'The African Presence in México'

A look at Anacostia Community Museum exhibit 'The African Presence in Mexico'

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 15, 2009

Telling stories that have largely been ignored: Such has the mission always been for the Anacostia Community Museum. Behind its doors, typically, are hidden treasures unearthed, tales hardly told, customs all but forgotten.

The raison d'etre of the small museum, part of the sprawling Smithsonian Institution family, remains the same, but as the Afro-Mexican faces just behind the lapis doors to the main gallery attest these days, its newest show is also a strong indication that the institution is evolving.

Witness its current exhibition, "The African Presence in México: From Yanga to the Present." It is a collaboration of six organizations, including art from the collection of the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, financial assistance from the Smithsonian Latino Center and program support from the Mexican Cultural Institute, both in Washington. The exhibition does have its roots firmly in Anacostia's long tradition of exploring racial identity -- through the prisms of everything from black churches to holidays and baseball teams.

Perhaps inevitably, however, priorities are beginning to shift, what with the National Museum of African American History and Culture scheduled to open in 2015. Ahead is a balancing act, as director Camille Giraud Akeju explained, sitting in the museum's conference room in Southeast Washington. She's been Anacostia's director since October 2005, and, besides moving ahead with the already-planned exhibition schedule, she has been wrestling with the museum's strategic position.

Her first day on the job brought a slight jolt. "In the van over here, someone asked me, 'Have you decided on a new name for the museum?' " she said, smiling about an issue of no small significance. The old names -- Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, the Anacostia Museum and the Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture -- didn't work for the new day. The consensus was that it should be called the Anacostia Community Museum. "We want to interpret the meaning of community, rather than ethnicity. We want to redefine community as issues that impact on urban communities and their direct impact on Anacostia," Akeju explained.

The Afro-Mexican show, which she signed up for after seeing it in Chicago, is what Akeju calls a "segue" to that realization. This is the first show done with cultural groups from the multifaceted Hispanic community, and it's Akeju's hope that expanding the museum's mission will expand its attendance figures as well. She hopes to tackle the isolation that has long affected the Anacostia neighborhood, as well as the museum.

"Location, location, location is our biggest issue, right up there with funding," Akeju said. The museum, founded 42 years ago, has an annual budget of $2.5 million and listed 38,963 visitors in 2008.

Alejandra de la Paz, director of the Mexican Cultural Institute, said the partnership will enhance both organizations. "We want to help them link in a more direct way to the Mexican community, those who are interested in Mexico and all our constituents," she said. The organization is helping with film programs, speakers and entertainers.

Her group will also benefit from the exposure, she said. "We have found a lot of people were not aware of the institute. It is a large city so we need to be moving around, and we want to diversify our audiences."

Like the other museums, the Anacostia has extensive public programs. "We will continue to provide a stage for dialogue and continue to do that no matter what the exhibit," Akeju said. On the drawing board for the museum is a show about rivers, beginning with the Anacostia River, that may also highlight other water-separated communities; another show will examine the relationships between Korean merchants and their African American customers.

In the meantime, Akeju is being extraordinarily mindful of her museum's reputation as a key institution east of the river. With regard to the current exhibition, she was especially worried about a panel that depicts lynching and has a central buffoonish figure. In a large 2005 painting by Chicano artist Alfred J. Quiroz, two people are hanging from trees, and between them is a light-skinned black person with big lips and a top hat. "Well, there is a pickaninny with blond hair and freckles. You could say what is going on here. I thought our traditional visitor would be offended," Akeju said. She created a flier to explain the imagery and symbolism in Quiroz's picture.

It's a sign of the times in Anacostia that the flier, not to mention all the exhibition's captions, are bilingual.

The African Presence in México: From Yanga to the Present

Through July 4 at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum, 1901 Fort Pl. SE. Call 202-633-4820 or visit http://anacostia.si.edu.

Read Philip Kennicott's review of this exhibition at http://washingtonpost.com/style.

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