|Should you go?|
|Time spent||34 minutes|
|Best thing I saw or learned||
This 1987 Janette Beckman photograph of Salt-n-Pepa, because it’s awesome and because I’d kind of forgotten about them and was happy to be reminded.
The Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, inevitably acronymed into “MoCADA,” occupies a very small exhibition space on the ground floor of the James E. Davis Arts Building in downtown Brooklyn. Not Mmuseumm small, but still, quite small. Perhaps 1,500 square feet of interior, ground-floor space with no natural light, MoCADA has a makeshift, improvised feel to it.
The institution is twenty years old in 2019, and started out of its founder’s NYU graduate thesis. So, happy birthday, MoCADA! Its location is critical to its raison d’etre, for Laurie Angela Cumbo’s thesis held that a museum of its type in Central Brooklyn could help the community economically, socially, and aesthetically.
Fashion and Resistance
The exhibition I saw at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts was called “Styles of Resistance: From the Corner to the Catwalk,” and looked at African American street fashion from the 1980s until roughly today. Given the tiny space, the show was necessarily a very, very, very broad overview of hip hop fashion, along with associated art, personalities, and protest. Very multimedia, it went beyond clothes to include video, paintings, photographs, a couple of sculptures or assemblages, and t-shirts.
One thing that puzzled me about the show was the mannequins, many of which were beat-up and decidedly the wrong color. I suppose it was a curatorial nod to a makeshift, repurposing ethos.
Words on a Wall
In reviewing nearly 200 museums for this project I honestly thought I’d seen it all in museums, But I don’t believe I’ve been to another museum that features hand-written wall texts. It was surprising how personal I found it. Given how much I have thought about wall texts in the course of my museum adventure, it was refreshing to see a different approach.
On the other hand, the handwritten texts meant there weren’t many texts at all, which left me lost. On the positive side, I’m open to an exhibition that errs on the side of showing not telling. But as someone who doesn’t know much about hip hop fashion or its role in African American political and cultural discourse I felt lost.
Other good stuff
I really appreciated the exhibition soundtrack – a compilation of hip hop and news broadcasts that ranged from agita over hoodies to 9/11 to the election of Barack Obama. It effectively established a mood and contextualized the works on display.
I did not see a single “do not touch” sign in the whole space. Not that I think touching was encouraged. But, as with the handwritten signage, it reinforced the sort of intimacy MoCADA encourages with the subject it covers and the objects it displays.
And I liked some aspects of the makeshift space. Wall panels mounted on wheels and hinges could swing out from the walls of the room to flexibly define or redefine the space as needed–a clever touch.
The Reach and the Grasp
Alas, Styles of Resistance had a reach that far exceeded its grasp. The Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts’s small space severely limits what it can—or should—do. It might have pulled off a show on the origins of hip hop fashion. Trying to cover from the 1980s to the present required that it ignore and omit much. I saw some sample outfits, and some good fashion photography, but I don’t know much more than I did before my visit. It made me long for a place like the thoughtful, super-comprehensive Museum at FIT to cover this topic.
The museum’s limited space and resources also meant it ducked some of the things that this topic needs to address. For example, it’s hard to think about African American fashion or culture without talking about influences or appropriation.
There was a kimono by Studio 189 included among the garments on display. Why a kimono? And is that okay? The exhibit made me think about that, but it certainly didn’t give me context or information or a point of view. Similarly, it had nothing to say about white designers borrowing from street fashion — nor street fashion’s love of high-end designer logos and labels.
I left wanting more.
Should you visit the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts?
MoCADA has a distinct voice to it, but at the moment a very small space. It also feels like it has a shoestring budget. If you are completest visiting all the African-American-focused museums in the City, by all means go. If you like your museums scrappy then it should also be on your list.
But I’m not sure. It’s scrappy, but possibly too scrappy?
Of the African-American-focused museums of New York City, the Studio Museum in Harlem, Louis Armstrong House, Lewis Lattimer House, the Schomburg Center, Weeksville Heritage Center, and the somber African Burial Ground are all more must-visit institutions than this.
That may change. MoCADA is set to move to a fancy new space in a fancy new building in the near future. Gentrification silver lining or a co-opting of a community institution by wealthy real estate forces? You decide. This museum covers an important topic, though I don’t expect it will ever compete with better established institutions with similar mission statements. For now I wouldn’t recommend MoCADA unless you’ve got a very pressing reason to see the place or a specific show there.
|Address||80 Hanson Place, Brooklyn|
|Cost||General Admission: $8|
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