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Black Lives Matter To Black Arts Matter: ASU Professor Bridges Art, Activism

Black Arts Matter
(Photo courtesy of Nia Witherspoon and ASU’s Performance in the Borderlands)
The America Play is performed at the Nelson Fine Arts Center on ASU’s campus as part of the Black Arts Matter series of events.

It’s been almost three years since a jury acquitted George Zimmerman of murdering unarmed 17-year-old black teen Trayvon Martin and the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter sparked a national conversation about police brutality and race in America.

Now, one Arizona State University professor is launching Black Arts Matter, a series of performances, workshops and other events around the Valley from February 19 - 28 at various venues.

Nia Witherspoon, an assistant professor in ASU’s School of Film, Dance and Theater partnered with ASU’s Performance in the Borderlands initiative to put the events together in order to highlight the role of the arts in the Black Live Matter movement.

“I think the artist’s role is to always respond authentically to the most pressing questions of our time,” she said.

Last week, they premiered The America Play, directed by Witherspoon, at the Nelson Fine Arts Center on ASU’s campus. They’re also holding panels, readings, spoken word performances, a film and television writing workshop and a youth poetry showcase.

The keynote address is Friday, February 26 at the Mesa Arts Center with activist Tia Oso.

Just after Trayvon Martin was killed, Witherspoon said she was working at Florida State University, and she was involved in the occupation of the Capitol building on his behalf.

“I was going to the occupations every day, and I remember the distinct feeling of ‘This is great, and this is so important’ and ‘I have different work to do,’” she said. “I wondered, more largely, what is the role of art, and artists, in this?”

As an artist, she’s spent much of her career focusing on creating a bridge between artists and activists, when it comes to the Black Lives Matter movement and to social justice movements like it.

Witherspoon said legislation can only do so much, but “art can be so responsible for shifts in perception.”

“In the same way that protesters can stand in a crossroads and, quote unquote, ‘shut s--- down.’” She said. “What is the art that does that in this moment? What is the call to us?”

This series of Black Arts Matter events in Phoenix, she said, is just the beginning. She wants to expand the program to other cities next year and hopes this begins a conversation about the work black artists are already doing and how that work is contributing to larger movements about how black lives matter.

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.