If you pause long enough, you can begin to imagine:
Feeling Cuba's heat and humidity in the gauzy shirt. Seeing Haiti in the brilliant colors stitched through the sash. Feeling the sway of Jamaica in the billowy fullness of the skirt. Spotting a bit of Spain in the shape and slope of the hat.
"You can see what we've borrowed and changed, adopted. You can see how we're not very different," said Deborah McDuff-Williams, as she showed off her window display of Panama--crowded with fashion and photographs, shrubbery and history. "Yes. It's all from Panama but the point is, you can see reverberations everywhere."
Williams is the founder and director of the Museum of Cultural Diversity, tucked away in what appears to be, at face, a very odd location--a spacious, airy group of rooms that not so long ago housed a fabric store in a sparsely traveled corner of Carson's South Bay Pavilion.
"We put in a stage and painted the walls. Turns out its [interior design] is perfect feng shui. But you know," she said with a shrug, "color is diversity too."
But Williams, an artist, many-hatted-entrepreneur, wife and mother of two, put a tremendous amount of thought and effort into the location as well as her larger purpose.
"Carson is one of the most diverse communities in the United States, if not the world," she said over her shoulder, taking long, quick strides through the well-lit display area, her long black skirt flipping behind her. She winds through a maze of masks from around the world--brilliant, fierce, grotesque, fanciful--created from wood, earth, ceramic or found objects--discards refashioned into something powerful and new.
Williams, 48, opened her doors two years ago, pooling funds--donations here, grants there--and of course her own money. She was committed. It was her way of trying to link the various racial, cultural, ethnic and religious groups that make up the region. (And Carson makes much pomp of its even-apportioned demographic--25% white, 25% African American, 25% Latino, 25% Asian.) Williams said that despite California's racially charged high profile of the last few years--from riots and O.J. to campus wars and ethnic-based legislation, she strongly believes that within art rises the possibility of change. And though it hasn't yet paid off monetarily, it's made Williams, and the community, richer in other ways.
"This is grass roots," Williams said. "Nobody is getting paid for this. We're doing this as a volunteer organization that believes this should take place."
The museum, a nonprofit organization run by Williams and a multiracial advisory board, has since its inception in 1997 incorporated visual and performance art, lectures, readings, workshops and cross-cultural collaborations. Her goal is not to simply bring people of disparate groups together to celebrate, but to learn.
"There is a real uniqueness to it," said Daryl Sweeney, a Carson councilman. "I mean, having a museum in a mall is very creative on its own. And if you're not in the mainstream, which she [Williams] hasn't been, you're out of the funding loop. But she's very, very persistent. When I walked in the door last year for the first time, she was right there. 'Oh, you're a councilman! Why haven't you been to the museum before? Do you know what we do?' "
Around the World
Already Williams has hosted Guatemalan human-rights activist Rigoberta Menchu, wedding ceremonies from around world, Tibetan monks and gospel singers. The museum has also been the site of presentations and lectures about a range of topics and issues including the struggle of the Dalai Lama, eradication of land mines and tales of human relations around the world.
"My feeling is," Williams said, "that we need to not just talk diversity, but live it. Everybody has a story." So does Williams, and it is as colorful and welcoming as the art that's gathered on walls and pedestals around her.
Figuring out a way to minimize cross-racial and cultural ignorance--and the distance it creates between people--has been a longtime dream of the Indiana native, who grew up feeling the indelible lines separating race.
"Growing up in Indianapolis at that time [in the early '60s], there was black and white," Williams recalled. "That's it. There was no in between. And that was not comfortable to me because I had friends in both areas. And why should you feel uncomfortable? It was just crazy. It was so black and white. And even though I had won first-place awards in art, when it came time to receive my certificate, the teacher didn't want to give it to me. Even thought we didn't have black and white bathrooms, it was the subtleties."