The Images and Voices of the African Diaspora, By: Marta Yamamoto

Friday February 10, 2006

Since the beginning of time, people have been dispersed, by force or mutual consent, far from their homes. Through famine, political unrest, acts of nature and searches for a better life, many miles now separate groups from their ancestral habitations. With the belief that human life began in Africa, this continent is at the heart of the human spirit and the Museum of the African Diaspora (MOAD) has opened in San Francisco to give voice to this spirit. 

While society often emphasizes the differences that separate us, MOAD celebrates our connectedness, as people and to the African Diaspora. Through art, culture and technology the museum is a center for the stories and contributions of people of African descent. Using multiple forms of media in exhibits and theater presentations, and contemporary artistic statements, four universal themes are explored: Origins, Movement, Adaptation and Transformation. 

A full sensual experience greeted me on a recent visit. The sound of African drums a welcome complement to the illuminating exhibits and arresting artwork. The museum’s signature statement is viewed in its entirety from outside the striking three-story full glass atrium facing Mission Street. The haunting image of a young girl stares soulfully past floating staircases. Once inside the full beauty and significance of this portrait becomes evident. 

Composed of over two thousand individual images contributed from around the world, the two-story photomosaic, more than any other exhibit, conveys the concept of the universal connectedness of humanity, faces and scenes together creating the face of a young girl from Ghana. For me, this alone would have made my visit worthwhile. 

Not surprisingly, I continued to be impressed and moved touring the permanent exhibits on the second floor. In the Celebration Circle, low ceilinged, carpeted and benched for seating, I watched a multimedia video presentation. The images and voices echoed their mosaic of memories—times filled with song and laughter, being thankful, surrounded by family and friends, sharing food, heralding birth, marriage and death. Personal statements on Celebration and Africa, amid joyful images and music. 

The theme of adornment is arrestingly displayed with three stylized human figures, dressed in a collage of bold patterns and colors. Atop each one video screens morph through an eclectic collection of headshots altering hairstyles, jewelry and body art and how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us contributing to our sense of self. 

Music is part of the human experience, following people around the world. The story of Africa’s influence on music could fill volumes. Here touch screens allow the viewer to move through and listen to selections from traditional, jazz, gospel, blues, and across to the Caribbean and Latin America. So much of this music feels so familiar, ingrained in our souls. 

Last, but no less significant, is the exhibit focusing on the African influence on food and its role in the community. From the simple rice, beans, yams and gumbo, through the addition of greens, coffee and the sharing of food, colorful images and text tell the story. 

Other stories serve as reminders in the Slavery Passage Gallery. Within this small, dimly lit theater, while tinted patterns rotate like a slowly moving kaleidoscope, we travel over three centuries of time. Within a green forest-like setting, I listened to a 103-year old woman relate the day of her wedding, her wedding ring carved from a red button, jumping backwards over a broom to see who would be the “ boss”. Though the day was memorable, her husband could only stay one night, needing to return to his own plantation; this would be the pattern of their lives. When the colors changed to purple and yellow, the voice became that of a young man horrified of his plight and the conditions aboard a slave ship, where some were flogged for attempting to jump overboard, preferring death to slavery. 

Next door the Freedom Theater offers three presentations highlighting the Haitian Revolution, the American Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-Apartheid Movement. On a wall-size screen, video and sound, as well as interactive devices present these historical events and the people who propelled them. 

Witness to the origin of life, on loan from the British Museum, is the exhibit “Made In Africa.” Hard to fathom, man-made objects nearly two million years old from Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge are inspiring. A simple hand axe chipped from quartz with violet amethyst banding resembles a work of art. A good mind-stretching activity is to consider the hands creating these tools as well as their survival through time. 

Artists create work under various trends and schools of art, carrying the baggage of their lives, their identity and their past. “Linkages and Themes” exhibits the work of 39 artists, in paintings, photographs, video and mixed media, forging this link. Isaac Julien’s night shot of a dapper young man on a bench, David Hammons’ African-American flag in colors of green, red and black, iona rozeal brown’s traditional Japanese prints transformed with brown skin and dreadlocks and Hew Locke’s afghan and pink wall sculpture of the Queen Mother are all strong personal and artistic statements. 

Nearby, “Dispersed: African Legacy/New World Reality” showcases three installations expressing current realities in view of the artists’ origins. Mildred Howard’s “Safe House” teases our concept of a loving home with her construction using butter knives, instruments of abuse. Brazilian Marepe uses monks’ vestments atop wood cots interspersed with metal catch basins symbolizing good intentions gone wrong in the Franciscans’ treatment of the Congolese. 

At the museum store artifacts from Africa and museum memorabilia serve as reminders of the African Diaspora. T-shirts, mugs and bookmarks carry MOAD’s iconic portrait in a sepia hue. Rwandan baskets, carved animal napkin rings, beaded jewelry by the Maaai women of Kenya and delicate flowered ceramic bowls from South Africa share space with music CDs, cookbooks, note cards and scarves. 

The Museum of the African Diaspora evokes a true sense of the connectedness of man. The images of the photomosaic, the Celebration voices sharing their stories and the haunting beat of African drums are catalysts for positive thought and serve as reminders of the basics, the elements that provide meaning to our lives. Music, food, personal expression, our histories—elements that all peoples throughout the world share—are elements that create one universal voice. 


The Museum of the African Diaspora is located at 685 Mission St., San Francisco, (at Third Street), two blocks from the Montgomery Street BART station. For more information call (415) 358-7200, or see www.moadsf.org. Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays; noon-5p.m. Sundays. Adults, $8; seniors/students, $5; children 12 and under, free. Inaugural exhibits through March 12.