LOS ANGELES-Sometimes new is good. Change is good. Everything is new at the California African American Museum (CAAM). That’s not a bad thing. There are new exhibits. The deputy director of Exhibitions and Programs has less than a year under her belt at the museum.
The man who hired Naima Keith to run things, George O. Davis, arrived at CAAM as its new executive director only a short time before her. Add all of that up and what you have is a complete overall in the way things are being done at CAAM.
Contemporary art is the wave these days, and both Keith and Davis are focused on keeping up with the times as it pertains to the arts and how it is presented. Of course, they’ll make sure the history part remain a big part of their displays.
But by and large, Keith and Davis want to usher in a new look CAAM with modern and contemporary art that will continue to illuminate African American culture, both in the past and in the present.
With the exception of the powerful “Politics, Race, and Propaganda: The Nazi Olympics, Berlin 1936,” showcase, the onslaught of new exhibits that were presented to the public in October during a lavish grand opening, highlights Keith’s and Davis’ new vision for CAAM.
“The Ease of Fiction” and “Genevieve Gaignard: Smell the Roses” are two exhibitions part of that vision. Another exhibition of worthy note is “Hank Willis Thomas: Black Righteous Space.” Keith and Davis could not be happier with the new-look CAAM.
“We could do Selma exhibits and exhibits people my age would like…we’re trying to balance out the historical museum, the people that worked hard to make this happen, along with the people…we need to put this museum in place where it’s relevant for my kids and my grandchildren in the future,” Davis said.
For Keith, a known curator who came to CAAM after spending time working at the Studio Museum in Harlem before she took her current gig at CAAM, this is almost like a dream come true for her.
“I am beyond exited; I’m thrilled,” Keith said. “As an Angeleno, I grew up coming to CAAM, and my mom has been involved with CAAM since I was a young child. She would bring me here as young as my daughter is now. I’ve grown up around all the exhibitions. I grew up admiring the work and the artists on view. When I joined the team nine months ago, I knew that…I was honored to be able to contribute to this important legacy. I’m really thrilled to be opening so many shows.”
Gaignard, who is biracial, uses her artist platform to tap into the consciousness of race, class and femininity to tell a story of a person fading into societal abyss because of her racial makeup through the “Genevieve Gaignard: Smell the Roses” exhibit.
“It’s amazing… as a biracial woman feeling often put into one particular box and always wanting to be embraced and pursue that side of myself and embrace my black identity. This has really given me a stage to kind of show everyone,” Gaignard said. “It has been quite a journey. I think I just listened to what others were telling me for so long, but I always felt not like whole with that answer of that feeling. It wasn’t until I was at graduate school at Yale, and I was around a community of young black artists and I saw them talking about their identities and pointing out these very specifics concerns they had. I had these concerns, too. They kind of gave me the freedom to navigate that thing for me.”
Navigating peace, freedom and chaos was something the world was faced with when it came to Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. The oppressive regime of Hitler and Nazi Germany was on full display as the 1936 Olympics took place with the international family watching.
The vivid images that come to mind when you think about the 1936 Summer Olympics serve as metaphors to the pathway to history. Those visuals include American star Jesse Owens running and jumping his way to four gold medals amid the backdrop of the totalitarian rule by Hitler.
That bit of history have come calling to Los Angeles in the form of the touring exhibit “Politics, Race, and Propaganda: The Nazi Olympics, Berlin 1936,” which is sponsored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The expanded exhibition, which received a careful walkthrough from Olympian Reynaldo “Ray” Brown, is more than worth the trip to go see.
It is a stunning recollection of images, audio and video presentation that tells the story of how Hitler and his dictatorship flunkies presented an illusion of inclusion to the world during the Games. What this exhibit does extremely well is tell the whole story.
There is the proposed boycott by the United States to not participate in the Summer Games because of the iron hand of Hitler and Germany’s noted violent and discriminatory practices against Jews.
Despite America’s own hypocrisy as it pertained to its racist treatment towards African Americans, the decision to boycott or not boycott, came down to a narrow vote in favor for the athletes to participate in the Olympics.
The chaotic events leading up to the 1936 Summer Games, the athletic heroics of Owens and others like Ralph Metcalfe and Mack Robinson, and the aftermath of what transpired, all of this is highlighted gloriously in “Politics, Race, and Propaganda: The Nazi Olympics, Berlin 1936.”
Tim Kaiser, who moderated the “Politics, Race, and Propaganda: The Nazi Olympics, Berlin 1936” exhibit during the October 19 opening at CAAM, said the debate to boycott became contentious.
“That was a big debate,” said Kaiser. “On one hand, the one argument to go ahead, was to say that these are kids. They’re athletes. They’re not politicians. Let them do their own thing, let them focus on the sport. Of course, they need to go. We’re never going to boycott. Why stand in the way of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? That’s on one hand, because politics should never be involved in sport.”
Kaiser explained the flip side of that argument.
“On the other hand, people recognized that the politics of sport was being used by the politicians for a particular end,” Kaiser added. “So there were athletes in Germany who were not allowed to participate because they were Jewish. So if you really wanted to have fair play, you should just have the best people, irrespective of race or creed, whatever, (they) should be allowed to play. So that was really the debate that went on in the United States.”