The word sankofa means to "return and collect it" in the West African Akan language. It is also part of a popular West African proverb which serves as a reminder of the importance of looking to one’s past to build a successful future.
The California African American Museum (CAAM), located on the eastern end of Exposition Park in Downtown L.A., seems inspired by this motto. CAAM is a connecting agent - from historical context to contemporary art and healthy community dialogue to shape a positive future. The 44,000 square-foot complex is situated in one of L.A.’s most diverse neighborhoods, a block south of the University of Southern California (USC). Across the street from the Metro Expo Line stop, the sweet fragrance of the historic Exposition Park Rose Garden makes the short walk past the renowned California Science Center and Natural History Museum most enjoyable.
CAAM’s new facilities opened its doors to visitors during the 1984 Summer Olympics, a time when the world came together to celebrate cultural diversity and common goals. The glass ceiling lobby of the CAAM, where the abundant California sunshine fills the space, creates a warm welcome for everyone who walks through its doors. Large white walls make for the perfect floor-to-ceiling exhibition space, which is filled with a rotating collection entitled the Courtyard Series. “We get to play,” says Visual Arts Curator Vida Brown with a bright smile. Visitors are immediately encouraged by the friendly museum staff to explore the courtyard’s art offerings. From Women’s Hands portrays the art of five artists, all women of color, whose work is inspired by different aspects of the female experience in society. The fragile looking metal knit dresses by Kristine Mays look almost liquid from a distance, but as one steps closer the rigid-metal links begin to speak of strength and a solid identity.
CAAM is all about the individual without losing sight of the bigger picture. While the courtyard space serves to showcase single pieces by multiple artists in all formats - sculpture, murals and wall-mounted installations - CAAM also hosts a large part of the art collection from the historic Golden State Mutual Life Insurance building, a distinct piece of L.A. architecture designed by acclaimed architect Paul R. Williams.
Three full-sized gallery spaces house carefully curated shows by established as well as up-and-coming artists. “We are mainly focused on African American art in Los Angeles and from the West Coast. However, we look to making connections to all places - the East Coast, the Caribbean and the African diaspora.” says Brown. Emerging and established artists are on exhibit year-round at CAAM, a place that has become known as a point of artistic departure and rediscovery. For a recent project, CAAM collaborated with top students from the nearby USC Roski School of Art and Design to develop the next big African American graphic designer from the program. “I always want to hear about somebody new,” says Brown.
CAAM’s curatorial vision is to build bridges between communities and generations. History buffs - students and visiting scholars - can delve deep into the research library stacks housed on the premises. In a program spearheaded by library staff and prolific arts journalists, CAAM invites its tech-savvy audience in for Wikipedia edit-a-thon sessions, where participants use library resources to edit and create Wikipedia pages for African American visual artists. At a “Blueprint Roundtable,” four African American males - a fire captain, an artist, an ex-inmate and a right-wing supporter - sat across four male youngsters to exchange experiences and ideas. Panels like this one, as well as the regularly scheduled open board meetings are meant to serve as a sounding board for discussion of present hot topic items in the community. The goal is to stimulate thought, action and interaction.
“Art is highly subjective. People bring their own thoughts into the viewing experience and they get emotional about it,” says Brown. “I love that.”