot of people,” she said. “But being in a space where there’s people who are like me, where I can feel comfortable being myself, where I hear … that I can relate to [this community] as well — it’s just honestly really special to me.”

Thiaw saw the event as an opportunity to inspire students to create across different disciplines and mediums. 

“There’s always value in showcasing what the black students are doing, because they do amazing things across all disciplines,” she said. “In [academic] spaces we’re taught to think [in a] pretty disciplined [way], and art in all these different forms challenges those barriers.”

Student artist and Watu Weusi secretary Nyarai Khepra SC ’22 presented her poem “Kiwi,” along with an untitled poem. For her, being able to present her poetry in a black-centered space was a special experience, emphasizing that the event served as a space for black artistry that can be hard to find.

“It feels good because you feel seen. You feel heard,” she said. “A lot of times when I present my art, [there’s] a weird feeling of expressing yourself … and not really being understood in a way that I feel like the Black Arts Festival allows.”

Other highlights of the event were musical performances from Thiaw and Gil and poetry from poet Eliamani Ismail SC ’20, who presented “Anthill” and “Inheritances.”

To close out the event, Savannah Chatman SC ’22 brought down the house, comedically recounting the time she broke her high school’s bathroom sink and was called into the principal’s office.

Her story concluded an event that, above all, was overwhelmingly positive. The Black Arts Festival explored themes that equally expressed the joys and challenges of the black experience both on and off campus.

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