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New curator introduces opening exhibit at Afro-American Museum

The new mixed media art exhibit at the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center titled “How I Got Over” demonstrates the variety of ways in which African-Americans have faced and overcome obstacles.

The museum itself is an excellent case in point.

Plagued by budget cuts from the state, a series of layoffs and both mechanical and environmental issues that resulted in mold, the museum building was forced to be temporarily shut down in Aug. 2011. The institution’s administrative offices, library and archive remained open.

Thanks to a determined director and planning council and emergency funding through the state, Ohioans were welcomed back to a newly renovated museum at a festive grand reopening on Jan. 26. The first renovation since the museum opened 25 years ago, it includes mechanical and structural upgrades and was funded through insurance proceeds, museum reserves and the Ohio Historical Society’s operating funds. The museum’s own operating funds were used to develop the initial exhibit.

“The nearly $1.5 million released to the Ohio Historical Society for the NAAMCC will be used exclusively to renovate our main gallery space and develop a new long-term exhibition,” museum director Chuck Wash explained.

The clean-up and restoration over the past year involved repairing 750 artifacts from the permanent collection of 10,000 treasures. The collection includes paintings, sculptures, furniture, clothing, military memorabilia, dolls, furniture, textiles, ceremonial and religious items, inventions by African-Americans and even a car. It also includes items pertaining to Central State and Wilberforce universities, though the schools are not officially affiliated with the museum.

Supervising the repairs and planning the first exhibit was 24-year-old Aleia Brown, the museum’s new curator and a recent graduate of Northern Kentucky University. She was hired just two months after finishing a master of arts graduate program in arts and public history.

Coincidentally, the last course Brown had taken for her graduate degree focused on disasters in museum collections.

“We had this whole section on mold and how to handle it, and a couple of months later I was actually applying what I had just learned,” said Brown, who was aided in the project by the Ohio Historical Society and by some of her fellow graduate students who volunteered to help out. “When I got the job, I called my professor and said ‘I thought you said this mold rarely happens!’ “

Despite having to don a Tyvek suit and mask and painstakingly removing what looked like “little white spores” from a variety of objects, Brown still labels this her dream job.

“My parents always took us to museums, and I always knew I wanted to be a curator and a public historian,” said Brown, who was hired in February 2012. “When I was in college in Baltimore, one of my advisers took me to an exhibit at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, the largest museum on the East Coast dedicated to the African-American experience.

“I thought it was just magical. I was amazed at how effective it was in teaching about the African diaspora in a non-classroom setting. When I heard the curators talk, it confirmed that was definitely what I wanted to do.”

That approach, she says, was definitely lacking when she was growing up in West Chester.

“We always tended to learn one side of the story but there was definitely a lack of diversity in terms of history and culture,” Brown recalls. “I remember thinking that what we were learning didn’t reflect the whole United States, they were always leaving out African-American history and other minority groups like Asian-Americans.”

When it was time to create the Afro-American Museum’s first exhibit for the reopening, Brown wanted it to be special.

“Because it was the first exhibit, I really wanted it to reflect our mission, and I wanted it to be inspiring and positive,” Brown explained. “We needed to reopen on a high note.”“

She also wanted to showcase the breadth of the museum’s collection so “How I Got Over,” features 73 of its own artifacts. The inspiration for the title of the exhibit comes from a song Mahalia Jackson sang before the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.

The 5,200-square-foot gallery, renamed to honor the museum’s founding director John F. Fleming, is filled with sculptures, quilts, paintings, collage, assemblage, wood carvings and even a dance costume.

On the floor, Brown has added words that visitors are required to “step over.”

“The words on the floor — such as ‘jail,’ or ‘boy’ — are negative words the people had to overcome, so the idea is for visitors to have to step over them to see the positive words on the gallery walls.”

Brown, who does not use many descriptive wall labels in the gallery, said she prefers to have museum guests interpret the art on their own. She feels the same about use of technology at museums, a current trend throughout the country.

“Everyone is doing it, and I like technology but I think sometimes it takes away from introspection and our own thoughts,” Brown said.

You’ll see some individuals you recognize in the artwork: there’s a bust of Harriet Tubman, a sculpture of a Tuskegee Airman, a painting of Ethel Waters, a drawing of Fannie Lou Hamer, a bust of former Dayton mayor Rhine McLin — wearing one of the hats for which she is known.

“Protest art is also very important, and we have a lot of it in our collection,” says Brown, pointing to a series of works by painter Claude Clark. In one titled “Polarization,” Uncle Sam is arm-wrestling with an African-American male. In another called “The Butcher,” Uncle Sam is pictured carving up the continent of Africa for dollars.

Brown says she selects objects that tell a good story. One of her personal favorites is a colorful nativity folk art scene.

“It is one of the oldest works in our collection and it is by Clementine Hunter, whose parents were slaves,” Brown explained. “She lived on a plantation, and I like it because it’s an original representation of how African-Americans looked at their spirituality.”

Other favorites include a contemporary art quilt by J. Hobson titled “Hope is An Anchor” that comes from a collection of Carolyn Mazloomi, an artist who resides in West Chester Twp. Mazloomi’s collection of nearly 100 quilts will be featured in the museum’s next exhibit, which opens in May and represents Phase Two of the museum’s opening.

“The technique is impeccable, the colors are calming — blues and greens like an impressionist sea,” Brown explained. “There’s a little anchor sewn on the quilt that says “HOPE” on it. I think it really expresses the message that hope can sustain you.”

Another favorite is a bronze sculpture by Richmond Barthe called “Seral Benga.”

“When people think of the Harlem Renaissance, they usually think about books and poems and not the visual arts,” Brown explains. “This sculpture really embodies the spirit of that era and shows how African-Americans contributed greatly to the visual arts as well.”

The exhibit entrance offers three examples of the themes of artwork that will be featured throughout the gallery. Spirituality is introduced by an untitled assemblage of religious symbols by Hayward Dinsmore, a former director of art at Central State University. “Protest” is a black-and-white acrylic painting that pictures people protesting and marching for civil rights in the 1960s; celebration is highlighted via a print by Nola Lynch-Sheldon in which a woman’s face becomes the root of a tree that branches out in many directions.

In addition to the formal exhibit, Brown has added a new element to the space: a small studio where visitors can read books about the art, and create their own art based on the exhibit themes.

“I want to do more of that, give people a chance to reflect and show their own creativity in interpreting what they see in an exhibit, ” Brown said. “I’m hoping to continue to create exhibits that engage the community. It’s one thing to have an exhibit that looks really nice, but more important that people come in and learn something.”

If the grand opening is any indication, the new Afro-American Museum is off to a great start. More than 300 attended and judging from remarks scrawled on a studio table, they liked what they saw.

“Work that truly touches the soul — great food for thought!” wrote one patron.

“There were obviously people there who were inspired and proud to see their heritage reflected in a positive way,” Brown says, adding that the exhibit also has broader appeal. “Facing obstacles is a part of the human race; it’s relevant to anyone,” she said. “It’s about African-Americans, but it doesn’t exclude anyone.”

Wrote another visitor: “Loved all of the art and artists. Someday my work will be on these walls.”

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