The Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco reopened Thursday after over 18 months of closure, but the building wasn’t quiet behind closed doors. MoAD is featuring five new exhibitions to welcome visitors back, and is poised to make a dramatic re-entrance onto the local and global art scenes under the leadership of new executive director Monetta White.
A third-generation San Franciscan and long-time restaurateur, White helped raise capital funds prior to the museum’s inaugural opening in 2005. She joined the board of directors in March 2019 and served as interim director beginning in August 2019, before assuming the role permanently that December, months before the pandemic hit. The museum pivoted to online programming, including an auction that caught the eye of the global art world. “My vision is to be the global leader of contemporary art of the African Diaspora,” said White, an ethos that is on view in the current suite of exhibitions at MoAD.
Entering the museum, visitors are greeted by Sam Vernon’s “Impasse of Desires,” a site-specific installation of photo collages printed on fabric and hung from clotheslines across the atrium. In dialogue with Chester Higgins Jr.’s permanent photo collage installed on the stairs and elevator, “Impasse” doesn’t let visitors get anywhere without immediately engaging the space, while asking, as Vernon puts it, “what it means to have a museum specifically dedicated to African Diaspora.”
The salon space on the second-floor features “Refutations,” a selection of works by Sydney Cain, one of MoAD’s 2019-20 Emerging Artist awardees. Cain, born and raised in San Francisco, explores themes of ancestral memory, surveillance and invisibility, in relation to spaces in San Francisco where Black people are being pushed out. “Even when you’re pushed out, you’re still in existence,” Cain said. The statement rings true for geographic and metaphysical diasporas alike, for the living and for departed ancestors.
“Refutations” features several charcoal drawings, showing ghostly figures emerging from a fog-like picture plain, while the centerpiece of the show is a multimedia sculpture featuring a Rolodex, which visitors are encouraged to flip through. Some of the cards feature photographs of houses and people, others printed text; many are ledgers with columns for debits and credits, raising the question of what has been taken from Black communities and what is owed. The piece functions as an allegory for the memory of those come and gone: layered, cyclical and impossible to view holistically.
The other three shows feature an international lineup of guest curators and artists. “One of the things we try to do is use the museum as a platform for independent curators,” said Elena Gross, MoAD’s director of exhibitions and curatorial affairs. “We don’t see as much representation of the continent in large institutions in the U.S. as we should.” In this case, MoAD shines the spotlight on both.
“Soul of Black Folks,” curated by Larry Ossei-Mensah, is the debut museum solo exhibition of Ghanaian painter Amoako Boafo. The large-scale portraits featured are works from 2018-20, demonstrating the recent evolution of Boafo’s signature style of finger-painting and paper-transfer in his representations of Black folks. “Umber Brown Belt,” 2020, encapsulates Boafo’s style. The subject’s shirt is a paper-transfer of a floral pattern and her shorts are painted by brush, both contrasting with the rich texture of the skin, a maelstrom of brown and blue pigments Boafo blends and swirls on the surface, rather than mixing beforehand, creating a tactile sensation.
The title of the show riffs on the seminal 1903 essay by sociologist W.E.B Du Bois “The Souls of Black Folk,” in which Du Bois explored the challenges, possibilities and opportunities confronting and available to Black people and how Black people saw themselves. Boafo hails from Accra, Ghana, where Du Bois lived and died following the U.S. government’s refusal to renew his passport in 1963, and his work functions similarly to Du Bois’ census, asking, “What can the world look like devoid of the white gaze?”
“Thread for a Web Begun,” curated by Dexter Wimberly, is the solo museum debut of South African textile artist Billie Zangewa. The work on view covers a 13-year range, delivering an autobiographical narrative through breathtakingly silk tapestries. Zangewa’s background is in fashion, where, she said, “Clothing has the power to transform a person.” Here, she uses textile to weave a narrative of her own personal transformation, as an artist, mother and woman.
“An Angel at My Bedside,” 2020, exemplifies Zangewa’s themes and forms. The tapestry is a self-portrait of the artist asleep, while a cutaway in the background fabric takes the form of a figure wearing a hat. Zangewa’s technical mastery illuminates the beauty of a mundane moment, the fragmentation of the tapestry’s border conveys a feeling of dream or memory, like a fading photo in a family album.
The reopening also features a selection of four short films, collectively titled “Beyond the Sky,” curated by local artist Leila Weefur, highlighting complexities in contemporary African culture. While the represented filmmaker’s have global practices, some of them are emerging in the context of MoAD and the Western canon only now, a tangible example of how the diaspora moves through the geographical world and art world.
Many art institutions, globally and locally, have come under fire for issues of inclusivity and lacking support for emerging artists. In recent months, I had begun to feel that San Francisco’s major museums had become irrelevant. Then MoAD reopened with a lineup bringing artists from across the diaspora into conversation with one another, while proving their commitment to the local community, and I was reminded that there is at least one forward-looking museum in San Francisco. White has already hit her mark positioning the museum as a global powerhouse and one of The City’s most impactful art institutions in recent memory.
IF YOU GO:
Museum of the African Diaspora
Where: 685 Mission St., S.F.
When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays
Tickets: $12 adults, $6 seniors and children under 12; Oct. 23 is a free day with preregistration
Contact: (415) 358-7200, moadsf.org
Note: Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test within 72 hours of visiting is required.