G2K a BACA Business: Kuumba Kollectibles

Just in time for graduation season and Mother’s Day, learn about the tight-knit group behind Kuumba Kollectibles and their deep local roots.

Kuumba Kollectibles is a card, gift and ballon store.

Kuumba Kollectibles offers printing services.

Kuumba Kollectibles sells baked goods.

Kummba Kollectibles is an art gallery.

Kuumba Kollectibles houses a florist and interior designer/space planner.

What Kuumba Kollectibles really is, is a community.

Alex Medley (top-left), Sala Damali (top-right), Fati (bottom-left) and Karen Massalley (center).

I first learned of a “new” business called Kuumba Kollectibles right here on the BACA blog, after its owners stopped by a BACA meeting with some samples. (From a commenter named Kaya: “Holy Banana Pudding! Kuumba Kollectibles is a great spot to satisfy your sweet tooth. They have the BEST banana pudding I have ever tasted.”) Needless to say, they were a hit.

As it turns out, though, Kuumba isn’t “new” at all, only reborn, something I didn’t learn until I sat down with Alex and Sala, the husband and wife team behind Kuumba; Fati, Kuumba’s baker; and Karen Massalley of Massalley Design, the florist and design company housed within Kuumba.  Sala and Alex are actually neighborhood institutions. They’ve operated Kuumba out of the townhouse at 312 Florida Ave. NW for about 18 years, focusing on their original businesses of printing, illustration and graphic design.

A small sample of the eclectic offerings at Kuumba. Karen Massalley of Massalley Design re-designed the space.

Kuumba itself actually goes back even farther than that, to 1984, when Alex and Sala met at the University of the District of Columbia. Alex was a printer – had been a printer since he was twelve years old – and Sala was an artist. “The coming together of printer and artist,” says Alex now, opening clasped hands wide, “that was the beginning.”

In 1988, the two named their new company “Kuumba” Kollectibles after the Swahili word for “creative,” and soon found themselves serving a hungry market for African cultural printed products. By the 1990s, not only could you find Kuumba products in stores around the world, but the two also used the recognition and respect they had earned in the black business community to launch another venture, the International Black Buyers and Manufacturers Expo and Conference (IBBMEC), a place for black-owned and operated businesses to network and find buyers and suppliers.

One of the paintings on display by Malandela Zulu.

For years, that would be their primary work, culminating in a grand finale at the Brixton Art Gallery in London in 2005. Coming together “is just what we have to do,” says Alex. “Community, networking – it creates power and it creates synergy.”

By this February, a revamped Kuumba was “an idea whose time had come,” says Fati. According to Alex, the new millennium hasn’t been kind to the printing business. Rising travel costs and restrictions after September 11th have similarly hurt conventions and trade shows. Florida Avenue, in contrast, has been revitalized as the pedestrian link between the eastward-creeping growth of U Street and the new “healthy little economy” (to borrow the words of Boundary Stone’s Gareth Croke) in Bloomingdale.

Among the designs on display from Imani Damali are these custom shoes.

And that’s where Fati, Karen and the other family members of the new Kuumba come in. They see an opportunity to bridge the gap between those two hubs, making our part of town a tempting destination for wanderers already lured south by the Duke Ellington Statue and the renovated Howard Theater.

Experience is their key selling point. Fati has baked for over 35 years, making cakes for the White House and the Rev. Al Sharpton along the way. He got his start making desserts for students at Howard University and other local schools before eventually building a following in health stores; he learned to bake with whole wheat and honey before ever using sugar. In addition to the inexpensive treats you can pick up from Kuumba anytime (I particularly recommend the sweet potato pie), Fati can make TV-worthy custom cakes on request.

Karen and her husband, Abraham, have more than 15 years of experience in the floral industry for their part. Massalley Design, too, can create custom products for special events like weddings, proms or recitals, in addition to serving as interior designers and space planners.

The artists shown at Kuumba, though, represent something else, a new generation of creatives. They include Imani Damali, an apparel designer who’s studied at the Parsons School of Design; and Malandela Zulu, a graduate of the nearby Ujamaa Shule and Howard University who doubles as a local arts teacher. Jewelry crafted by Earnell Brown, another local artist, and imported African art rounds out the collection.

Foreign and local.

Young and experienced.

Daughters and parents.

Friends and family.

What Kuumba Kollectibles really is, is a community.

Kuumba Kollectibles is open for walk-in traffic every Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 11am to 7pm. Call 301-335-8330 to make an appointment any other day or learn about Kuumba’s and Massalley Design’s custom services.

Kuumba will have special hours on Mother’s Day, May 13th, opening from 10am until 5pm. Call ahead to pre-order!


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