Window on the World

Times Staff Writer

If you pause long enough, you can begin to imagine:

Feeling Cuba’s heat and humidity in the gauzy shirt. Seeing Haiti in the brilliant colors stitched through the sash. Feeling the sway of Jamaica in the billowy fullness of the skirt. Spotting a bit of Spain in the shape and slope of the hat.

“You can see what we’ve borrowed and changed, adopted. You can see how we’re not very different,” said Deborah McDuff-Williams, as she showed off her window display of Panama--crowded with fashion and photographs, shrubbery and history. “Yes. It’s all from Panama but the point is, you can see reverberations everywhere.”

Williams is the founder and director of the Museum of Cultural Diversity, tucked away in what appears to be, at face, a very odd location--a spacious, airy group of rooms that not so long ago housed a fabric store in a sparsely traveled corner of Carson’s South Bay Pavilion.


“We put in a stage and painted the walls. Turns out its [interior design] is perfect feng shui. But you know,” she said with a shrug, “color is diversity too.”

But Williams, an artist, many-hatted-entrepreneur, wife and mother of two, put a tremendous amount of thought and effort into the location as well as her larger purpose.

“Carson is one of the most diverse communities in the United States, if not the world,” she said over her shoulder, taking long, quick strides through the well-lit display area, her long black skirt flipping behind her. She winds through a maze of masks from around the world--brilliant, fierce, grotesque, fanciful--created from wood, earth, ceramic or found objects--discards refashioned into something powerful and new.

Williams, 48, opened her doors two years ago, pooling funds--donations here, grants there--and of course her own money. She was committed. It was her way of trying to link the various racial, cultural, ethnic and religious groups that make up the region. (And Carson makes much pomp of its even-apportioned demographic--25% white, 25% African American, 25% Latino, 25% Asian.) Williams said that despite California’s racially charged high profile of the last few years--from riots and O.J. to campus wars and ethnic-based legislation, she strongly believes that within art rises the possibility of change. And though it hasn’t yet paid off monetarily, it’s made Williams, and the community, richer in other ways.

“This is grass roots,” Williams said. “Nobody is getting paid for this. We’re doing this as a volunteer organization that believes this should take place.”

The museum, a nonprofit organization run by Williams and a multiracial advisory board, has since its inception in 1997 incorporated visual and performance art, lectures, readings, workshops and cross-cultural collaborations. Her goal is not to simply bring people of disparate groups together to celebrate, but to learn.


“There is a real uniqueness to it,” said Daryl Sweeney, a Carson councilman. “I mean, having a museum in a mall is very creative on its own. And if you’re not in the mainstream, which she [Williams] hasn’t been, you’re out of the funding loop. But she’s very, very persistent. When I walked in the door last year for the first time, she was right there. ‘Oh, you’re a councilman! Why haven’t you been to the museum before? Do you know what we do?’ ”

Stories From

Around the World

Already Williams has hosted Guatemalan human-rights activist Rigoberta Menchu, wedding ceremonies from around world, Tibetan monks and gospel singers. The museum has also been the site of presentations and lectures about a range of topics and issues including the struggle of the Dalai Lama, eradication of land mines and tales of human relations around the world.

“My feeling is,” Williams said, “that we need to not just talk diversity, but live it. Everybody has a story.” So does Williams, and it is as colorful and welcoming as the art that’s gathered on walls and pedestals around her.

Figuring out a way to minimize cross-racial and cultural ignorance--and the distance it creates between people--has been a longtime dream of the Indiana native, who grew up feeling the indelible lines separating race.

“Growing up in Indianapolis at that time [in the early ‘60s], there was black and white,” Williams recalled. “That’s it. There was no in between. And that was not comfortable to me because I had friends in both areas. And why should you feel uncomfortable? It was just crazy. It was so black and white. And even though I had won first-place awards in art, when it came time to receive my certificate, the teacher didn’t want to give it to me. Even thought we didn’t have black and white bathrooms, it was the subtleties.”

But, said Williams, early on she saw the one thing that appeared to supersede the color of one’s skin. “It was art. I was able to do everything in the school creatively because of the art. So art has always been a way, in my mind, to bridge adverse situations. So this isn’t something that I just started. My best friend was half Japanese and half black. I went to an all-white school. So it just didn’t start as an adult. I didn’t like being excluded on any level.”

