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Two Inspiring Exhibitions Closing After New Year’s

Tuesday December 30, 2003

On a cool, sunny afternoon last week, I took a break from the political obscenity choking our country to visit two museums in downtown Oakland, catching a pair of important shows you can only see through New Year’s Eve. 

My first stop, two blocks from the 12th Street BART station, was the African-American Museum and Library, at 659 14th St. Occupying a former Carnegie Library, this splendid building, with its soft wood paneling, spacious rooms, and natural light streaming in through wide windows, offers reason enough for a visit. 

Up its stately staircase to the upper floor are the pair of shows which will disappear after Wednesday. 

The first, “The Long Walk to Freedom,” displays photographs, archival materials, quotes, and an interactive DVD, all highlighting the contributions of 28 civil rights activists from the 1960s. 

My original motivation for seeing this show was the hope that I might see someone I’d recognize from my year in Mississippi and Alabama in 1967-68 writing for a civil rights newspaper, but no such luck. Instead, I was treated with mostly unfamiliar figures, less iconic than Malcolm, King, Parks, and Carmichael, women and men, black and white, Chicano and Japanese-American, who are still active four decades later in social justices issues. 

Each person is given a five-foot-tall panel, complete with then-and-now photos and capsulated histories. According the museum’s website, 15 of the 28 are from the Bay Area, but I recognized only Cecil Williams, Phil Hutchins, and Carlos Munoz, and Andrew Goodman’s name because his mother, Carolyn, has carried on her son’s work after he and two other civil rights workers were murdered, with the complicity of the local police, in Philadelphia, Miss., during that momentous Freedom Summer of 1964. 

As backdrops to the panels are huge blowups of civil rights marches and demonstrations, close-up aerial views that zoom you right into the action—the 1963 mass March on Washington, a sit-in at a lunch counter, the 55-mile protest walk from Selma to Montgomery. I know the mileage from the many times I drove that route to see films in Montgomery, I was that desperate to get out of Selma, which had not a single movie house. One caveat: all the photos in this show are fine, but they’re not there as art but as information. 

That’s not the case with the other show, across the hall from the civil rights exhibit, “Walls of Heritage/Walls of Pride,” striking reproductions of multicultural murals. Most of the actual murals are located in Los Angeles, some are in Chicago, and a few are in the Bay Area, like the one at the 16th and Mission BART station by Daniel Galvez. It takes some time to see all the details of these brightly colored and politically driven works, notably by Patricia A. Montgomery and Patricia Rodriguez, whose murals affirm their African-American and Chicana cultures. 

I didn’t recognize their names or the others in the show—Arthur F. Mathews, Hale Woodruff, Charles White, William Walker, Elliott Pinkney, and Noni Olabsi—all listed in a brochure on the muralists. Strangely, there’s no mention of the names of the civil rights activists in a brochure, a flyer, or even the museum’s website. 

Inspired by these two shows, I decided to continue down 14th St. and cross the freeway to visit the Ebony Museum of Arts. Just a few blocks from downtown Oakland, I found myself in an entirely different world, a wide, tree-lined street of residential homes and modern apartment buildings, before I reached the green expanse of Lowell Park just across from the museum. 

A continent apart from the African-American Museum, literally and figuratively, the Ebony Museum is housed in an old, gated Victorian, its three floors of small rooms crammed with artifacts celebratory of pre-colonial cultures. Aissatoui Avola Vernita, the petite, elderly artist, curator, and resident of the museum, gave me a tour of her private collection of African art and antiquities, including shields and masks of cowrie shells and intricately beaded crowns, most from Ghana, Congo, and Nigeria. 

Up a narrow, circling metal staircase to the attic floor, I gazed in wonder at Vernita’s Soul Food collection, which she collaged from dried vegetables and bones, her Black Degradation Art collection, and a room strewn with all sizes and variety of black dolls. 

The shows at the African-American Museum and Library, at 659 14th St., ends tomorrow [Wednesday, Dec. 31] Hours: Noon to 5:30. For information, call 637-0198 or see The displays at the Ebony Museum of Arts, 1034 14th St., are permanent—Tues.-Sat., 11a.m. to 6 p.m. (763-0141); call for appointment or group tours.