Inside White Space: Portraits of Black and Brown Power in the Institution


of an Exhibition

by Maraya Cornell

Published on June 29, 2010, Modified on July 18, 2010

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    You probably wouldn’t expect the Museum of African American Art (MAAA) in Los Angeles to be housed in a shopping mall. And I don’t mean the kind of alternative “Anti-Mall” I happened upon the day before, where one wouldn’t be surprised to find a gallery of some kind. I mean the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, a regular old shopping mall with elevators and fake plants, those big shiny floor tiles, and no injunctions about living consciously. It’s curious enough that this museum is in such a mall, but check this out: It’s inside Macy’s. On the third floor. Way off in a corner. Behind the vacuum cleaners.

    However, when you think about it, the idea of putting a museum in a shopping mall — a place where people congregate — is kind of neat. It’s like bringing your museum to the people instead of asking them to come to you. And I’m given to understand that the Museum’s location in the mall was purposeful. Apparently, MAAA’s founder had this idea that the Museum should be inside not only a mall, but a department store, presumably because she really wanted the Museum to reach out to the community. From that standpoint, the Crenshaw Plaza is the perfect mall for the purpose. Unlike L.A.’s flashy destination malls, this one serves the immediate community; it has a post office and a place where you can buy Metro passes.

    Still, in order to visit the Museum, you must find the right corner of Macy’s third floor, on your own and without any directional signs, and then proceed down a long and featureless hall, which was doubtless originally designed to keep out the public, all the while wondering whether you’re about to stumble into the receiving department. The institutional double doors into the museum are another barrier. So is the scolding chime that sounds when you cross the threshold.

    If you do make it into the museum, there’s no shortage of friendliness from the staff, who welcome you jovially from behind what looks like a former gift-wrapping counter. Still, a casual visitor would be confused about what this place is, exactly. The gift shop, which you’re likely to encounter first, offers art that looks traditional and African. Yet the museum exhibits the work of local contemporary artists. And the exhibit space itself feels cold and stark compared to the lively activity of the entry area, as if the important part of the museum were the offices rather than the gallery.

    The current exhibition is “Inside White Space: Portraits of Black and Brown Power in the Institution,” photographs by Camilo Cruz. And I was pleased to see that here, the photographs were each given plenty of space — something I found sadly lacking on a recent visit to the Annenberg Space for Photography. There were no labels (the artist’s decision, I was told), just an artist’s statement, in English and Spanish, pasted to the wall. And really, there was no need for labels — the exhibition’s title provided enough of an explanation. These photographs were all of a type, all variations on the same message. People in uniforms or flashy suits or other identity-claiming outfits looked simultaneously despondent and triumphant next to marble walls, roman columns, conference tables, and potted ficus trees — as if they’d arrived, after a long climb, at the pinnacle of white America, only to find a lackluster emptiness.

    The photographs’ display, I thought, was successful. The simplicity of a well-done photography exhibition was especially impressive to me after my visit to the Annenberg, where so much money had obviously been poured into a show that befuddled.

    So, the MAAA redefines what goes into a mall. And if the shopping center I’d visited the day before defines itself as a place with cultural meaning, why shouldn’t this place of culture succeed in crafting an identity for itself in the mall?

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