By LOLA OGUNNAIKE
Published: March 28, 2007
Six years ago, when Laurie Cumbo founded Mocada, a museum that showcases the works of black artists across the diaspora, it was housed on the fourth floor of a church-owned brownstone in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Space was scarce — 800 square feet — and resources more so. “It was literally mom and pop,” Ms. Cumbo, 31, recalled. “My family stuffing envelopes, picking up art, hanging things up.” And the building was a walk-up, which meant “lots of huffing and puffing,” she added.
Mocada (Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts) has gained ground since those early days. The museum moved downtown to Brooklyn’s trendy Fort Greene area last year and is currently housed in a 1,700-square-foot, ground-floor space at the James E. Davis Arts Building, where its neighbors include Bomb, the art and culture quarterly, and the New York Writers Coalition.
New digs and a higher-profile space have in no way altered the museum’s mission: to give artists of color a place to shine. “If we are to assume that talent is equally distributed among the races, then why are there so many black artists that are not written about?” Ms. Cumbo asked. “Why has their talent been overlooked or marginalized? I wanted to start something so these artists’ work could be documented, catalogued, preserved and ultimately celebrated.”
Over the years, Mocada has featured works from renowned artists like Wangechi Mutu and Kehinde Wiley and their more obscure peers like Dwayne Rodgers. And it has mounted exhibitions on hot-button issues like AIDS, abortion and police brutality, each with a different curator in an effort to keep the perspective fresh. Its current show, “Postmillennial Black Madonna,” which runs through May 13, explores various interpretations of the Virgin Mary in modern society. “French Evolution,” which begins in June, will examine the 2005 riots in France.
“They have created quite a buzz,” said Isolde Brielmaier, a Vassar art history professor. “People come knowing that they’re going to see art that is relevant to them and relevant to the community. There’s nothing like it in Brooklyn.”
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Ms. Cumbo, after answering phones, working at the gift shop and enjoying a spirited debate about Condoleezza Rice, made her way through the “Black Madonna” exhibition, which was filled with works by artists like Sanford Biggers, Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz and Xaviera Simmons.
Dressed in low-rise jeans with buckles at the ankle, a bright turquoise jacket and matching blouse, she looked nothing like the typical Jill Stuart-sporting doyennes that tend to populate the Manhattan art world. She plays against type in other ways as well. You won’t find her hobnobbing at Chelsea gallery openings or mixing it up with the Upper East Side elite at black-tie museum galas.
“The Manhattan art scene hasn’t come to my Brooklyn,” she said. “I haven’t seen the Whitney or Guggenheim director come to my space, so I guess I find them as relevant as they find me.”
Danny Simmons, an artist and a curator of “Black Madonna,” called Ms. Cumbo a maverick. “She definitely didn’t come up through the art ranks,” he said. “She’s a real self-made person.”
That outsider spirit is reflected in her museum, said Mickalene Thomas, a Brooklyn-based painter. “She has no problem featuring people that you may never have heard of,” she said. “It’s not about the usual suspects.” Mocada, she added, is more than just a gallery space. “It’s a meeting ground for conversation. With all of her shows she puts together panels and invites people to actively discuss and explore new ideas.”
Born and raised in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, Ms. Cumbo was introduced to the arts early in life. Her mother was once an opera singer; her father dabbled in mixed media arts, and in the ’90s, her older brother, a photographer, ran his own TriBeCa art gallery, Thoughtforms, which quickly became the clubhouse for a number of the city’s black artists. She studied art history at Spelman College in Atlanta and gave tours of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art. “That’s where the seeds for having my own museum were planted,” said Ms. Cumbo, who went on to receive a master’s degree in visual arts administration from New York University.
She remains optimistic, dreaming of building a larger institution that will house a permanent collection. She spoke of “Middle Passage: White Ships, Black Cargo,” an exhibition of the black and white drawings of Tom Feelings, a Brooklyn-born artist, whose work was shown at Mocada last winter. The arresting images are of slaves being beaten, raped, chained together, committing suicide. “Seeing that work for five months really reminded me of the sacrifices of my ancestors,” she said, “so I look at the museum as something that I’m doing on behalf of them.”