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the Museum of the African Diaspora

Photo by @ajaoneandonly on Instagram.

The Museum of the African Diaspora is in San Francisco, walking distance from Montgomery Street BART. It’s housed in a relatively small building, dwarfed by the nearby Asian Art Museum. Because MoAD is diminutive, the atmosphere is intimate, offering an overall manageable experience. Personally, I’m prone to museum fatigue, meaning that I get overwhelmed by the multitude of rooms full of beautiful culture that I ought to look at. Sometimes one exhibit will be exhausting all on its own! That problem doesn’t arise at the Museum of the African Diaspora.

Visiting MoAD is like savoring a tiny-but-exquisite chocolate truffle instead of gobbling a full-size candy bar.

This weekend my boyfriend and I set out from Oakland to explore San Francisco, starting with MoAD, where we paid the reasonable entry price of $10 each (discounted rates for students are available). I expected the art to focus on Black experiences, because duh, but I was pleasantly surprised that all three of the main exhibits featured women artists. The art world is often terrible at making space for women, as demonstrated by Gallery Tally, a blog targeting the institutional misogyny of various specific galleries.

poster by Yvette Gellis for Gallery Tally, promoting gender equity in the arts

Poster by Yvette Gellis for Gallery Tally.

I was pleased to wander past drawings, paintings, and sculptures by talented women with surprising visions.

artwork by Elizabeth Catlett

Artwork by Elizabeth Catlett.

The late Elizabeth Catlett is “best known for [creating] politically charged, black expressionistic sculptures and prints” during the ’60s and ’70s. Marie Johnson Calloway draws inspiration from “her family and the Bay Area, [representing] the rhythm and spirituality of Black life through color.” However, the artist who really grabbed me was Lava Thomas. She makes soft, organ-like sculptures that resemble lungs, breasts, even testicles — take your pick.

Beyond, art exhibit by Lava Thomas

The exhibit Beyond by Lava Thomas.

detail of the sculpture Hysterectomy by Lava Thomas

Detail of Hysterectomy by Lava Thomas.

hair art by Lava Thomas

Artwork, Mother, by Lava Thomas.

Thomas also works with hair; my boyfriend thought those piece were unsettling, even creepy. I agreed, but I would add “gorgeous” to the list. In the essay “A Brief History Of Human Hair Art”, Kathy Kelleher wrote:

“When it’s attached to a head, people have no problem touching [hair]. But once it’s removed from its source it becomes at best a nuisance for vacuum cleaners and at worst a viscerally repulsive object that causes waitresses to lose their tips and diners to lose their shit.”

In my view, that’s why hair is fascinating. First it’s a symbol of feminine beauty, then it’s a relic of our mortality, which makes us cringe. (I won’t touch the topic of Black women’s hair, although it’s obviously relevant, because I’m not qualified to discuss it.)

hair art by Lava Thomas

Artwork, Lavialle (Dread), by Lava Thomas.

I wanted to stroke and grab all of Thomas’ pieces. Obviously I didn’t, because I’m not a five-year-old. I know museum rules! (If only I had plausible deniability like a little kid…) It’s difficult to explain why certain art particularly moves me, but I’ll try:

Lava Thomas treats body parts as malleable symbols, physical shapes both intricate and simple that she reiterates and transforms in her work.

As I contemplate Thomas’ art, I feel hyper-aware of my own body.

artist Lava Thomas

Lava Thomas at the Beyond opening.

The best art makes you think. You read a wonderful book and find yourself in one of the characters. You glance at a sculpture and have a gut-punch reaction because it looks like a calcified organ. You can’t put your finger on why, but your emotions are visceral and undeniable. Maybe the way it changes you is small, but you’ll never be the same.

Lava Thomas makes me think and feel in this intense way. Of course, art is subjective. You may not find Thomas’ work compelling. Regardless, you should visit the Museum of the African Diaspora. Look how sweet they are:

the Museum of the African Diaspora on Twitter

Photo via @MoADsf on Twitter.

Museum of the African Diaspora

685 Mission Street (at Third)
San Francisco, California 94105

Monday – TuesdayCLOSED
Wednesday – Saturday11 am – 6 pm
Sunday12 pm – 5 pm


General Admission $10
Students/Seniors $5
MoAD MembersFREE
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Sonya Mann tippity-tap-types on her computer, walks a dog named Button, and voraciously consumes media of all types. She enjoys making zines and wishes she knew more about gardening.

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