Oak Bluffs has long been known for its rich history, specifically when it comes to African American culture. This is the legacy that Mariposa Museum hopes to emphasize with its newest exhibit, “Freedom Songs!”
Mariposa Museum may be new to Oak Bluffs, having just opened on Circuit Ave. last year, but its story didn’t start on the Island. The museum first opened its doors in 2002, in Peterborough, N.H. “It was founded as a museum of human understanding, and as a museum of world cultures both outside and inside U.S. borders,” said exhibit curator and museum executive director Karla Hostetler.
The Oak Bluffs location’s first exhibit came in 2019 with “And Still We Rise.” The exhibit brought focus to African American history through story quilts, created by the Women of Color Quilter’s Network. “Each one is created by a different American, black, woman artist, who chose a theme or topic and interpreted it in her own way,” Hostetler said.
According to Hostetler, “And Still We Rise” brought in around 6,000 visitors throughout the summer of 2019. With such high attendance, Hostetler was assured that Mariposa Museum could (and should) return to Oak Bluffs this summer, with new artwork and history to share.
“The space is dedicated to understanding the American experience through a lens of diversity. So right now we’re focused on African American history, but the sky’s the limit going forward,” Hostetler said.
“Freedom Songs!” takes inspiration from “And Still We Rise,” acting as a platform for African American culture. Selected quilts from last year’s exhibit have returned, and will be displayed in the museum as a final stop on their current countrywide tour.
New works include the intricate sculptures of civil rights activist Kevin Sampson, and block prints by Maine artist Ashley Bryan, who recently celebrated his 103rd birthday.
“He was inspired by medieval ages, when people would carry block prints of psalms around with them as protection against the plague,” Hostetler said of Bryan’s “Block Prints of Black American Spirituals.” Each print is juxtaposed with the song which inspired it, composed and once sung by enslaved African Americans. “He really wanted to honor the genius of the people who wrote these spirituals, who were slaves, and interpret them visually,” Hostetler said.
These three main artists and their individual artworks come together to reveal a completed picture of “Freedom Songs!”
“We usually try to tell a story through the art, so it’s not just, ‘This is a show of an artist.’ We’re trying to convey a story or evoke an emotion,” Hostetler said.
Moving forward, Hostetler aims to offer a more immersive experience at Mariposa Museum. “Right now this is an exhibit space, and our hope is that it becomes more of an education space, and when we’re not in a pandemic, that we can have programs and presentations,” Hostetler said.
Though such programs can’t make an appearance yet, the museum has found one way to make its artwork interactive. From July 11 to 19, a small sign in the museum’s foyer invited visitors to experience the “Freedom Songs!” exhibit, and afterward, to take a walk across the street.
Between these dates, featured artist Kevin Sampson could be found working on his latest sculpture, in Oak Bluffs’ Union Chapel. The sculpture, titled “The Legend of the Flying Africans,” is named for an African American legend that illustrates the freeing of slaves.
The finished piece is now on display at the Carnegie in Edgartown. It is composed entirely of found and donated objects, including a preserved boat lent to Sampson by the Mariposa Museum. Prior to its completion, visitors were encouraged to drop off materials of their own outside Union Chapel, which Sampson then incorporated into the sculpture. “We’ve been running around the Island, picking up stuff when we see it,” Sampson said.
“A lot of these objects I’ve had in my house for 70, 40 years,” Sampson said, gesturing to the sculpture’s many elements. “That horse I’ve had 30 years, and when I get back home, I’ll hang it back on my ceiling, and when I need it I’ll bring it out again.”
According to Sampson, inspiration for “The Legend of the Flying Africans” comes not just from folklore, but from present-day events, including the Black Lives Matter movement. “The world’s blowing up. I’m almost 70, so I’ve lived through the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and all that stuff, and this is different,” Sampson said.
The sculptor’s life has been greatly influenced by each of these events, having been raised in a household with roots in civil rights. His home once acted as a gathering place for leaders of the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. “I’m a civil rights baby, it’s in my blood,” Sampson said.
In adulthood, Sampson went on to become a detective and composite sketch artist on the Newark, N.J., police force, making him the first African American to fill the role. Though he has since moved on from these positions, a thriving career in art has given Sampson a new form of expression.
Documented by photographer and Sampson’s longtime friend Cesar Melgar, Sampson spent this past week creating an awe-inspiring amalgamation of work in a town that he loves. “It’s such a historical place. It’s the perfect location,” Sampson said of Oak Bluffs. “I work here, and in the evenings I’ll start fishing. It’s the best of both worlds.”
Much like an exhibit of its own, “The Legend of the Flying Africans” uses many parts to tell a complex story; found objects, splashes of paint, carefully strung ropes, and gifts from the community — these items gain meaning when placed in the context of something larger.
Sampson had only one impossible request — that Mariposa Museum let him dismantle, hack at, and nail into the boat they’d lent him. Hostetler only shook her head at the sculptor with a smile. “It’s too pretty for me, I gotta find a way to make it ugly. I’ll work on it,” Sampson said.