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FEATURE

KIMBERLY CAMP PRESIDENT OF THE LARGEST
BLACK MUSEUM IN THE WORLD, PIECES TOGETHER THE.
400-YEAR HISTORY OF AFRICAN AMERICANS








ARTIFACTS OF LIFE
WRITTEN BY VICKI GLEMBOCKI
PHOTOGRAPH BY CHERI SMITH


The 12-year-old girl, her head completely covered in plaster, sits very still on a chair in the basement studio waiting for the thick paste to dry. Her right ear is bent sharply toward her right shoulder, her chin tilted upward toward the soft yellow ceiling. An awkward angle. Contorted almost. Surely uncomfortable once the artist had begun to shape wet plaster pieces over her face and head, even more so now that the plaster is drying. But she doesn't move at all. Her mother snaps a picture.

The young girl has already finished her torso casting. That white plaster shell is now propped against the wall alongside those of other black children and teenagers. The stiffly posed pieces from each set of casts lie unconnected on sheets of newspaper--two legs, two arms, head, and torso--as if the shed remains of a human cocoon. Soon, those individual pieces will be put back together and used as molds to create life-size figures for a permanent exhibit at Detroit's Museum of African American History (MAAH), its new home still the shell of a building under construction across the street.

Bodies hunched over. Backs arched. These are the stances now caught in plaster. Heads hanging heavily forward or cocked to the side. Ramrod straight arms, reaching out with hands extended. Legs outstretched, crossed, crouched in a kneel. The positions seem painful to hold even for a short time. It is all the more disturbing to think of children so still, so contained-- this 12-year-old girl today, for instance, with her head covered in plaster, her face frozen in a strained gaze toward the ceiling. But the models had to be young. They are the models for the captives stored on the slave ships. Their images reveal a startling fact of the slave trade: Its victims were the vigorous and able-bodied. As young as 12 years old. No more than 18.

The visitor's passage into this new museum will begin with the place where African and American history merge--the "Middle Passage," the terrible journey of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean during the 400 years of the Atlantic slave trade. Visitors will approach African-American history by moving through the replicated hold of a slave ship where figures of slaves, made from the casts of present-day Detroit schoolchildren, line the walls of the hold, shackled as the captives had been, in a two-foot-by-seven-foot space--a space only slightly larger than a coffin.

Now, in this studio, the artist begins to peel the dried plaster from the young girl's head. The girl speaks for the first time, as if she were trying to remind him that she is still under there, under the exaggerated, bulbous shape the plaster has made of her face. Strangely, it is a bit of a surprise to see her real face again, to watch her dark, cool skin emerge from beneath the white plaster cast. It is a surprise to see a child, a 12-year-old so immobile only moments before, now jumping effortlessly from the chair. She giggles as she rubs the dried plaster bits out of her hair. Then she climbs back on the chair, standing up this time, motionless again, ready for the artist to wrap plaster around her legs.

"What is African American?" asks Kimberly Camp (Arts and Sciences '78), as she drives her white minivan back to the Museum of African American History where she is president. She weaves competitively through the city's crowded lunch-hour traffic, as if she had lived in Detroit far longer than two years, as if she were indeed a Detroit native, honking and braking with the best of them.

"What is ours?" she continues, her soft voice almost overpowered by the jazz on the radio. "What do we claim?" Her questions, like the traffic in a way, are the kind many people would rather avoid--abstract, heavy questions, questions with no definite answers, the ones no one in their right mind would try to tackle while switching lanes. But that's Camp's style. She faces such things head on. And she needs to find answers--not so much to define her own identity, but to help define what she does, what it means to be in charge of the soon-to-be-largest black museum in the world.

"One could argue that the African-American legacy is the very road we're driving on. The free labor of African Americans during the enslavement and cheap labor during the early part of this country's history allowed this nation to build an infrastructure that is unlike any other infrastructure in the world. So as a result of that, most of America is paved. There are phone lines. There are traffic lights--now they're definitely African American because a black man invented traffic lights. So, are they ours?" She looks up at the traffic light hanging above the hood of her stopped van and bursts into a laugh, a deep and steady staccato that actually makes her shoulder-length Senegalese twists start to shake. "No, they're everybody's. But trying to find a definition for 'African American' is a very serious discussion."

In Detroit, much of that discussion began over 30 years ago when Charles Wright, a local doctor and civil rights activist, returned from a heated voting rights march in Selma, Alabama. "Many of the young black people I was working with there had no concept of what freedom was really about," Wright recounts. "I told them that freedom was not just getting white people to let you into their hotels and restaurants. Freedom was creating your own restaurants and hotels and then inviting the white man in." Wright wanted to create a place where, he says, "the concept of freedom would be dealt with on a daily basis," a place where the younger black generation could easily learn about its history. Detroit, Wright believed, was the perfect city for such a monument, since the city's history was so intricately tied with the history of African Americans. Detroit's Second Baptist Church, for example, was once a crucial underground railroad station between the United States and Canada. Detroit native Joe Louis, the "Brown Bomber," reigned as world heavyweight champion from 1937 to 1950. Motown Records had been founded there, where artists like Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and Marvin Gaye would record their first hits.

