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A reunion of those scattered

A new museum in San Francisco will focus on Africa as the birthplace of a world of culture.

November 26, 2005|Dinah Eng | Special to The Times

SAN FRANCISCO — Walk down the street toward the Museum of the African Diaspora and the first thing you notice, behind a bright orange canopy, is the nearly three-story face of an African child, an 8-year-old from Ghana. Step inside the sleek glass atrium and the image reveals itself as not one face but many, a mosaic of more than 2,000 photographs of people from around the world.

The dramatic image sets the tone for MoAD, which opens for community previews today on Mission Street in the Yerba Buena district. It also hints at the new museum's goals: to promote cross-cultural communication and explore the ties of all people to Africa, the place where many anthropologists believe humans originated.

"What I'm committed to," says Executive Director Denise Bradley, "is bringing the best of the best of contemporary art from the African diaspora to San Francisco."

Belva Davis, president of the board of directors, says the museum aims to change the way people view the modern world and global family by looking at the "connectivity" of cultures. To that end, MoAD will focus on four primary themes: origins, movement, adaptation and transformation, components of all diasporas. Experiences illustrating the themes will be explored through art, film or history, or through activities covering such topics as music, adornment and culinary traditions.

MoAD, housed on the first three floors of the St. Regis Hotel and Towers, had its genesis 10 years ago when African American artists in San Francisco began talking about how difficult it was to find places to display their work. Davis, host of "This Week in Northern California" on public television station KQED and a journalist for three decades, explains that when Willie Brown became mayor in 1996, he got involved and persuaded developers to allow space inside the hotel building to house a museum.

"After much conversation," Davis said, "the artists decided to look at the contributions of all people in history, to bring a new connotation to what it means to come out of Africa." The result is a three-level, 20,000-square-foot facility with gallery space for art and other shows, areas for technology-driven interactive exhibitions, an education center, theater and gift shop.

Brown asked Davis, a trustee of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, to head the fundraising effort, and over the last 14 months more than $5 million has been raised. The city's redevelopment agency provided capital funding and has committed about $500,000 a year for 12 years as an operating stipend.

"We had no endowment," says Davis, who put together a board of 20. "The board is composed of people of mixed races who provided the financial resumes to get things started."

Two inaugural exhibitions, both curated by Deputy Director Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins, also the director of curatorial affairs, are on view in the third-floor gallery through March 12.

The first, "Linkages and Themes in the African Diaspora: Selections From the Eileen Harris Norton and Peter Norton Contemporary Art Collections," includes 39 works -- in photography, painting, mixed-media, video and new genre -- by such artists as Hew Locke, Willie Cole, Glenn Ligon, Malick Sidibe, Kara Walker, Chris Ofili, Fred Wilson, Isaac Julien and Albert Chong. A mixed-media piece, "Bye, Bye Blackbird" by L.A. artist Alison Saar, consists of a metal suitcase, lighted by neon, underneath a harness of wings made of leather shoe soles. Two untitled 12-color silk-screen works by Iona Rozeal Brown are portraits of a Japanese male and female in dreadlocks and masking, representing the appropriation of hip-hop culture by Japanese youth. The show marks "the first time the Norton collections have allowed an institution to pick out pieces from their collection," Bradley said. Bradley led the marketing of "Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent" for South Bank Centre in London.

A second inaugural exhibition, "Dispersed: African Legacy / New World Realty," includes commissioned works by three artists of African descent, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Marepe (Marcos Reis Peixoto) and Mildred Howard, who investigate origins and reinterpret identities. An installation by Howard, "Safe House," fills a simple lean-to with bottles, silver urns and teapots, everyday objects that speak of the effect that 18th and 19th century slavery had on the lives of Americans.

In addition to artwork, MoAD visitors will be able to see ancient stone tools from Tanzania on loan from the British Museum. "We have the oldest objects in the British Museum in London," Bradley said. "They're loaning us stone tools from Africa, which are nearly 2 million years old, and we'll allow people to handle the objects, which will be an important part of the exhibit."

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