Museum of African Art Presents First "African Underground" To Sold Out Crowd

2/24/2011, 12:35 a.m.
The inaugural crowd of more than 900, came out to the National...
The crowd danced to the samba beat and created works of art during the National Museum of African Art's first ever "Africa Under-ground" / Photo by Roy Lewis

The inaugural crowd of more than 900, came out to the National Museum of African Art's first ever "Africa Underground" on Fri., Feb. 18 and danced the night away to samba. Although this was not the Smithsonian museum's initial foray into the world of after-hours activities, preceded by the Sackler and Freer Galleries' "Asia After Dark" and the Hirshorn Muse-um's late night soirees, it was a first for the underground museum dedicated to the art of Africa and the Diaspora.

The event was centered around the exhibition "Artists in Dialogue 2: Sandile Zulu and Henrique Oliveira."

The two artists; one from Johannesburg, South Africa and the other from Sao Paolo, Brazil, created an installation in which the two artists play off each other in form and media, both using wood as the base for their creations, which are on view through Dec 2011.

"There are many ways to gauge success and we could have said we sold out days ago," said Johnetta B. Cole, the new director of the National Museum of African Art, "but when people are scalping tickets to Africa Underground on Craig's List, it says we are doing something that is very authentic," said Cole, who was president of Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia and also Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C.

Cole assumed the leadership position at the Smithsonian Museum in March 2009 and has been redefining the parame-ters of the Museum of African Art, which once just displayed traditional and contemporary African art, to embrace the Diaspora.

Speaking alongside members of her small staff of only 29 members, the 74-year-old Cole allowed curator, Karen Mil-bourne to elaborate on the exhibition, which allows two artists to engage each other in whatever way they see fit, using materials and forms that are both complementary and unique.
Zulu's work takes fire to wood, burning impressions into the material, while Oliveira built an installation of Tapumes wood from Brazil which had to be constructed inside the pristine white gallery.
"A lot of us have forgotten how to talk to each other," Milbourne said.

"But here in this museum we have an exhibition that is based on something as simple as communication. And that communication includes how we use our words to talk to one another, how we write to one another and how we create visions that go hand in hand with one another. And it's just going to be fun," she said.

On one level of the three-story building, which extends deep into the earth, people could eat, drink and mingle after en-tering the underground complex, which also contains the Sackler Gallery of Asian Art.

On the next level down, a dance floor was installed, and opening the floor with their own dancers, DJs
Adrian Loving and Munch spun Afrobeat, Soukous and Brazilian house music. Next, Zezeh Brazilian Samba, also from Sao Paolo, demonstrated the rapid footwork and hip syncopation of authentic Brazilian samba, complete with Carnival costuming.

"The extraordinary thing about being in a relationship with this continent, Africa, is that it takes you into the Diaspora, and into the world," Cole added with enthusiasm.

"It is a hallelujah chorus about a place that every single human being ought to be attached to. It's about helping folk to not only rethink about how they think about Africa, but to sing about it. Unless I am really wrong, Africa Underground is about to be over the top," Cole said.

Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole, Director of the National Museum of African Art, discusses her hopes that the "Africa Underground" series at the museum will have a major impact on the local community. / Photo by Roy Lewis