A museum of understanding

The Mariposa Museum and World Culture Center shares African American history and culture.


When is a museum more than a museum? When it’s Oak Bluffs’ Mariposa Museum and World Culture Center, which is a welcoming, light-filled space brimming with art expressions of many kinds. The museum was established to foster an understanding of African American and African diaspora history, culture, and experience through the creativity of primarily Black artists, scholars, storytellers, and activists. Mariposa was envisioned not just as an art space but as a museum of human understanding, which through art and other forms of expression encourages understanding, equity, and an interconnected, inclusive community. The museum, now in its fourth year, has an affiliate in Peterborough, N.H., that was established in 2002.

When you first walk in, there is an alluring gift shop currently filled with work from approximately two dozen artists from the Vineyard and elsewhere. In the main gallery, until mid-October, is a powerful exhibition by Senegalese photographer Omar Victor Diop, who takes on both the role of the creator and his subject, using alluring African textiles to fashion beautiful costumes that transform him into significant people in African and African diaspora history. As one of the many helpful explanatory wall labels says of his work, “The result is stunning visual theater in line with the West African studio photography tradition.” It is divided up into three different series: Diaspora, Liberty, and Allegoria. The resulting large-scale photographs are breathtaking in the intensity of their saturated colors, so that the textiles and backdrops seem to pop, and look almost painted.

For Diaspora, Diop researched images of African leaders from the 15th through the 19th centuries whose inspiring lives were left out of the historical narratives. The museum’s executive director, Karla Hostetler, says, “He has chosen African people over the five centuries who left the continent, usually because of slavery, and gone on to distinguish themselves in a new culture.” Diop challenges us to think about the expansion of identity when moving to a new place. It also encourages reflection on the meaning of diaspora — people whose lives are rooted in Africa, but become inextricably entwined with other cultures. “I would have liked to learn something about Jean-Baptiste Belley, Frederick Douglass, or Don Miguel de Castro. [The series is] a way of focusing our attention on the energy Africans have shown and the impact they have had and can still have on others,” Diop wrote.

The second series of arresting portraits is Liberty, which looks at men and women who sparked liberation movements around the world, and at pivotal moments defied oppression, and changed the course of history. Whether it’s the Black Panthers, siblings Nanny and Quao who were 18th century maroon leaders in Jamaica, or striking railroad workers in Senegal, Diop’s art reminds us of the violence in Black life through centuries around the world. And yet, as the wall label says, they “also reveal the perennial courage that advances the human journey towards freedom.”

In the third series, Allegoria, Diop takes on climate change, depicting figures enigmatically surrounded by species of flowers and animals that are destined to disappear or have done so already. Hostetler says, “He is asking the African continent what its position will be in the face of planetary challenges. There was slavery and oppression in different ways, and now he’s questioning, What will we do regarding the environment?”

Diop wrote, “I would like us to take a leading role in the worldwide environmental movement. The symbolic garden that surrounds my allegor[ies] know no borders, and might just as easily blend together the different parts of the planet as opposite elements or seasons. It’s up to the viewer to … work out the codes, values, and meanings concealed in a bee, a dodo, or a reed. What do you feel if you see a doe in a port setting, accompanied by seagulls, corals, and fish? The viewer is free to make his own interpretation, just as in a work of prophecy.”

Nestled in the museum are a few whimsical, intricate found-object sculptures by Kevin Sampson, who visits the Vineyard regularly. Growing up in a civil rights household and as a police officer in Scotch Plains, N.J., for 20 years, he gained a perspective on issues touching civil rights, social justice, and community awareness. After a number of tragedies, Sampson turned to art for healing. The wall label explains, “He understood intrinsically that everyday objects can retain the essence of those who touched them before, and that they have stories to tell beyond their surfaces. In his sculpture, found objects are archaeological elements that form a conceptual vocabulary of impermanence and memory.”

There is also a wonderful “Make Something Beautiful” art-making station for kids in which they can fashion their own found-object pieces. “It’s a space for kids to discover what art is all about and take a break from the beach,” Hostetler shares. “We are also offering programs with organizations, artists, scholars, or performers who want to connect with the community. It is very exciting to see people coming to Martha’s Vineyard specifically to visit the Mariposa. All of this fits our mission of serving as a cultural resource and catalyst for bringing people together.”

For more information on the Mariposa Museum, visit mariposamuseum.org.