National Black Arts Festival International Stars Gather in Atlanta

Article excerpt

THIS CITY'S light-splashed plazas, balmy weather and colorful populace provided a hospitable backdrop for a roster of internationally known artistic heavyweights who came here recently for the National Black Arts Festival. Among those who took part in the 10-day cultural smorgasbord: classical pianist Andre Watts, legendary poet Amiri Baraka and acclaimed songstress Nancy Wilson.

Unlike many other events of this type, nearly every artistic genre was represented in some way. The result was such a selection of riches that arts aficionados were forced to choose carefully, accepting at the outset that some worthwhile events would have to be missed.

Atlanta has long been unofficially known as a new black mecca, inspiring talented black professionals from all over the country to pick up their stakes and settle down in the city that's "too busy to hate." Perhaps it was because of this reputation, along with its potent mix of black political and economic power, that made Atlanta a logical place to undertake something as ambitious as a national black arts festival, which ran from July 29 through Aug. 7. Bringing The World To Atlanta

While serving as chairman of the Fulton County Commission in 1987, Michael Lomax conceived of a national celebration of black artistic contributions. A year later, Lomax's bold notion became a reality. Since then, the festival has taken place every two years, and it continues to grow from a good idea into a flourishing undertaking.

As the festival has expanded, so has the energy and expertise required to carry it off. A permanent, full-time staff led by managing director James Borders oversees planning and implementation.

Before each festival, coordinators for the eight featured artistic disciplines are hired and given a budget to produce events in their respective fields. According to Borders, this year's operational budget was $2.4 million, most of which came from traditional arts funding sources such as the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation and other private foundations and from major corporations such as Coca-Cola and AT&T.

Borders said the money helped festival planners arrange events that were as inclusive as possible.

"We see this as a national festival, and we think that it is important to have strong, propor-tionate geographic representation," Borders said. "We try to make certain to reach out to artists as well as audiences from every region of the United States and from the Caribbean and Africa as well."

The international element to which Borders referred was readily apparent to even the most casual observers.

Those on the lookout for foreign flavors could begin with a concert performed by South Africa's Ladysmith Black Mambazo, take in a show featuring the Cuban music-and-dance group Los Munequitos, follow up with a musical staged by Ensemble Koteba D'Abidjan from the Ivory Coast, then relax while viewing a display of Haitian beaded tapestries at a local gallery.

"We think of the festival as a compendium of festivals," Borders added. "It is a festival of festivals in dance, film, folk arts, literature, music, performance art, theater and visual arts." Poetry And Motion

The festival's nominal headquarters was the Renaissance Hotel, where many literary and theatrical presentations were unveiled. In addition, most of the participating artists stayed there. To walk across the lobby was to wander through a whirl of sounds and colors. Bits and pieces of conversation and laughter blended with bright smiles and brown skin clad in everything from silk blouses, crisp linen suits and Italian loafers to luminous dashikis, African bangles and Birkenstocks.

Upstairs, in the Chastain Room and the Georgia Ballroom, the literary events were a model of innovative programming. Panel discussions and poetry readings combined well-known writers and new voices with invigorating and often unpredictable results. …