Thursday, November 8, 2012

New Orleans African American Museum

Fig. 1  New Orleans African American Museum
While in New Orleans for a weekend trip, I discovered the New Orleans African American Museum (NOAAM).  It is a beautifully restored, culturally rich venue located in Tremé Villa, the most historic Black neighborhood in America (fig. 1).  The museum, originally built in 1828, is housed in five buildings on what was once a plantation.  Its architecture is that of old world Creole Villa, and much of its original decorative details remain today.  NOAAM provides an enlightening and enjoyable learning experience about the art, culture and history of African Americans in this region.  During my trip to NOAAM, I gained an appreciation for and knowledge of information about African American sculpture, painting, head dresses, textiles, utility objects, ironwork and other media.  I also discovered the exciting world of jazz.

Fig. 2  NOAAM outdoor mural
 As I toured the facilities, I was impressed by the tranquil, landscaped gardens, welcoming gazebo and brick-lined courtyards.  I was also drawn to the vibrant, colorful outdoor mural that captivated me as I walked between buildings (fig. 2).  Dedicated to the community, NOAAM showcases the artwork of both established and emerging artists.  Its exhibitions change throughout the year, but there are typically several on display during a given time frame.

Fig. 3  NOAAM, banner
The mission of the New Orleans African American Museum is "to preserve, interpret and promote the African American cultural heritage of New Orleans, with a particular emphasis on the Tremé community" (NOAAM, 2012).  There are currently two temporary exhibits on display at the museum: Bambara: From Mali Africa to French Colonial America and Drapetomania: A Disease called Freedom.

The Bambara exhibit presents "an aesthetically significant historical and educational investigation of the ethnic origins of the earliest Africans (Bambara, Wolof and Mandingo) brought to Louisiana... The exhibition focuses on the culture and traditions of those captives brought to Louisiana on slave ships between 1719 and 1743 during the French Colonial Period" (NOAAM, 2012).  Artifacts, maps and historical records (ship and cargo) of the 25 slave ships that made the voyage from the west coast of Africa to Louisiana are displayed in the exhibit (fig. 3).  Additionally, objects such as ritual African art and clothing are showcased which reflect the cultural, scientific and spiritual heritage of these African groups.

Fig. 4  iron alter (asen)
One of the galleries houses a special exhibition,  Creolizing Currents: Bambara in French Colonial Louisiana, 1719-1763, which includes "objects of African art loaned from the collections of the Robbins Center, Asif Shaikh, Gilbert Jackson, and David Ackley, Rand Cheadle, and Mona Gavigan and Kitten and Mark Grote of New Orleans" (NOAAM, 2012).  The artifacts in this exhibit illustrate the African presence in French colonial Louisiana and document the continuity of African heritage in early Louisiana.

Fig. 5 mother and child
Some of the objects I found most interesting were the iron alters, wooden sculptures and door locks.  The iron alters asen (fig. 4) were made to commemorate significant figures in the community after their death.  Typically, the main figure was shown seated as a sign of importance, while the other figures had shaved heads to depict mourning. Animal figures would often have been included in iron alters asen to signify "sacrifice, food and ancestors" (NAOOM, 2012). 

Fig. 6  door locks
I found the wooden sculptures to be intriguing as they provided a window into the cultural beliefs of the Bambara people.  The mother and child sculpture (fig. 5), for example, was a fertility symbol that was linked to an annual celebration held to ensure that women would be blessed with many children.  Notice how the mother figure is elongated, representing her strength and power as a woman.  Her eyes are gazed downward toward her child, symbolizing her devotion to and importance in the life of her child.

The beautifully carved door locks (fig. 6) paired both form and function.  The locks, made from both wood and metal, often depicted animal or human forms.  Each lock "reflected religious beliefs or legends of the community" (NAOOM, 2012).  What I found most fascinating, was that the door locks were used to prohibit entrance into homes by evil spirits as well as evil persons.  If you're in New Orleans and looking for a unique and culturally enriching experience, I'd suggest a visit to the New Orleans African American Museum.  This is a rewarding trip for the entire family.  Click here to learn more about NOAAM.

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