Just works

Explore the African American experience through the arts at Mariposa Museum.


Just past the restaurants and shops on Circuit Ave. in Oak Bluffs, you can see the green and black sign of the Mariposa Museum. The museum’s exterior is unassuming, blending into the surrounding buildings.

Once inside, guests are greeted by Maddy Penalver, who is working her second summer at the museum. To the left is the gift shop, displaying books, art pieces, and quilts with African designs. Many of the quilts were made by members of Sisters In Stitches Joined By the Cloth, a group that expresses the African American experience through quilting. Jazz and soul music play in the otherwise quiet museum.

The museum’s current exhibit, “Clarion Call,” features the artwork of four artists, Danny Simmons, Imo Nse Imeh, Ashley Bryan, and Kevin Blythe Sampson. The building offers a simple setup: white walls with artists’ works hanging, with more pieces in the back room. The walls showcase paintings primarily, with Imeh’s figurative paintings and the abstract paintings of Simmons. Sampson’s found-object sculptures stand in the back room, accompanied by a painting by Simmons and a quilt by Marlene O’Bryant-Seabrook paying homage to Edward Kennedy (“Duke”) Ellington, called “His Royal Jazzness.” Sampson’s sculptures fuse natural and artificial objects, almost a portrayal of the interconnectedness between nature and the human world. The entrance to the back room also has the words “make something beautiful” at the top. Right outside the back room, a corner showcases Bryan’s puppets, one named “Seitu: Artist” and the other “Natambu: Man of Destiny.” Bryan’s woodblock prints hang next to the puppet display case above books he wrote, such as “Beautiful Blackbird.”

According to Karla Hostetler, executive director of the Mariposa Museum, the artworks displayed by the artists in the “Clarion Call” were a celebration of African Americans alongside a reminder of the struggles the community still faces today. The artists all have their own experiences of being a part of the African American experience, whether that be witnessing the civil rights movement or modern acts of racism. Bryan will be 98 this month, and witnessed the evolution of the social landscape of America. Simmons and Sampson grew up in households with parents who were active in the civil rights movement. Imeh witnessed explicit racism at the school where he teaches art and art history, Westfield State University, where hateful messages containing racial slurs vandalized students’ doors in 2017.

“Throughout my life, themes of equal justice and social equity have been a big part of who I am,” said Simmons. “Paintings reflect history.”

The majority of the “Clarion Call” exhibit consists of paintings by Simmons and Imeh. Simmons uses bright colors with circular and linear shapes to display oil on canvas abstract pieces. A few of the paintings are accompanied by his poems. Simmons said he was connecting African spiritualism and religion to his paintings, which are “lost to most of us [African Americans].” Simmons did acknowledge his themes are more accessible through writing, but each of his paintings contain a full story and has to be “felt.” Simmons said he is sure people recognize the “Africanness” of the paintings, but he is unsure whether people will see the spiritual aspects of them.

Imeh’s oil on canvas paintings are labeled “Angels of 17 Years Boy” and show various male figures in different positions, with splashes of colors and shapes. Imeh said the pieces used Trayvon Martin, who died at the age of 17, and 17 other African American boys who died similar deaths over the century as muses. Imeh said each figure he painted represented a “whole series of ideas, of considerations, of possibilities about Black bodies but also about the Black experience, about our history, and potentially about our future.”

This isn’t the first time “Angels of 17 Years Boy” was shown. Imeh presented “Angels of 17 Years Boy” in a 2017 exhibition at Westfield State University. After the racist incidents at the college, he felt he needed to do something out of the norm, such as protesting or marching, to grab the attention of those who truly needed to hear the messages against racism. Imeh spent 17 hours over four days painting a portrait of Trayvon and five other figures. At the end of the 17 hours, he abruptly destroyed the painting as a metaphor for how suddenly Trayvon’s life was taken. “It was a very emotional moment for me,” said Imeh.

Christy Vanderhoop, coordinator at the museum, said the exhibit was important for the Island’s African American community. Oak Bluffs has a “rich African American history,” but many parts of the community are being lost, such as the first African American church, which was destroyed in the past 10 years. The museum helps to preserve the history and stories of African Americans from their perspective instead of others, “who may not tell it the right way.”

“Growing up here, I never had a place like this where I could go learn about African American people and my history. The reason why I work so hard to make this successful is so other children in town can have a place like this to come to,” said Vanderhoop.

The artists use their works to tell their community’s stories, with inspiration coming from different places. Sampson lives in Newark, N.J., and he tries talking with those in the city, particularly about hopes and dreams, to use as his muses. Imeh uses his cultural background as a Nigerian American as one of his inspirations.

If you are in Oak Bluffs and can find a parking spot, make a visit to the Mariposa Museum. The “Clarion Call” exhibit provides insight to those active in the African American community who create art that challenges the minds of those who observe them. The exhibit is a response to issues the African American community faces. In particular, it provides for visitors a view through African American men’s eyes of the lost lives and traditions, alongside a celebration of the African American community’s roots and its successes.

Currently, the museum is open on a seasonal basis. Hostetler said, “Our goal is a space which will eventually be open year-round, and a place where people of all ages can explore American history and present-day experience through the lens of diversity and the creativity of (primarily) people of color — visual artists, storytellers, scholars, and others.”

The Mariposa Museum started in Peterborough, N.H., in 2002, and the Oak Bluffs location opened in 2019. The Mariposa Museum is open 11 am to 6 pm, Monday through Saturday, and closes at 5 pm on Sundays. The “Clarion Call” exhibit is scheduled to stay up until mid-October, with hopes to find ways to keep it open a while longer. Admissions are $10 for adults and free for children. Sampson plans to appear at the Mariposa on August 6, and Simmons and Imeh are scheduled to be at the museum on August 8. For more information about the “Clarion Call” exhibit, visit mariposamuseum.org/ob-exhibits-events.