Out of Africa

Visitors to the new Museum of the African

Now that the buzz created by the architectural outlandishness of the recently reopened de Young Museum has dwindled, design aficionados can feast upon something more visually digestible — namely, the Museum of the African Diaspora. The latest addition to the Yerba Buena art district, MoAD takes up the first three floors of the 40-story St. Regis Hotel. The limestone-curtained entrance to the 20,000-square-foot museum has been described as a “jewel box” dignifying the street facade. As you approach the three-story glass atrium facing Mission Street, a large image of a child pops into view; move in a little closer and you'll see that the images forming the child's face tell a more expansive story about the cradle of civilization.

MoAD focuses on hybrids of new traditions and old cultures that issue from forces such as slavery, war, famine, and technology. While several of the artworks examine our global connection to ancient Africa, the more recent dispersal of Africans during the time of the Middle Passage is also studied in the context of endurance and the universality of human struggle. And since people have both preserved and reinvented their cultures through movement, the collective story MoAD tells is not solely Africa's.

Two major exhibitions open the new museum: “Linkages and Themes in the African Diaspora” and “Made in Africa.” The first is made up of pieces from art-collector heavyweights Eileen Harris Norton and Peter Norton, and consists of mixed media, photos, paintings, and video that blend folky primitivism with dystopic dreamscapes of urban life. Artists in the exhibition include Kenyan-born Wangechi Mutu, whose ink-soaked collages of idealized female body parts are signifiers of civil strife and political instability; and Cuban-born Belkis Ayon, whose wraithlike black-and-white prints fuse animal, plant, and human. Ayon's pictorial myths enact stories of the Abakua, an all-male secret society in the early 1800s that was essentially an underground resistance movement against Spanish rule on the continent.

“Made in Africa,” on loan from London's British Museum, takes viewers back to the glory days of Tanzania's Olduvai Gorge, where some of the oldest cutting implements in the world were unearthed. The show comprises three stone tools mounted atop plinths, giving visitors a 360-degree view. The museum even ups the wow factor by allowing visitors the opportunity to handle the stones. In the words of MoAD Director V. Denise Bradley, in addition to inducing awe, “These objects speak directly to a key premise of our program — that human life, society, technology, and art all began in Africa.” For those of us who missed the dawn of civilization, MoAD's opening might be the closest we get to an encore presentation. — Nirmala Nataraj

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