"Westerners have been discovering African art for hundreds of years," says Roslyn A. Walker, the energetic director of the National Museum of African Art. "Maybe there's some rediscovery going on, too. In the 1960s many Africans gained independence, and that brought new attention to African culture and art. The Peace Corps brought a lot of young people to Africa, and some of them majored in various areas of African studies. More recently, the President's visit there got people interested again."
And if there was still any question of some not getting the message, her museum will soon take care of that. She is determined to open it up to those who haven't heard yet.
"I want to extend the museum into the larger world. I want our exhibits to relate to people's lives. African art certainly addresses all the events in the human life cycle."
I talked to her in her wonderfully cluttered office. (A huge table is covered with papers: she knows where everything is, but there is one unusual item, an x-ray of an African sculpture. X-rays, I learn, help determine the authenticity and value of objects — whether they've been broken and repaired or the wood has been recarved.) "Do Africans themselves appreciate what the museum has to offer?" I asked.
"African immigrants in the area? Oh yes! Take some of the African taxi drivers, for example."
There are a large number of them, as anyone who has been around Washington knows, and they come here from all over the African continent. "I take a lot of taxis," she said, "and I ask the drivers if they've been to the museum, and I get mixed responses. Some drivers are enthusiastic and some aren't: for some it's a reminder of a past they would rather forget. But others like to celebrate their Africanness. Those are the ones who give me a break on the taxi fare!" she laughed.
Actually, local Africans more or less take over the museum on occasion, and this is what happened last spring when a group of Yoruba immigrants performed a baby-naming ceremony and some 2,000 visitors attended. "It was a visual extravaganza, winding all through the building with dancing and everything. We also have invited the wives of African ambassadors to the museum and encouraged them to bring their children. We want them to consider this a little bit of Africa in the District of Columbia, a home away from home."
Walker plans to set up traveling exhibitions to go with other Smithsonian mobile shows. A display of photographs by Constance Stuart Larrabee, a British-born South African who left a remarkable body of work depicting scenes of life in and around Pretoria and Johannesburg, is slated to become the African museum's first traveling exhibition.
And she wants to service the classrooms with educational products.
"You mean in the Washington area?" I said, like a fool. She gave me a look. "Around the world! Why not? Certainly around the country. I don't mean artifacts, but educational materials — slide kits, CD-ROMs, or whatever current technological mediums can help teachers teach African arts and culture."