UnCut Funk: The Virtual Museum of Modern Black Culture

SuperFly1972.jpg

There’s no waiting in line, you won’t be charged for admission, and people won’t stand in front of you while you’re gazing at things. But funkiness, while not an obligation, is at least recommended. This is UnCut Funk, a digital museum founded in 2007 that has emerged as one of the most vital spaces for black pop culture history on the internet, preserving the pioneering images and icons of the 1970s and beyond.

New Jersey-based curators Pamela Thomas, known as Sista ToFunky, and Loreen Williamson first met via a newspaper ad in the early 2000s, Williamson then a hobbyist with an interest in collecting old Looney Tunes animation cels, and Thomas owner of a large collection of blaxploitation movie posters. But the absence of black icons from Williamson’s collection caught Thomas’s eye.

“I was like damn,” Williamson laughs. “Because I’m black but I didn’t have any black cartoons in my collection. So that kind of started it. We began looking for black cartoons, coupled with a real interest in art and various things that represent beautiful black images. It started small and then it branched into this gigantic collection. And once you get a collection and you’ve spent all your money, you’re sitting around and thinking, ‘Okay, what do we do with all of this stuff?’ So we put it online and shared it.”

Funded by an online store and offline pop-up exhibits the pair have taken across the country, the Museum of UnCut Funk is largely comprised of art and memorabilia from the 1970s – the first decade that saw popular entertainment reflect the worlds young African-Americans like Thomas and Williamson actually occupied.

 Photo: Museum of Uncut Funk

Photo: Museum of Uncut Funk

At the forefront of the shift were cartoons, among them Fat Albert, Harlem Globetrotters and Valerie Brown of Josie and the Pussycats. They were wholesome role models for the era, black characters of different shapes, sizes and vocations, who suddenly anchored their own stories. For Thomas, who had previously only seen black faces reduced to mammy-esque caricatures on Saturday morning TV, such representation meant everything.

“I got to see an image that looked like myself in a very positive vein in television,” she recalls. “And they were talking about issues that I could relate to, whether they were talking about school, doing homework, friendship. It was life-changing.”

The shift marked an enormous increase in black visibility, entertainers of color welcomed into spaces previously closed off. Pop culture segregation also began to break down, replicating a political movement emerging out of the Jim Crow era. Stars like Sidney Poitier, Diahann Carroll and Cliff Wilson dominated film and television, Tamara Dobson and Rosalind Cash became underground icons, and George Clinton and Sly Stone brought funk to the masses.

“It was suddenly very cool to be black,” Williamson says. “We were empowered, we had big afros, we were wearing Dashikis and reflecting our African roots. It was a very black time, showing a range of black experiences, from Good Times and growing up in the hood to the Jeffersons who had made it. It was an explosion of blackness, and it’s important to put it in context so people can understand its significance. Everything in our collection represents a ‘first.’”

Pam Grier, the iconic star of blaxploitation classics including Coffy and Scream Blacula Scream, is also a recurring presence throughout UnCut Funk. Introduced to Thomas when her father unknowingly took her to see Foxy Brown when she was just 12 years old, she has long considered her a role model.

“She was a figure that took women, especially black women, to a new level,” she explains. “She kicked ass, she went after the man, she fought the bad guys. And that was unheard of. She deserves much more credit than she gets.”

 Photo: Museum of Uncut Funk

Photo: Museum of Uncut Funk

But UnCut Funk isn’t just for nostalgia hounds. It’s important for both women that the museum also serves as an educational space, particularly for generations of young people who grew up listening to Foxy Brown and Biggie Smalls, both named after blaxploitation characters, or saw an armed and dangerous Taraji P. Henson in last month’s Proud Mary, but know little of the work that inspired it all.

“I think it is incumbent upon us as collectors of this decade to make sure that the history is known,” Thomas explains. “To also have people understand the basis of what today they’re into, whether it’s hip hop or the recreation of these films, and where it all started.”

Recent years have also seen Thomas and Williamson expand their repertoire, from an exhibit chronicling the black historical figures who have appeared on currency and postage stamps, to an artistic celebration of Barack Obama.

ObamaCon, which toured schools, museums and educational institutions throughout 2017, zeroed in on the representation of Obama in comic books, spotlighting a presidency immediately fused with art. But while it’s bittersweet to be reminded of a time in US politics not dogged by sleaze and corruption, Williamson’s personal resolve has only been strengthened in the Trump era.

“Having a black president in this country was something I never thought I would see in my lifetime, and I am so overjoyed that my mother and my grandmother got to see it in their lifetime [too],” she explains. “It’s unfortunate that what we call the ‘whitelash’ to that situation has resulted in where we are now. Any time you take a couple of steps forward, there are racist elements in this country that want to drag you 50 steps backwards, and that’s been the experience that we’ve lived through for centuries in this country, so am I surprised? No. Do you give up? No. Do you come back and fight harder? Yes.”

“We wanted to do something different, off the beaten path, to honor Barack Obama,” she continues. “How he became such a cultural icon so immediately, and how the art and comic world just took to him and embraced him. It’s kind of a reminder of where we can go as a country, and where we need to go back to.”

But while both Thomas and Williamson look forward to a better future, it will always be the funkadelic 1970’s that has their hearts. “You feel it in your soul,” Williamson says. “And once it grabs you, man, it doesn’t let you go.”

 Photo: Museum of Uncut Funk

Photo: Museum of Uncut Funk

You can find out more about the Museum of UnCut Funk by visiting their website: http://museumofuncutfunk.com.

Words: Adam White