She arrived in Los Angeles in time to enroll at Los Angeles City College in 1968. There she took up drawing and painting. Almost instantly she met the man who would become her first husband, and they soon had a child, India. But the marriage didn’t hold. After that short derailment, and with a daughter to feed, Williams marshaled her creativity in a different way--and painted herself into a series of new roles.

Juggling a

Variety of Jobs

She sold advertising for the L.A. Reader, peddled solaria (“I really had a thing for construction!”), and was contracted to design and render murals around the Southern California region. And when she was between jobs, waiting for a bread-and-butter check that just wasn’t coming, it was her minister who stepped forward with a plan. “This company was looking for a West Coast representative for these cookers that would smoke food. Barbecue. The only thing I figured I needed was a showroom. And I figured if I made the showroom a gallery, then I could display my art as well.”

The rep job fell through, but Williams, nimble on her feet, decided to turn the showroom she had already rented into a funky cafe and Art n’ Barbee, an open-air fantasy of a gallery and barbecue joint in East Hollywood (which later moved to Los Feliz). Somewhere in the mix of all that, she found time to re-enroll in school, where she met her current husband, Selase Williams, dean of arts and sciences at Cal State Dominguez Hills.

“When my husband got an appointment at Cal State Dominguez and we moved, I still missed that cultural exchange that I’d had . . . at Art n’ Barbee,” Williams said. “Then I got a little more information on this community and I thought, ‘Wow! That would be a good place for a museum.’ I thought it would be good for the community so they could actually mirror themselves and it would bridge the mall, the city and the university where they could all have a meeting place. So I contacted the mall.

“The first thing we coordinated was an event called ‘Building Bridges of Diversity,’ a community awareness and art fair throughout the mall for three days. We got 30 different ethnic groups to participate just to see if the concept was viable. Then we started working on the mall to try to get a space here. It took us about a year to convince them. And since then they have been nothing but supportive.”

Mary Anne O’Neal, then a city councilwoman, was struck by Williams and her request. “Carson takes such pride in our diversity. But I think people talk a lot about ‘tolerance,’ when I think they should substitute the word ‘respect.’ We were excited to have something in our community that would help people gain a better appreciation and understanding of the people they lived around.”

Added Williams, “We wanted it where you walked in and people were not separated. Exclusion is hard for anyone to take, no matter what the economic or social status is.”

A Struggle

for Funding

And Williams would know, since she has started from scratch--out of the loop of not just funding cycles and grants, but even consideration for most of them (though she just recently received her first city grant for $10,000).

“As much as everybody else struggles for funds, she is at the bottom of the deck,” said Jim Pieper, who sits on Williams’ board in addition to other museum boards around Los Angeles. “They don’t know her because she doesn’t have all of those neat things--the publications, the connections, the write-ups--that give her legitimacy. But there’s no question that this [museum] does more for community and people and is more connected to what is becoming Los Angeles than all of the others that I’m involved with. This is the [heavily minority] L.A. that people know about--but they don’t want to know.”

While funding is a concern, she still has other priorities. “This lady at the Getty asked me why I started it, and I said: ‘It was spiritual.’ And she says, ‘Oh, no. It’s gotta be more than that.’ Did we know that we were the only museum of cultural diversity in the world?” Ultimately, Williams said, with the right approach and presence, she will get the support. History tells her so.

“My grandmother was out of a family of 15. And her father was out of slavery. When he was a little boy, he was throwing rocks somewhere down in Kentucky and these white men came up to him and they were going to lynch him for throwing rocks. And where he got a knife? Only God knows. But he had to cut them. And he had to flee for his life. Now in the ‘20s, my grandmother won a scholarship to go to art school. But she was going to have to live with a white family. [Her father] hated white people so bad that he would not allow her to accept her scholarship. And I never saw that woman draw one thing in her life.

“I do believe that her spirit is still alive and she can see that the art is not dead in the family line,” said Williams, taking a reflective pause, a small smile lifting the corners of her mouth. “That’s why I know that this has to be spiritual. Because I haven’t worked this hard for anything else in my life.”

* Museum of Cultural Diversity, 20700 Avalon Blvd., Suite 870, Carson. Hours: Wednesdays, 10 a.m.-noon, Thursdays to Sundays, 3-6 p.m. For ticket prices and other information, call (310) 324-4702.

* Lynell George can be reached by e-mail at