April 21, 2013

Bob Keyes: Future brightens for African center

PORTLAND -- Oscar Mokeme will still ask for money to help support what used to be known as the Museum of African Culture on Brown Street in Portland.

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Oscar Mokeme

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And it will still be important that you give, if you are so inclined. But Mokeme may have less urgency in his plea. Earlier this month, an anonymous supporter paid off the museum's mortgage.

It's a gift that amounts to about $120,000.

"We've always struggled to pay our mortgage, so this person stepped in to pay the bank off and help us settle so we can move ahead with a strategic plan," Mokeme said. "Now we can say, this place isn't going anywhere anytime soon."

It's also going to be very different going forward. On Thursday night, the museum formally changed its name. It now will be known as the African Center for Sacred Arts: Where Healing Begins.

The name recognizes the museum is much more than a museum. It has operated on Brown Street for about six years, and continues to seek a larger audience in Portland's competitive gallery scene.

It opened at another location in 1998, ostensibly to house and manage Mokeme's extensive personal collection of African masks used in rites of passage, funerals, marriages, festivals and the veneration of ancestors.

Lately, the museum has hosted rotating art exhibitions. On view currently is "Lines Converge, Colors Dance," featuring the work of three African-American illustrators who happen to live in Maine.

The show, with the work of Daniel Minter, Ashley Bryan and Rohan Henry, has been popular. People have sought it out, and Mokeme said some 2,000 people turned out during First Friday.

He hopes, with the mortgage now paid off, to spend more time thinking about programming and less time worrying about money.

To be sure, one of his first goals is to raise enough money to pay back the donor. But most important, he has assembled a small committee of community members to do strategic planning for the center. The name change is the first outward sign of the changes to come, committee members said.

Among those offering input is longtime Portland arts supporter Barbara Goodbody.

"The museum is a real treasure in New England," Goodbody said. "A lot of museums have pieces in their collection about African culture, but nothing can compare to what Oscar has created. I would like to see it preserved, and I would like to see Oscar to be able to continue to flourish."

She's known Mokeme a number of years, and known him well since they collaborated on a Haitian art show last year. She approached him about hosting an exhibition of work from her small, private collection, which she gathered during trips to Haiti over the years.

"I suggested he have an exhibition of Haitian art. Every child in the state of Maine knows about the Haitian earthquake. But they do not know about Haitian traditions," Goodbody said.

Mokeme said yes to her proposal, and the show was a hit, with many parties, Haitian food and cultural exchanges.

"Many of the people I know who came to the show had never heard of the museum before, or not visited it," she said.

Betsey Andersen, another supporter helping the African center with its work, prefers thinking of the institution more as a sanctuary or sacred art space than a museum. She sees it as a place of healing, and Mokeme as a spiritual man.

"It would be a shame if it did not last," she said. "Part of our challenge is that many people in Portland doesn't even know it's there."

The African center is just off Congress Street near Monument Square. But Brown Street is an easy-to-miss side street.

The committee's job will be to help make the center known as a destination, to re-imagine it from Mokeme's original vision into something sustainable 20 or 30 years from now.

"Our job will be to answer the question: What does the community want the museum to be going forward?" Mokeme said.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

bkeyes@pressherald.com

Twitter: pphbkeyes

 

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