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Thickening our own Ajiaco

Dina Zingaro is a summer intern from Swarthmore College who was inspired by the exhibition, Ajiaco: The Stirrings of the Cuban Soul. This is her interpretation of what she saw while walking through the exhibition.

Ajiaco, which means “a rich stew consisting of a large variety of ingredients,” is the Museum’s latest exhibition, closing on August 14. In tandem with one another, the works characterize the Cuban culture as a product of “syncretism,” which is an attempt to reconcile contrary beliefs. The Cuban soul becomes a fusion of practices and beliefs of various schools of thought such as Catholicism of the Spaniards, the spirituality of the Yoruba slaves and their cultural traditions from Africa, and the Chinese indentured servants who brought Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. Interestingly, the works selected suit the eclecticism of Ajiaco’s theme since several of the mixed media creations extend beyond the customary materials of canvas and paint to also incorporate less traditional materials such as corn, candy, cinnamon sticks, and feathers. (My brief description hardly does the exhibit justice – you must come and see for yourself!)

While exploring the exhibit, I noticed that even with its great diversity of “ingredients” in the works, the importance of connections and nourishment underlies most of the collection. Artist Manuel Mendive illustrates this idea of connection between humans, animals, and the natural world in a striking scene in his painting Se Alimenta mi Espíritu (My Soul is Nourished) where a group of animals and humans appear to flow and fuse into one another.

Manuel Mendive's "Se Alimenta mi Espíritu" ("My Soul is Nourished")

Amid the busy scene, a small child receives nourishment at the center as he leans upwards to drink from the utters of a cow, which could also plausibly be a human since a man’s head emerges from the cow’s back. This mysterious form continues below and morphs into a human positioned on their hands and knees, serving as the stepping stool for the small child drinking from the cow’s utters. There is an undeniable connectivity between the individual figures as animal nourishes human and human supports human (i.e. the crouching human helps the child reach the utters). Even the landscape’s foliage appears to encourage this idea of interdependence as it seems to embrace the figures and weave its way around the contours of the animals and humans. Such an emphasis on the links and nurturing relationships between the human, animal, and natural worlds permeates much of the exhibit.

Just around the gallery corner, in his painting Hijos de Obbatala (Children of Obbatala), Cepp Selgas further explores the power of making such connections by employing a familiar image of nourishment: a mother breastfeeding a child. The painting immediately reminded me of the Escher tessellations I created in elementary school art class where a shape is repeated (which in Hijos de Obbatala, is a baby’s head) and the void between its contours becomes another repeated shape.

Cepp Selgas' "Hijos de Obbatala" ("Children of Obbatala")

Reflecting Yoruba religious beliefs, the repeating head of a child suckling a mother’s breast personifies the teaching about Obbatala, an Orisha (a spirit or deity that embodies one of the manifestations of Olodumare or God in the Yoruba spiritual system), who creates all human bodies. Depicted as a mother and dressed in his traditional white cloth, Obbatala is the owner of all Ori (literally meaning “head”), which refers to an individual’s spiritual intuition and destiny. According to Yoruba tradition, a human being works with the Orishas to develop his or her Ori in order to attain a more balanced character with the hope of attaining alignment with their divine self. Thus, to know one’s Ori is to know one’s self…something we like to call “self understanding.”

By likening the process of gaining self-identity in the Yoruba religious tradition (alignment with one’s Ori) to an explicit act of nourishing, in this case breastfeeding, Selgas references the deeper emotional and psychological nourishment that mothers often provide to their children. Therefore, Obbatala is not merely an “owner” of human bodies, but is a builder and molder of the individual characters.

Alongside Mendive’s My Soul is Nourished, Selgas echoes the idea of connection, but also stresses the power of such relationships – whether with people, animals, places or a god – to both influence and nourish our characters. A well-known Yoruba proverb echoes the importance of crafting individual identity: “Ori la ba bo, a ba f’orisa sile.” (“It is the inner self we ought to venerate, and let divinity be.”)

Whatever these personal connections may be, they inspire, mold values, spark imagination, and seep into choices and actions; to nourish them is only to thicken the broth of one’s personal Ajiaco.

August 10, 2011 at 12:53 pm 1 comment

Interview with Stephen McKenzie, Arts Workshop Manager

Stephen McKenzie is the manager of the Newark Museum’s Arts Workshop.  

