Keeper of the Culture
Growing up in an artistic family in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn, N.Y., surrounded by objects whose concepts intrigued her, left an indelible mark on Laurie A. Cumbo, founder of the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA). Her mother was an opera singer; her father created mixed media art pieces as a hobby; and her brother was a photographer. When her brother launched his own gallery, Thoughtforms, in Tribeca, in 1989, her exposure to art took on a different dimension.
“My brother’s gallery gave many contemporary Black artists a platform to showcase their work and it became a gathering place for those in the Black artistic and cultural communities at that time. It was my first time seeing the arts and how people gravitate towards them, interact with them and accept them,” explains Cumbo.
Amidst this artistic and cultural Renaissance of sorts, Cumbo realized that art was more than pretty pictures mounted on walls for people to admire. Rather, it was, and is, a conduit for African-Americans to find their lost culture and soul. “When you destroy a culture, you destroy a nation. Because of [slavery], most of our culture was taken away from us. Therefore, as African-Americans, we have sustained ourselves without any particular nurturing of our culture. But although we’ve sustained ourselves, we’re not thriving. The challenge is showing [our community] how important art is to our daily lives,” she says.
Passing the Baton
Cumbo graduated from Spelman College in Atlanta in 1997 as an art history major and received a master’s degree in visual arts administration from New York University in 1999. For her master’s thesis, she explored whether or not she could open an artistic and cultural institution in Brooklyn that was owned and operated by African-Americans and which would celebrate the often-unsung works of artists of the African diaspora. Giving herself the green light, she launched MoCADA at the tender age of 23. The year was 1999, one year after her brother’s gallery closed. “I learned from the challenges and triumphs that he had in that particular space,” she explains.
The baton had clearly been passed.
Headstrong and fearless, Cumbo approached the Bridge Street African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, with a proposal for MoCADA. The church offered her temporary space in a newly renovated building it owned. During those early years, MoCADA mounted exhibits on hot-button topics, including abortion, police brutality, capital punishment and H.I.V./AIDS. Public educational programs and films accompanied the exhibits to give the community a forum in which to discuss the relevant social issues.
“I’m in the arts and I have to do my part. In fact, everybody needs to address, in whatever ways they can, the state of emergency the Black community is in,” Cumbo says.
Finding a Home of Its Own
Finding and funding a permanent home for the museum became a struggle in 2002 as public monies initially allocated to the museum by then–Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden were re-directed toward the 9ll disaster. With the help of local City Council members, however, MoCADA was able to secure $425,000, although it was some $500,000 less than what Cumbo had expected. Cumbo’s connections in the art world and fund-raisers such as MoCADA’s annual Masquerade Ball helped cover the funding shortfall, but it was still a struggle.
“The challenges Black cultural organizations specifically face is what most cultural organizations face: the shrinking amount of public funding and the increased reliance on private funding,” says Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem. “That is why efforts like Laurie’s are so necessary. It’s amazing what she’s done. She saw a need in a community that was culturally rich and diverse, and was able to find a space to fulfill that need.”
Cumbo calls the Black middle class to task for not supporting Black institutions. “Black people need to adopt a Black institution that they want to see thrive, grow and develop by giving of their time, money and efforts,” she insists. “Are the celebrities doing enough? Of course not. However, our middle class and upper middle class, they’re not doing enough either. They’re not giving at the levels they need to give to sustain their cultural institutions. Even if you don’t want to be bothered with Black people any more, you can certainly send in a check to those that still do want to be bothered.”
MoCADA finally secured a home in 80 Arts—the James E. Davis Arts Building, a former state office building located on the corner of Hanson Place and South Portland Avenue in downtown Brooklyn. Named after the slain New York City councilman, the building opened in May. MoCADA had been sharing space with South of the Navy Yard Artists, in Bed-Stuy, since its five-year tenure at the church ended in 2004.
Cumbo and her director of education, Kimberli E. Grant, are MoCADA’s only full-time staffers. The other workers are interns and volunteers. “We have the greatest interns in the world. They are like a skeletal staff in a way,” says Cumbo. Equally important, they are “totally aware of their art and culture, believe in the mission of the museum and want to work to bring Black arts to its proper place,” she says.
It is largely because of her “staff” that MoCADA has become known as “the little museum that could,” Cumbo says.
The museum occupies 1,800 square feet of the lobby area of 80 Arts. The building houses other arts groups and is a part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music Cultural District, a $650 million revitalization project that converted vacant and underutilized properties for use by nonprofit visual, performing and media arts organizations.
MoCADA christened its new home with an exhibit of the works of 15 contemporary artists who live and work in Brooklyn. Called “The Pulse of New Brooklyn: A Review of Contemporary Black Art,” the exhibit runs through Aug. 19 and features a variety of mediums, including mixed media, paint, collage, sculpture and installations. “Selecting artists is like dating: Those you don’t want are always calling you, while those you do want never return your phone calls,” Cumbo quips.
Keeper of the Culture
Cumbo educates herself about each artist’s piece when preparing the educational component of each installation. For example, the mixed media piece by artist SOL’SAX, featuring nine helmets—many of them fitted with Afro wigs and buffalo horns—was created as a tribute to the Buffalo Soldiers of the Old West. Cumbo is now able to recite the story of the Buffalo Soldiers. “Six units of Black infantrymen were recruited to secure lands out West for white settlers in the 1860s. They were called Buffalo Soldiers by the Native Americans at that time, not only because of the buffalo skin on their clothing, but because of the kinkiness of their hair. The soldiers were admired for their fearlessness and for being great warriors,” she states.
Two large black and white photographs, taken by The New York Times photojournalist Chester Higgins Jr., are mounted on one of the museum’s central walls. Named “Ceremony of the Good Death,” they depict a three-day ceremony Higgins captured on one of his many trips to Brazil. In one photo, three women dressed in white not only celebrate the ascension of the Virgin Mary into the heavens, but also celebrate the liberation of Black slaves from their Portuguese colonizers. The second photo shows a woman in white mysteriously kneeling in a sea of popcorn as part of a purification ceremony. The latter photo begs many questions and also gives Cumbo reason to delve into her Portuguese roots. Cumbo’s last name is derived from the Portuguese.
Other artists in the exhibit include many from the Caribbean and Africa—Derrick Adams, Aisha Bell, Francks Francois Décéus, Wangechi Mutu, Otto Neals, Donovan Nelson, Lorenzo Pace, Dread Scott, Danny Simmons, Javaka Steptoe, Mickalene Steptoe, Willie Torbert and Kehinde Wiley.
“In my lifetime I would like to create and have the type of impact on Black America that Malcolm X did or Martin Luther King Jr. did. I want to provide a space and create an environment where people can have a mental revolution through art, film or exhibitions,” Cumbo says. She envisions MoCADA as an institution with several different exhibition galleries throughout Brooklyn, similar to the Guggenheim in Manhattan, she says.
Is Laurie Cumbo a revolutionary, a griot, or a provocateur? None, she says with a smile. She is more a keeper of the culture, with the same sense of urgency as that of her heroine, Harriet Tubman. “The whole idea of [Tubman’s] going back again and again and again, despite the dangers and costs to herself, to help her people, resonates with me,” she says.
By Bevolyn Williams-Harold