If we’ve learned anything in the past tumultuous year it’s this: Black women rule.
Their central role in the Black family and in historical events such as the American women’s suffrage movement has already been duly noted. They are, however, also in increasing ascendance not only on the national political stage but in weaving the fabric of local businesses and communities.
An example of this is Rose Luangisa, whose Luangisa African Gallery is celebrating 25 years of bringing the work of African artists and artisans into American homes and museum gift shops while also enriching the cultural life of Mount Vernon, where the gallery is located.
The gallery features home goods, men’s and women’s wear, accessories, jewelry and artworks rich in color, pattern and texture, a hallmark of African works. Vibrant, fanning basket hats vie with the beaded salad sets that Luangisa says are beloved by museum shops. Elongated, wooden Namji dolls from Cameroon, a Smithsonian favorite, remind the viewer that they are treasured by women of the Namji tribe as harbingers of fertility and good luck as well as family heirlooms. And don’t get Luangisa started on beaded bib necklaces by the Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania. “Oh, my God, oh those move fast,” Luangisa says of the neckwear, which allows you to tap your inner Egyptian goddess and/or Ruth Bader Ginsburg. There are calabash paintings of what appear to be gourd-like fountains, ebony wood unisex bracelets that are popular with the guys and serene bronze heads from the kingdom of Benin — not to be confused with the country of Benin — that flourished in southern Nigeria from the 11th through 19th centuries.
In a sense, Luangisa was born to bring the arts of Africa to the United States. She hails from Tanzania, where her mother, Gertrude, who now lives here, ran a shop in a market in Dar es Salaam, that country’s largest city. Coming to America in 1987, Luangisa attended Concordia College in Bronxville before receiving a bachelor’s degree in computer information systems and an MBA from Iona College in New Rochelle.
But she never forgot her mother’s shop, from which she would receive goodies. Downsizing in Mount Vernon in 1995, she thought, What to do with all of them? The answer came at the now defunct African Family Day celebration on the city’s Memorial Field in July 1996. Luangisa rented a space to sell the items. She made $1,000 that day.
She sent the money home and in turn received more goods. That was the beginning.
Today, Luangisa connects with artists and artisans throughout Africa — paying them upfront for their wares so they can support their families and send their children to school and placing their goods in museum shops and selling them at trade shows and from the gallery, which is open by appointment.
As with everyone and everything, the pandemic has wreaked havoc with her business, closing borders among African nations and sending shipping costs soaring. But things are looking up now that museums are reopening.
And Luangisa plans once again to hold the Wakanda 4ever Celebration on Labor Day weekend — this year, Saturday, Sept. 4 — to honor Black excellence. It will include an open house at the gallery, which is yet another illustration of that excellence.
For more, visit luangisa.com or call 914-664-3681 or 914-720-7179.