Tell us about your background and how you found yourself at the Newark Museum? 

SM:  A friend of mine informed me about an opening at the Museum, which peeked my interest.  I was introduced to the (then) manager and director of the department, and we spoke about my background and how it fit into this position.  I had arts education and administrative experience, and I have always enjoyed working with people, which is a fundamental part of this job.    

I hold art degrees from the following universities:  BA from St. John’s University in Minnesota; MA from St. Cloud State University in Minnesota;  MFA from Rutgers University, Mason Gross School of the Arts in New Jersey; and I spent one year in Rome with the Tyler School of Art program out of Philadelphia.  

It’s now seventeen years since I took the position as arts workshop manager, and it’s been a wonderfully creative experience.  

What kind of classes can you find at the Arts Workshop? 

SM: My mantra in determining classes is to “keep it fresh and diverse.”  We essentially have everything…from beadworking , knitting, painting, quilting, photography, clay making, Asian arts, glass, mosaics, and more.   The only class we don’t offer is woodworking.  

Our art workshops are held quarterly, and we are now taking registrations for the 2010 fall programs.  Our instructors are professionals in their field, both as artists and as educators.  Those who attend our courses expect to learn something new, and they ultimately receive an educational, creative and structured experience, while having fun.  

What’s your goal?  

SM: “Learn-Play-Have Fun.”   

Stephen McKenzie, Newark Museum Arts Workshop Manager


If I can fulfill that everyday that I’m here,then I am doing my job.  Learning is at the forefront in everything we do at the Newark Museum Arts Workshop.    I remind myself daily to meet the expectations of the students, and to ensure they are getting their money’s worth in a creative, learning environment.  For me, the biggest payoff is when I see the participants walking out of their respective classes with smiles on their faces.  

Find more information about the Newark Museum Arts Workshop by visiting

September 27, 2010 at 3:00 pm Leave a comment

Jazz in the Garden: Carrie Jackson & Brandon McCune

Not even gloomy skies could turn away jazz enthusiast during the Newark Museum’s annual Jazz in the Garden. The crowd was serenaded by the sounds Newark native Carrie Jackson and Chicago born, Newark raised Brandon McCune. Both Jackson and McCune provided incredible performances exciting the crowd and invoking a sense of Newark pride.

For more information about Newark Museum’s Jazz in the Garden Series visit

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July 23, 2010 at 2:47 pm Leave a comment

The 2010 Newark Black Film Festival : Interview with Pat Faison




Newark Museum's own Pat Faison with Newark Mayor Cory Booker



 In honor of the 2010 Newark Black Film Festival, long-time employee Pat Faison has granted the Newark Museum Blog an insightful interview.  



Can you tell me your background with the Newark Museum?  

 I am a marketing associate of 39 years.  I deal with lenders, and the public regarding the image of the Museum.  

 What is your favorite moment with the Museum?  

There are so many! Oh gosh! The photographer Gordon Parks was very special, I met him a few years ago before he passed. Also, I was in awe to meet Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. It was inspiring, and I remember that absolutely nothing went wrong that day. The crowd was so mixed and the energy could be felt throughout the building.  

Why is the Newark Black Film Festival so important and what does it mean for the Museum and the city of Newark?     

It’s a community festival. People come to learn and have conversations about black film culture.  

 Which movie are you looking forward to seeing?  

 American Violet. It’s a story about a woman who was wrongly imprisoned in the South. It’s about overcoming prejudice and the story is very powerful.  

 The upcoming year is bringing some amazing exhibits and events which one are you most looking forward to?  

 Make Me Something Beautiful is one of my most favorite current exhibits. There are some phenomenal pieces and the artist really came through. Just an interesting, beautiful show.  

 What advice do you have for anyone trying to enter the Museum industry?  

 You have to love the culture. The museum industry is very unique. There is a lot of fund-raising, quirky people, and constantly rotating exhibitions. The industry is also very relaxed. There aren’t that many men in the museum industry so men should take a look at what the museum industry has to offer.  

For more information about the Newark Black Film Festival and other events and activities happening at the Newark Museum, visit  

July 14, 2010 at 3:25 pm Leave a comment

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