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Fahari Arts Institute: Black, Gay and Southern

Nicholas Harris performing at Fahari’s Queerly Speaking Series

At one point, black, gay arts organizations in North Texas had difficulty knowing where to find different artists to stage events. So the person they often turned to for help decided to solve that problem with an organization of his own. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports on the Fahari Arts Institute, now in its third year.

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Harold Steward kept getting those requests because he’s the performing arts coordinator for the South Dallas Cultural Center. Black gay arts organizations using the center would ask: Did he know of any dancers who’d collaborate on this event? What about painters? Or spoken word artists?

Steward: “And so I began to match artists with organizations, and it got me to thinking about what a black queer multi-disciplinary arts organization would look like. And I was really just playing around with an idea because there is a gap between organizations and artists.”

Then African-American novelist E. Lynn Harris died in July 2009. The openly gay writer had had 10 consecutive novels on the bestseller lists. But when no public tribute in North Texas seemed forthcoming, Steward helped arrange one — with readers, visual artists, dancers and a singer. After that, the Fahari Institute grew – as Steward says – “organically.” Fahari means ‘pride’ or ‘royalty’ in Swahili. But for Steward, it could well mean ‘things keep happening every month.’

Steward: “The next month, an opportunity came to hold a monthly poetry and spoken-word event called Queerly Speaking. And then, shortly after that, another opportunity came with the Queer Film Series at the Cultural Center.”

Then came a three-day film festival and then fundraisers. Fahari Arts Institute is now the only black gay arts organization in North Texas to offer a full array of programs year-round: dance, theater, lectures, films and readings. A new season began this month with two gallery exhibitions, marking the fact that this is the 30th year of the HIV epidemic: One is a solo show, Poz Eyes, about photographer Terrance Omar Gilbert’s battle with HIV; the other is Our 30, a group show of different artworks, such as “Scarlet,” below, by Lovie Olivia (print on plaster, 2011).

Steward says Fahari is as much a Southern organization as it is a gay, African-American one – because the South is different for blacks and gays. Patrick Packer is the executive director of the Southern AIDS Coalition.

Packer: “Nine of the top ten cities with the highest HIV case rates are in the South. If you look at the states – and Texas being one of those states – eight of the top ten states with the highest HIV infection case rates are in the South.”

Packer will give a gallery talk sponsored by Fahari on Friday. He said he chose to speak at an arts institute  because gay artists, for 30 years, have been some of the loudest voices in the fight against HIV.

And there’s a grimmer reason.

Packer: “The arts community has been one of the hardest hit with HIV and AIDS.”

Steward says all of that leads to a different conversation about the arts, HIV, race and the South – about access to medical care in underserved areas, for example. Or even access to the arts. Steward wants Fahari to serve North Texas in ways he felt weren’t available to him when he graduated 10 years ago as a theater student from the Booker T. Washington Arts Magnet High School.

Steward: “When I was thinking about where I would go after high school, the East Coast or West Coast was constantly on my mind. But what does that do to my local community if everyone moves to a different community to produce their work?”

Fortunately for Steward, he’s always found strong support in his family. When he decided to come out to family members two years ago, he wrote them all — parents and siblings, aunts and nieces — a Christmas card that “really laid out who I was.” (“It wasn’t necessarily a cowardly approach,” he says with a chuckle.) Family members individually gave him more or less the same response: They loved him and were happy for him.

Steward: “OK, here we have 10-15 people who get the same Christmas card and they all have the same reaction. For a black queer theater practitioner, I can’t do nothing with that. [laughs] I can’t even sell my coming-out story.”

Steward and Fahari must be doing something right: In its second year, Fahari won three Dallas Voice Awards against more established organizations.

Steward: “Of course, it’s all based off of popular vote. But you know, we looked at it, and said, ‘Here we are, a volunteer staff, an even more volunteer budget because we don’t know what it is, and how do we come away with three awards when no other organization does? Well, that speaks to the people and their beliefs in this . . . What we’re doing is building community.”

Unfortunately for him, it also means Steward has to juggle the technical and scheduling needs of a whole range of different kinds of artists. And he does that on top of balancing the overlapping but different interests of the gay and black communities. What happens when his programs are seen as not ‘black enough’? Or not ‘gay enough’?

What helps, Steward says, is a particular management skill.

Steward: “[laughs] Well, usually when we introduce our programs, we say we do it the ‘black queer way,’ which means we do it … a little fiercer than anything else. [laughs]”

Photo above and outfront of Africa and Beauty by Nicholas Harris.