So, in 1965, Wright opened a museum in the basement of his recently vacated office--only the second black museum in the United States. (The first was in Chicago.) The collection included African artifacts, as well as slave rosters and handcuffs and leg shackles, and Wright's favorite piece, the traffic light invented by Garrett Morgan. Still, the museum was small enough that he could pack much of the collection for traveling exhibits into a trailer. As Detroit's African-American population grew, so did the vision of the museum--and its space. With Wright still at the helm and some financial help from the city, they moved to a building in the cultural district in 1987.

Now that Detroit's African-American population has risen to 75 percent-the largest concentration of blacks in any US city--it's not surprising that the museum has outgrown itself again. It has also broadened its focus to include the national history, the history of all African Americans. In early 1997, the new museum building will open right across the street from the old one, but four times bigger, thanks to a $20 million bond issue from the city. Though Wright is no longer with the museum, his original philosophy still holds true--the city, by paying for the museum, would therefore own it.

"Detroit is a black city," explains Camp, who came on board at the MAAH in January 1994 to lead the expansion effort, what she calls "growing up" the museum. "It has the strongest, most politically empowered African-American community I've ever lived in. This museum is their statement about what the world should say about Detroit and about their commitment to African-American history."

If there was only one word to describe Kimberly Camp that word would be afya. It's not an English word, and it has no English equivalent, but comes from the ancient Swahili who believed that the life experience and the art experience were one and the same. They believed that a person could not possibly have one without the other. And they called that union "afya." If afya exists, it truly exists in Camp. When she talks about her life, she talks about her art, and when she talks about her art, she talks about her life--the stories are the same and inseparable. She remembers her mother taking her to museums when she was a child in Camden, New Jersey, long before she was concerned with a museum's goals or audience. She remembers seeing art there--paintings and drawing and sculptures--and knowing, then, that she would be part of that creative world. When she was 11, she started painting. When she was 12, she had her first art show.

"First and foremost, I'm an artist," Camp explains, now back in her triangular-shaped office. One of her paintings hangs on the wall opposite her desk, four men--Camp's father and his three brothers- crouching in a row with a purple sky above their heads and red grass under their feet. "My family, we're all artists. One of my uncles is a photographer. Another is a wood sculptor. My aunt Sylvia was a painter. My cousin David was the chief architect doing renovations of the Richelieu wing in the Louvre with I. M. Pei. My uncle Billy played concert piano at Club Harlem in Atlantic City for 20 years and, at 40, decided to go to medical school. My dad is a designer and a dental surgeon. My mother taught me how to draw and make hats and sew and throw a fastball. It's a family tradition. Sure, we sat around as kids, TV included. But TV watching was not on a couch. It was at a card table with newspaper underneath. I do the same thing now. Do I have a presidential living room? No, I have a Persian rug on the floor, and paper clay sitting on the coffee table."

With a rather long-established portfolio, Camp transferred to Pitt after a year at American University. She flew through her studio art major. Having finished her major course work by her junior year, she decided to sit in on a few art history classes with Pitt professor Kathy Linduff.

"She taught the only classes that didn't deal with European art. I was so sick and tired of hearing about Europe," says the self-described "recalcitrant" student. Linduff, who still teaches Asian art history at Pitt, remembers Camp's independent spirit. "It was unusual at that time, almost 20 years ago, to have an African-American student studying art history. But Kimberly had such a strong sense of self and that is why she stood out in my class. She talked a lot. She asked a lot of questions and, clearly, was not satisfied with a worldview that, at the time, seemed so centered on European-American art."

"It just seemed to me," explains Camp, "that with so many people in the world, somebody else had to be doing something worthwhile. I liked the way Kathy Linduff talked about art."

After graduating with a second major in Japanese and Chinese art history, Camp joined the ranks of the "working poor" in New Jersey doing technical illustration and graphic design. While hurting for extra Christmas money, she heard through the grapevine that some artists had done well selling their work at a bazaar in Philadelphia. Camp could sew. She had lots of fabric scraps. She had a knowledge of African history and culture. So she decided to make dolls dressed in traditional African clothing, each made of soft hand-dyed muslin with a hand-painted face. The attempt to earn a few extra bucks in Philadelphia turned into an international mail-order business that she's run for 14 years. She calls her dolls Kimkins.

There's a Kimkin sitting on the bookshelf next to Camp's desk, dressed in a blue silk gown and veil. Camp calls her Isis after the ancient Egyptian goddess, "the giver of life." Another doll, more intricate and fragile, is propped on a stand by the window, an example of her more recent work: N'genga, "the healer." Her face is made from clay Camp bought in Japan. The goat skin on her dress is from Virginia. The thistle wrapped around her legs is from Brazil. The gray and white beads in her necklace are from Dallas. The lamb's wool around her neck is the collar from one of Camp's mother's old coats.

The pieces of this doll once again tell the story of where she's been and what she's done. It's clear that whether Camp is an artist or businesswoman, an administrator or curator, she is a storyteller. And that could be why she's come to do what she does.

