Culture News

Black Arts Matter: How Nia Witherspoon Is Blending Art and Social Justice in Metro Phoenix

This summer will mark three years since George Zimmerman’s trial ended in acquittal. After a jury found Zimmerman not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin, three women launched a movement via social media using three simple words and a hashtag: #blacklivesmatter. Today, the national Black Lives Matter organization works to affirm and act on the “the validity of black life.”

It’s been nearly as long since Nia Witherspoon started “dreaming up” something she calls Black Arts Matter, hoping to “create conversations with other artists” about issues central to the Black Lives Matter movement, including “violence against black bodies.”

Working with Arizona State University’s Performance in the Borderlands, an initiative that promotes public dialogue about social justice through performance, Witherspoon has developed a series of Black Arts Matter events taking place February 19 to 28 in metro Phoenix. They’re intended for a wide audience, including artists and community members.

Witherspoon is an assistant professor of theater and performance studies at ASU’s School of Film, Dance and Theatre. She also creates work in Brooklyn, where she was based before joining the ASU faculty in 2014. Her multi-disciplinary art and scholarship explores “indigeneity, queerness, and African diaspora epistemologies.” (Quick philosophy refresher: epistemology is a fancy term for knowledge.)

Working with Mary Stephens, producing director for ASU Performance in the Borderlands, Witherspoon reached out to local and national artists, inviting them to participate in Black Arts Matter programming. The result is a series of events that kicks off Friday, February 19, with The America Play. Written by Suzan-Lori Parks, and directed by Witherspoon, it explores parallels between a young black man and president Abraham Lincoln.

Performances of The America Play continue through Sunday, February 28, at the Nelson Fine Arts Center on the ASU campus. Those who attend the 7:30 p.m. performance on Saturday, February 27, can stay after for a post-show talkback. You’ll need a ticket to see The America Play, but most of the Black Arts Matter events are free.

The Black Arts Matter lineup includes a local black arts panel, spoken word performance, readings, theater performance, a film and television writing workshop (we’re talking to you, award shows), and more. On Saturday, February 27, activist Tia Oso presents the keynote address titled “From Sonia Sanchez to Sasha Fierce: The Significance of Art in Making a Social Movement.” Oso made headlines last year for interrupting a Town Hall event with presidential candidates Martin O'Malley and Bernie Sanders.

Event locations include Nelson Fine Arts Center, Mesa Arts Center, Phoenix Center for the Arts, Burton Barr Central Library, Puente Arizona, Fair Trade Café, the Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, and the First Draft Book Bar at Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix. You'll find artists from BlackPoet Ventures and PressPlay doing readings from the black arts movement at First Draft on Tuesday, February 23, and a performance of dat Black Mermaid Man Lady at Phoenix Center for the Arts on Saturday, February 27.

For Witherspoon, these Black Arts Matter events bring together her passions for art and social justice. It’s important to speak out about physical, social, and psychological violence against black people, Witherspoon says. Both here and abroad, she says, Blackness is still viewed at animalistic, sinful, or out of bounds.

Artists have a key role to play, Witherspoon says, which includes “attending to the contradiction” between cultural saturation and appropriation of black arts in the midst of society’s “massive devaluation of black bodies.”

"Numerous black arts leaders in Phoenix have been addressing issues of justice and race for decades," says Stephens, who is also a lecturer with ASU's School of Film, Dance and Theatre. "We are proud to support their leadership and vision." 

“I’m excited to do it here because Phoenix is one of the neo-conservative areas in our country,” Witherspoon says. She’s hoping to convene similar Black Arts Matter events in other cities, likely starting with New York or San Francisco. But she’s got something else in mind, as well. “I can see us doing a manifesto of artist demands.”

Witherspoon hopes the Phoenix event will prompt artists to ask questions about where they stand on issues of racial justice — and what they are, or should be, contributing to that cause. Making art is one way to have an impact, she says, but it’s not the only way. Artists can also work with activists on new solutions for problems such as poverty and police violence, or transforming hostile minds to new ways of thinking.

But she’s eager to inspire involvement beyond the artistic community as well. “I really, really hope that black folks attend because this is a conversation we simply need to have,” Witherspoon says. “For the rest of the folks, it’s an opportunity to see and respond to what the black community needs in respectful, appropriate ways.”

Black Arts Matter programming takes place February 19 to 28 at various locations. Find more information, including the full schedule, on the Black Arts Matter website.