Party for art's sake

What has become one of the area's hottest events is set to take place again Sept. 30, and it's not being held in a dance club, hotel ballroom or concert hall, but at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art on the National Mall.

The event, Africa Underground, held quarterly at the country's sole museum dedicated exclusively to contemporary African art, kicked off with a bang in February, with more than 800 people in attendance for the sold-out affair. Museum officials said nearly 100 others were turned away at the door.

"We don't do a lot of advertising for Africa Underground, but it has taken on a life of its own," museum spokesman Eddie Burke said. "In February, we were named the No. 2 best place to go on a first date by The Washington Post."

During the after-hours event, all levels of the museum and its exhibits are open to guests 21 and older who pay $25 for admittance. The ticketed guests are treated to a themed evening that focuses on various parts of the African continent and its worldwide diaspora through food, art and entertainment.

The inaugural Africa Underground affair concentrated on Africa and Brazil, with food and drinks found in those regions of the world served. A disc jockey played Afrobeat music, dancers performed samba and other styles in various areas of the museum, craftsmen conducted a workshop using wood found only in Sao Paolo, and guests toured the museum's numerous exhibits.

The upcoming Africa Underground celebration's theme is "No Boundaries" and will highlight cultural aspects of all regions of the continent and their connection to the diaspora.

"We came up with a theme that will represent the cultural diversity of north, south, east and west Africa and reflect and celebrate the unity and connection to the diaspora," said Gathoni Kamau, coordinator of the museum's African Advisory Committee, which planned the event.

The popularity of Africa Underground has increased to the point that the second event, held in May — it focused on west Africa and the Caribbean — attracted 1,300 people and was held inside and outdoors. The September affair will be held indoors and outdoors as well, with two stages inside and a pair of stages outside. The facility's Haupt gardens will also serve as an entertainment site.

"We will have the band Fahel performing music of the northern region, such as Eritrea, Mauritania and the continent's desert regions," Kamau said. "Eme and Heteru will play music of central Africa, which corresponds with our new exhibit Central Nigeria Unmasked."

The evening will also include Afrobeat face painting, where guests can paint an 8-foot-tall, Ndebele-designed mural and make mudcloth bracelets. There will also be fashion shows with Korto Momou — the Liberian-born designer was the runner-up in the fifth season of the television series, "Project Runway" — and Maryanne Mokoko and Stephanie Mouapithe from Cameroon.

Amid all of the entertainment, guests will be free to stroll around and browse the museum's exhibits, which include the "Walt Disney Tishman African Art Highlights" exhibit, which features rare African art, mainly from west and central Africa, that Disney officials acquired from real estate developer and collector Paul Tishman and donated to the museum in 2005.

There's also the African Mosaic exhibit, a display of the museum's collection over the past decade, which includes a 9-foot sculpture by Ousmane Sow of Haitian leader Toussaint Louverture, an ongoing ceramics exhibit and several other displays.

Food served at the event, Kamau said, "will be authentic to North Africa, with hummus, falafels, skewered meats, meat pies, salads and hibiscus and tamarind drinks. We'll also have a Souk market on the third floor where people can have Moroccan teas and coffee, and learn about spices from different African regions and be given recipes on how to use them."

Something special at night

African Underground is the brainchild of the museum's director, Johnetta Cole, an anthropologist and former president of Spellman College in Atlanta, who became director in March 2009. She didn't start it as an excuse to have a party four times a year, but as a marketing tool to attract newcomers to the National Museum of African Art.

"Events like this are becoming popular with museums, so we're not the first museum to do this," Cole said at a press conference at the launch of Africa Underground.

And according to Burke and Kamau, Africa Underground is paying off with tangible results in terms of increased visibility and traffic at the museum.

"We've had more people calling for group tours since we started Africa Underground and some who come to it say they had no idea the museum was here and have signed up for a membership at the membership tables we have at the event," Kamau said.

According to Burke, traffic on the museum's social media sites has increased since they started holding the Africa Underground evening events. Their Facebook numbers have gone from 800 friends to more than 4,000. Twitter followers have increased from 100 to more than 1,500.

Africa Underground will be held Sept. 30 at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave., SW. For ticket purchases or further information, go to

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