Leadbelly: Community Curation and Narration at William Grant Still Arts Center

"I Got My Pride -- The Blues Tales of Leadbelly," March 1 - June 7, 2014, William Grant Still Arts Center, 2520 West View Street.

On a quiet cul-de-sac off West Adams Boulevard is the William Grant Still Arts Center, named for avant-garde musician and composer Dr. William Grant Still (1895-1978) and boasting a free music and arts education program for local children. Artist Noni Olabisi's arresting large-scale narrative mural of Dr. Still's 1939 opera, "Troubled Island," dominates the entire outer wall of the center, once a fire station, and features a rendering of the late Dr. Still conducting his ode to Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the corrupted revolutionary-turned-icon of the early Haitian republic. It is a salient welcome to the largely working-class African American, Afro-Caribbean, Mexican and Central American neighborhood that the WGSAC calls home. The current exhibition on display at the Center is entitled "I Got My Pride -- The Blues Tales of Leadbelly." Its rainy Saturday opening typified the multifaceted mission of the Center itself. During a musical performance, including 2013 Louisiana Music Hall of Fame Inductee Gregg Wright, and drummer Marcus L. Miller, who teaches at the Center, reception attendees toured the three exhibition rooms, each featuring original articles, record covers, photos, and other visual devices to narrate the great blues artist's life and career.

WGSAC Director Amitis Motevalli -- also a local Iranian-American artist -- and the center's Education Coordinator, Keisa Davis, recently delineated the center's mission and engagement with the West Adams community where Dr. Still once lived. Founded in 1977 under the vision of its first director, Hakim Ali, with the support of L.A. City Councilmember David Cunningham and then-California State Assembly member Maxine Waters, the WGSAC then as now undertook the mission of nurturing and proliferating the arts in the surrounding neighborhood. Motevalli notes that long-time participants and attendees of WGSAC programs and events "have high expectations for us," particularly those who recall when the neighborhood was a hub of African American musicians, actors, and artists. The community art center's namesake and inspiration is a testament to this: in 1936, Still became the first African American to conduct a major American orchestra when he took the helm of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the New York City Opera was the first major opera to perform a composition by an African American with Still's Troubled Island in 1949. Another testimony to the Center's history and mission is Southern California native and long-time collector Alden Kimbrough, who worked with Hakim Ali at the WGSAC in the 1980s and rekindled his relationship with the center upon meeting Motevalli years ago.

Gregg Wright and Marcus L. Miller perform | Photo: William Grant Still Art Center
Gregg Wright and Marcus L. Miller perform. | Photo: William Grant Still Art Center.   

Charles Mingus was quite unintentionally the subject of the first WGSAC's African American composers exhibition six years ago. "It was actually a set of exhibitions called the Charles Mingus Caravan, originally located in Watts, where Mingus grew up, but sort of got pushed on us," Motevalli laughingly recalls. Motevalli acknowledges that this was the impetus for the annual series, which has featured in years past Thelonious Monk, Nina Simone, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, and Sun Ra. At the time of the first exhibition, Motevalli was the education coordinator -- the position Davis currently occupies -- and decided to create a teaching curriculum based around the music of Mingus. "This proved difficult, because Mingus' music is very complex," Motevalli explains, "but these beginner students really got to know the music of Charles Mingus while also learning their collective histories."

The project evolved into showcasing primarily community-curated archives -- particularly those collected by Kimbrough, who made the suggestion that the Mingus exhibitions be incorporated into an annual series of events. Motevalli says, "There was so much excitement around the original archival materials featured" and having met Kimbrough, a seemingly limitless supply of these materials to showcase. "A lot of libraries were courting him at the time so he could give up his original collections -- some of these libraries lock up these collections and only give access to their own PhD students and scholars," she divulges. However, "An African American archive being located where African American people could not access it was really troubling to Mr. Kimbrough" so the opportunity that the center provided was an ideal solution. With access broadened to local communities through these exhibitions, Motevalli and Kimbrough began a collective endeavour to guarantee open access and community engagement with black music, art, and history at the WGSAC. They are even-handed in their collaboration: "I'll talk to Mr. Kimbrough, he'll think about it and pull out what he has in storage in different places, and I'll decide what the narrative of each show will look like."

Rendering of Leadbelly with the artist, AISE, and Alden Kimbrough (right). | Photo: William Grant Still Art Center
Rendering of Leadbelly with the artist, AISE, and Alden Kimbrough (right). | Photo: William Grant Still Art Center.   

A collector since a student at the University of Oregon, Alden Kimbrough was influenced by his father, a dentist in San Diego, and his mother's family -- avid collectors of black literature, music, and in the case of a younger sister, black dolls. Mr. Kimbrough's maternal grandfather also started the Golden State Insurance Company, which held the largest collection of African American art on the West Coast. Kimbrough recalls his family tradition and its connection to the WGSAC series, disclosing "after Leadbelly came to Roosevelt High School in San Diego to perform a concert in 1948, my father went over to talk to him -- it turns out he was having trouble with a tooth, so he came over to our house to get his tooth fixed and then went out on the patio to play." The whole neighborhood block ended up showing up, an attestation to Leadbelly's community-oriented musical production as well as to the blues artist's specialization in children's music and groups.

Motevalli tells me, "Mr. Kimbrough also has the largest collection of Emory Douglas' work and has pretty much supported Emory throughout his career." Kimbrough laughs and adds, "Emory never kept or saved his original works because they were used to educate folks, and at rallies. When it came time for him to do exhibits he called us up!" Now Kimbrough regularly tours with his collections, which have also been featured at the California African American Museum and travel nationally and internationally. He summarizes, "When I really got interested in history in college, I started collecting African and black books and other things. Records, books, pamphlets, magazines -- you name it. We're showing exhibits all over the planet now."

Photo: William Grant Still Art Center
Photo: William Grant Still Art Center.

Luckily, Southern California remains the primary locale for Mr. Kimbrough and his vast collections, particularly at the William Grant Still Art Center. Current Education Coordinator Keisa Davis shares that the center's exhibitions enhance their local education program -- taught by working artists and musicians -- by introducing them to an appreciation of music and art as well as how a collection is imagined and formed. She says, "This is a great opportunity for them to be exposed to these composers and the political, social, and cultural context that stimulates the artwork they are producing: they're not just learning about the fundamentals of music, but what art with intention is about."

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Motevalli elaborates on Davis' point by noting that the Thelonious Monk exhibition connected with their students, largely ages 3-12, in a special way: "[Monk's] mom cleaned houses and did laundry, and a lot of our kids really related to that because they also have family members who work really hard for them." Just as Monk attributed his music to the people in his life who helped him to 'take time to do his thing,' "children have a real sense for justice, so this was a way for them to understand and appreciate their families through music."

Davis nods in agreement, noting "With Leadbelly, they'll learn about the depression era, labor, World War I, chain-gangs -- these are things they may not learn about in school, so this is also an opportunity to learn about this history through the context of music." "That's why this place is so special -- this is a community-based setting, so the kids are exposed not only to history, but also what an archive and arts exhibition is like outside of a museum space: it's in their own neighborhood instead."


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