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A reunion of those scattered

Special to The Times

Walk down the street toward the Museum of the African Diaspora and the first thing you notice, behind a bright orange canopy, is the nearly three-story face of an African child, an 8-year-old from Ghana. Step inside the sleek glass atrium and the image reveals itself as not one face but many, a mosaic of more than 2,000 photographs of people from around the world.

The dramatic image sets the tone for MoAD, which opens for community previews today on Mission Street in the Yerba Buena district. It also hints at the new museum’s goals: to promote cross-cultural communication and explore the ties of all people to Africa, the place where many anthropologists believe humans originated.

“What I’m committed to,” says Executive Director Denise Bradley, “is bringing the best of the best of contemporary art from the African diaspora to San Francisco.”

Belva Davis, president of the board of directors, says the museum aims to change the way people view the modern world and global family by looking at the “connectivity” of cultures. To that end, MoAD will focus on four primary themes: origins, movement, adaptation and transformation, components of all diasporas. Experiences illustrating the themes will be explored through art, film or history, or through activities covering such topics as music, adornment and culinary traditions.

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MoAD, housed on the first three floors of the St. Regis Hotel and Towers, had its genesis 10 years ago when African American artists in San Francisco began talking about how difficult it was to find places to display their work. Davis, host of “This Week in Northern California” on public television station KQED and a journalist for three decades, explains that when Willie Brown became mayor in 1996, he got involved and persuaded developers to allow space inside the hotel building to house a museum.

“After much conversation,” Davis said, “the artists decided to look at the contributions of all people in history, to bring a new connotation to what it means to come out of Africa.” The result is a three-level, 20,000-square-foot facility with gallery space for art and other shows, areas for technology-driven interactive exhibitions, an education center, theater and gift shop.

Brown asked Davis, a trustee of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, to head the fundraising effort, and over the last 14 months more than $5 million has been raised. The city’s redevelopment agency provided capital funding and has committed about $500,000 a year for 12 years as an operating stipend.

“We had no endowment,” says Davis, who put together a board of 20. “The board is composed of people of mixed races who provided the financial resumes to get things started.”

Two inaugural exhibitions, both curated by Deputy Director Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins, also the director of curatorial affairs, are on view in the third-floor gallery through March 12.

The first, “Linkages and Themes in the African Diaspora: Selections From the Eileen Harris Norton and Peter Norton Contemporary Art Collections,” includes 39 works -- in photography, painting, mixed-media, video and new genre -- by such artists as Hew Locke, Willie Cole, Glenn Ligon, Malick Sidibe, Kara Walker, Chris Ofili, Fred Wilson, Isaac Julien and Albert Chong. A mixed-media piece, “Bye, Bye Blackbird” by L.A. artist Alison Saar, consists of a metal suitcase, lighted by neon, underneath a harness of wings made of leather shoe soles. Two untitled 12-color silk-screen works by Iona Rozeal Brown are portraits of a Japanese male and female in dreadlocks and masking, representing the appropriation of hip-hop culture by Japanese youth. The show marks “the first time the Norton collections have allowed an institution to pick out pieces from their collection,” Bradley said. Bradley led the marketing of “Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent” for South Bank Centre in London.

A second inaugural exhibition, “Dispersed: African Legacy / New World Realty,” includes commissioned works by three artists of African descent, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Marepe (Marcos Reis Peixoto) and Mildred Howard, who investigate origins and reinterpret identities. An installation by Howard, “Safe House,” fills a simple lean-to with bottles, silver urns and teapots, everyday objects that speak of the effect that 18th and 19th century slavery had on the lives of Americans.

In addition to artwork, MoAD visitors will be able to see ancient stone tools from Tanzania on loan from the British Museum. “We have the oldest objects in the British Museum in London,” Bradley said. “They’re loaning us stone tools from Africa, which are nearly 2 million years old, and we’ll allow people to handle the objects, which will be an important part of the exhibit.”

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The museum is not a collecting museum, but will host traveling exhibitions as well as shows it organizes. It will sponsor educational programs for students and website outreach (www.moadsf.org) to collect stories from writers around the world about people of African descent.

Among those supporting the museum’s launch are Maya Angelou and her son, Guy Johnson, who have written and done voice-over work for an exhibition, “Slavery Passages”; Zindzi Mandela-Hlongwane, Nelson Mandela’s daughter, who helped put together the film “Nelson Mandela & the End of Apartheid”; and actor Danny Glover, who will host a gala inaugural dinner.

“All humanity originated in Africa and moved throughout the world,” says James Lowell Gibbs Jr., professor of anthropology emeritus at Stanford University and a member of the board of the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution. “As they moved, they adapted to new circumstances, and as they adapted, they transformed themselves, or became transformed. These processes talk about how cultures begin and are the universal themes of all diasporas.”

Gibbs, a volunteer consultant for MoAD, says that just as Alex Haley’s book “Roots” led African Americans to trace their family histories to Africa, he hopes the MoAD experience will move visitors who are not black to consider how their culture’s journey has evolved since leaving Africa.

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Davis notes that Hurricane Katrina’s effect on Gulf Coast residents is a contemporary example of diaspora as the storm displaced people.

“If people really could digest the fact that they’re all part of the circle, it would make it more difficult to fight about things that aren’t that important,” Davis says. “I didn’t come into this project filled with scientific knowledge but held the possibility that we could change the way we look at each other. Because we all are one.”

Grand opening events for MoAD, at 685 Mission St., begin today with a community preview from noon to 5 p.m., and continue through Dec. 2. Community events are free, but tickets are required. The museum opens for regular visitors Dec. 3 and will charge admission of $5 to $8.


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