Smithsonian staff work countless hours in the halls of our museums and research centers, in the field, at the Zoo, in our gardens and facilities. We are privileged to spend time with some of the nation’s most cherished treasures as we go about our duties. Sometimes, these unique experiences find a special place in our own personal stories. Amy Kehs introduces Muhammad Abdur-Rashid and a few of his favorite things.
After eight years at Howard University and three with the National Park Foundation, Muhammad Abdur-Rashid joined the Smithsonian in January as Director of Advancement at the Anacostia Community Museum. He has spent the last few months getting acclimated to his new role. “I’ve been amazed to learn how much the Smithsonian does behind the scenes,” he says. “There is so much more below the surface than the museums on the Mall. I’ve really enjoyed not only learning about the public space of the Anacostia Museum but also all of the research and outreach that goes on here, and at all of the museums.”
Muhammad joins ACM at a special time, as this year marks the 50th anniversary of the museum. Founded as the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in 1967, the Anacostia Community Museum was envisioned by then-Secretary S. Dillon Ripley as an outreach effort by the Smithsonian to the local African American community. Today, the museum seeks to enhance understanding of contemporary urban experiences. Muhammad has been inspired by the museum’s mission to be a premiere location for convening conversations about the changing nature of what it means to be a community and the social impact of the stories, activism and people within that space. The exhibitions currently on view at ACM are an excellent example of the museum’s dialog with its community.
Two of Muhammad’s favorite things come from the new Gateways/Portales exhibit, on view until Jan. 7, 2018. Gateways/Portales explores the Latinx migrant/immigrant experience within the context of what it means to be an American. The exhibit focuses on four urban areas—Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Raleigh-Durham, N.C. and Charlotte, N.C.
“What I love about this entire exhibit is that it helps to bridge conversations about the local and regional meanings of the word “community;” as well as what it means to be an American,” Muhammad says. “It is especially meaningful during our 50th anniversary year and stands as a wonderful example of our museum’s mission—to serve as an intersection point to both expand and enhance understanding of contemporary and diverse social experiences while strengthening community bonds. Being a part of a family with Latinx ties, this exhibit is also a very personal one.”
Muhammad shows me “Madre Protectora,” a mixed media work by Rosalia Torres-Weiner that is featured in the exhibit. The piece is timely and powerful, depicting the patroness of Mexico, the virgin of Guadalupe, as the mother-protector. Draped in an American flag, standing between a backdrop of peaceful lotus flowers and a barbed wire fence, she holds an AK-47 and looks out at the viewer with an unfathomable expression. It is a very different pose than the warm, comforting wat the virgin is usually portrayed, but it shows her fiercely protective side very dramatically. The artwork, completed in 2015, is a provocative conversation starter, as are many of the artworks on display at ACM. These powerful “conversation starters” make the Anacostia Community Museum unique and are part of the reason Muhammad was drawn to work here.
Muhammad explains that the centerpiece of the exhibition, the Gateways/Portales mural, also by Rosalia Torres-Weiner, reminds him of his home in Brooklyn, N.Y. where murals are respected, powerful art throughout the community. As we stand before the mural, we are drawn in by the layered depth of Torres-Weiner’s symbolism, each of us discovering new things we hadn’t noticed before.
Muhammad’s final favorite things are from the ACM exhibition, The Backyard of Derek Webster’s Imagination. In his late 40s, Webster began creating folk art out of discarded items. The artist once explained, “…I used to be a janitor. I make art out of junk. I think they call that recycling now.” An avid environmentalist, Muhammad appreciates Webster’s creative recycling. He also likes that Webster didn’t begin creating his art until later in life. “Derek Webster didn’t become an artist until his late 40’s,” Muhammad says. “Life is a precious and ever-evolving thing. I marvel at the idea that even later in life you can find your passion. Plus, the idea of taking something that was discarded and turning into something that is now celebrated in museums is quite extraordinary.” Muhammad enjoys all of Webster’s work but the two turtles on display in the current exhibition are his favorites.
If you haven’t seen these two powerful exhibitions at the Anacostia Community Museum, there’s no better time to visit than this anniversary year. If you happen to see Muhammad Abdur-Rashid while you are there, be sure to give him a warm welcome to the Smithsonian family!
Stay tuned for more favorite things from Smithsonian employees. If you have a suggestion or a favorite of your own, please let us know!
Posted: 2 June 2017