Celebration of Black Arts Festival honors children, history, and community

A performance at a past Festival event. (Photo courtesy of Art Sanctuary.)

This year, Philadelphia’s Celebration of Black Arts Festival is all about the kids. The month-long tribute to black artists and writers is featuring award-winning children’s illustrator Bryan Collier as well as a host of kid-friendly activities.

The CBA Festival, now in its 33rd year, is one of the oldest of its kind. It is hosted by Art Sanctuary, a Philadelphia organization dedicated to bringing black art to the wider community.

The festival originally took shape as the Celebration of Black Writers, hosted by local bookstore owner Larry Robin.

“[Robin] saw firsthand that there were very few opportunities in Philadelphia for people to find books written by black authors,” explains Valerie Gay, Art Sanctuary’s executive director. “His store was one of the few in Philadelphia that carried an extensive list of black author titles.”

Art Sanctuary aims to take advantage of Philadelphia’s plethora of arts and culture organizations to remedy what Gay says is the inconsistent availability of those resources to public-school children.

“We can go anywhere”

Collier’s headlining exhibition is a prime example. It focuses on a young boy whose father has died and the journey he experiences in dealing with and accepting that loss. Thematically, it is about community, family, and hope.

“It’s a universal theme of loss and how to move past your losses,” Collier says, adding that the exhibition will resonate with anyone who has experienced any kind of loss in life.

Collier was drawn to children’s illustration from a young age, moved by his own experiences as a child. “Growing up I didn’t see many books that featured people of color,” he says, “so when I got a chance I said, well, I’m going to make picture books with black and brown boys and girls.”

“Picture books are windows and mirrors that show us where we can go, and we can go anywhere,” he says.

For those who want to hear more from Collier, he’ll be at an artist/author talk about the individual stories of the creative process on Sunday, May 7, at 2:30pm at the Barnes Foundation (part of its Free First Sundays program), also featuring author and Art Sanctuary founder Lorene Cary, artist Richard Watson, and composer and jazz vocalist Ruth Naomi Floyd.

Walking past history

Collier’s focus on children and expanding their worldview carries into the festival’s other activities. In particular, the festival is partnering with the African American Museum in Philadelphia to host hands-on, child-centered activities. The festival will also host workshops, panels, and screenings for adults and teenagers.

Overall, Gay says, the festival is about creating a greater sense of community and awareness for the whole city. For Collier, that means being cognizant of our ever-expanding knowledge of the civil rights movement and the history of black people in America.

“What I hope is that people will see that history and stories are all around us,” he says. “We walk around history, we walk past it.”

Gay’s comments echo this sentiment. “[The festival] … shines a light on a body of work that sometimes goes unnoticed by mainstream communities — and black communities alike — but whose contributions remain important, regardless of who they represent,” she says.

The 33rd Celebration of Black Arts Festival runs May 1 through 31. Collier’s exhibition will be held at the Art Sanctuary Gallery on 628 S. 16th Street, Philadelphia, with an opening reception on Sunday, May 7, at 7pm (RSVP here). Visit online for the complete list of scheduled Festival events.  

During the month of May, you can hear more from Art Sanctuary executive director Valerie Gay at Broad Street Review’s May 15 panel discussion on arts funding