"I have to do my art," she says. "For me, it's another way of talking. I can't imagine that anyone has more fun than I do. I can't imagine that anybody, if they knew what an artist's life is like, would be anything but an artist. But running a museum is part of that. Artists should be in those kinds of roles. I do not agree with the notion that artists must separate themselves from the dialogue of society in order to be real artists. That makes no sense. If an artist disengages from involvement in the community, particularly from the industry in which they practice, then they enter into a dialogue with their navel. Their art will only speak to them."

That is exactly what Camp is most concerned with in the development of the new museum--how it speaks, how it tells the history of African-American people. Four hundred years is a long time, filled with many events and figures, movements and changes. There are hundreds of ways to approach it, hundreds of choices to make, views to express. There are also thousands of people who will visit this museum, each with different expectations and opinions on what should be included and what should not. "There are people who don't even know what a museum is, and that's okay," says Camp. "Most people see museums as rarefied little places where we keep objects from dead people--the longer they've been dead the more valuable the collection is."

Still, Camp believes that the museum's primary job is to keep such objects safe for future generations. But that doesn't mean collecting them, setting them up as exhibits in the museum space, and then just leaving them there. History is not static.

The museum's long-term exhibit, which includes the long-term slave ship exhibit, is structured with permanent exhibits as well as rotating displays. In designing that section of the museum, Camp, who cut her teeth as director of the Smithsonian's Experimental Gallery, is working closely with the New York exhibition company that designed the renowned Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. The path through the long-term exhibit will follow a loosely chronological timeline--from the African Slave Trade to the Underground Railroad, from the Harlem Renaissance to the Civil Rights Movement to the Million Man March. Visitors will be able to customize their tour by selecting music, sports, politics, religion, or art on a menu presented on monitors throughout the museum.

"When you create that kind of experience for people, they come back," explains Camp. "They feel a part of it. There will be a lot of things in there that they've never heard about before. There are also going to be a lot of holes in it. The visitors' job is to tell us what else they want to see. Then, for instance, when they bring their relatives to the museum, they'll be able to say, 'I was here last week and I told them they needed more stuff on black Vietnam vets and they put it in right here.' Sure, this is a museum about history, but it is very much about people alive today."

Camp thumbs through a ream of papers, the latest version of the museum's script--captions, labels, panels. "It's already too long," she says, noticing that the draft ends with the Civil Rights Movement. "Where am I going to put the past 30 years?" It's doubtful that she'll choose to take anything out. She'd be more likely to make the type-face smaller...or the museum bigger. And Camp is still adding more. Her newest idea, for instance, is "The Vessels," a permanent display for the lobby with representatives from the 53 African countries invited to bring an indigenous vessel--a water jug, a wooden bowl--filled with the soil from their country.

"African Americans were comprised of people from a mix of countries. We tend to forget that --both whites and blacks. There isn't one monolithic African culture. You don't bring that many people here from all the different cultures of Africa, and then define it that easily. We forget about the Africanness of the African American. The vessels will remind us."

What is African American? In some instances, the definition is very clear to Camp. And those instances are what give her the confidence to look out her window at the massive building under construction next door. To see, beyond the trucks and cranes and heaps of dirt, the atrium's dome reaching high above the buildings nearby. To see three figures etched along the outer wall: a four-sided pyramid, symbolizing the knowledge of the ancients; a half-sphere surrounded by a half-circle, symbolizing the sun and its emanations; and a lizard symbolizing, as it does in West-African mythology, messages from God. To see this home, a rightful homage to the history and future of a people. She tries not to look too often, not more than once or twice a day.

The story to be told inside that museum is probably the biggest one Camp has ever needed to tell. The many pieces of that narrative-slave rosters, an Ashanti sword, a letter by abolitionist Frederick Douglass, African masks, "Darkie" toothpaste--have grown larger than the office that housed the founding collection, larger than the current MAAH building, and are now waiting in the hands of Kimberly Camp, waiting for her to sew them together.

It doesn't seem to be an accident that Camp has chosen to share her office with her two handmade dolls-"the healer" and "the giver of life." They are each very much a part of Camp. In a way, they represent what she envisions for the museum itself.

Healing. Giving life. The two actions seem inseparable, as if one could not possibly exist without the other. And they, too, exist in Kimberly Camp, in the museum. They exist in the 12-year-old girl contained in white plaster. They exist when her own face emerges again after the plaster is peeled away. Two separate stories are told--one of the future, one of the past. Two young girls are connected, not by experience, not by goals or dreams or even promise, but by history. And there, in a basement studio, one 12-year-old allows her body to become the shell for another who lived hundreds of years before her. That fragile plaster form will tell the story of a young slave girl who may not have had the chance to speak. And so, one child brings another to life.

What is African American? It may be that the answer is found, simply, in what is brought to life. Brought to life by the Detroit school children posing for the exhibit. Brought to life with the ambitious building under construction across the street, with its mission to preserve the past for the future. Brought to life in the president herself, leaning back in her chair and looking out her office window at the end of another day, relaxed in the art of her life, realizing her own history as a part of it all.

Afya.


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