Cultural Expressions

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Cultural Expressions is a circular, experiential, introductory space to African American and African diaspora culture.

The exhibition introduces visitors to the broad concept of African American and African diaspora culture and five ways through which that culture is expressed. The outer ring focuses on African American culture, while the inner ring displays examples of culture from other parts of the African Diaspora. A third overhead mixed-media space, Cultural Commons, is composed of large, moving, iconic images that reinforce and amplify the exhibitions themes, stories, and people profiled on the entire 4th floor, which includes three other culture exhibitions.

The five forms of expression presented in Cultural Expressions are Style: Image and Identity; Foodways: Culture and Cuisine; Artistry: Craftsmanship and Creativity; Language: The Power of the Word; and Movement: Gesture and Social Dance.

Each of the three exhibition areas reflects pillars of African American cultural expression:

  • Transmission– African American and African diaspora culture has incorporated aspects of European, Native American, and African culture through contact with these groups in different geographic regions of the United States. Aspects of African American culture, including language, styling, and foodways in turn has become a part of other American groups.
  • Diversity– African American culture is rich in diversity. Factors such as geographic region, socio-economic class, and age contribute to variance in cultural forms that are practiced.
  • Evolution– African American culture changes and evolves during different time periods and is highly responsive to historic events and politics. 
Commemorative Headdress of Her Journey Beyond Heaven, 2010

Commemorative Headdress of Her Journey Beyond Heaven, 2010
Kenya (Robinson)
© Kenya, 2014.201

Exhibition Experience

Style: Image and Identity

This section explores the styling impulse of Americans of African descent from clothing and hair styling choices to the politics of skin color. It focuses on how identity, politics, and creativity are expressed through clothing, dress, hair, and jewelry. Fashion designers and beauty products are presented, as well as the effects of colorism or skin color discrimination.

Foodways: Culture and Cuisine

Here the magnitude of the African American hand in the food and foodways of the United States and beyond is explored. Profiles of chefs and restaurant owners accompany explorations of different cuisines, cookware, and tools used in the procurement and service to food.

Artistry: Craftsmanship and Creativity

The focus of this part of the exhibition is the enduring contributions of African American craft. Highlighted are the seminal economic, social, and cultural importance of building crafts. This section illustrates the significance of formal classroom training and apprenticeship as cultural transmission/learning styles and the aesthetic traditions of black community design in American culture.

Movement: Social Dance and Gesture

This part of Cultural Expressions highlights the public and private expressions of social dance and gesture. It examines the spaces where black social dance is performed and the conditions under which it emerges. Also presented is the range of non-verbal communication used by African Americans through gestures from the high five to the fist bump and the side-eye stare to laying on of hands.

Language: The Power of the Word

The oral traditions and idiomatic expressions of African Americans are many. This section explores their full range largely through the people who used them including preachers, debaters, politicians, and radio djs. It also explores the incorporation of black sounds into literature and poetry by numerous black and white writers.