The Black Art Collector

 

The educated understand the whole reason of Art - the uneducated its delights. (Quintillian 1st Cent AD)

It is very nearly impossible to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the independent mind:  James Baldwin

Collecting art as we know it today has never been a pursuit associated with people of African descent. Much of the early African ‘arts’, mainly masks, wood carvings, ceremonial attire and bronzes of Benin, were not ‘collected’ by Africans. They were created for religious/ ritualistic purposes and usually not used again. Many of these ‘art’ pieces have made their way into European homes, galleries and museums, exchanging hands for sums of money that have reached millions of pounds at auction houses such as Sotheby’s. People of African descent have not been party to this profiteering, appreciation, purchasing or collection of our ‘art’ in the UK.

Our knowledge of the production of art by people of African descent in the UK is somewhat episodic, beginning with the self taught sculptor, Ronald Moody, born in Jamaica in 1900 and came to the UK in 1923 to study dentistry but turned to sculpture after encountering Egyptian art at the British Museum. His powerful wood sculptures of male and female figures, achieved acclaim in Paris and the US, but he struggled to gain recognition within his lifetime in the UK. Despite the prejudice he experienced, he didn’t join the League of Coloured people, set up in 1931 by his brother Harold, a medical doctor, to challenge racial discrimination in London. But he became a founding and active member of the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM) which was set up in 1966, by Kamau Brathwaite, poet and historian, John La Rose, poet and activist, and Andrew Salkey, novelist and journalist. Aubrey Williams, the highly accomplished painter born 1926 in the then British Guyana, came to the UK in 1952 and attended St Martin’s School of Art. He was also a founder member of CAM and exhibited widely in the UK from the early 1960s. And Williams, like Moody before him, discovered, by the 1970s that his art was ignored by the British art establishment. The 1980s saw an explosion of art produced by young people of African descent, often termed ‘radical’ as many of the works had overt political content. These artists were mainly graduates of the UK’s top art institutions, among them were Sonia Boyce, Eddie Chambers, Keith Piper and the late Donald Rodney. Black arts organisations, including Obaala in north London and Creation for Liberation in Brixton, received funding to promote and exhibit Black arts. After the abolition of the Metropolitan Authorities in the early 90s much of the funding was lost, few Black arts organisations survived and Black arts as a ‘scene’ disappeared.

The potted history provided here of artists of African descent in the UK is designed to illustrate the systematic nature of their struggle to get their works acknowledged within the mainstream of UK arts. It therefore follows that people of African descent are not exposed to art created by members of their own community and are unlikely to own or have a desire to own any. If as Quintillian says, we need to be educated to fully appreciate art, as people of African descent we’re clearly not there yet, in being educated about the art produced by our artists. Whilst in his statement quoted at the beginning of this essay, James Baldwin is referring to the US, it is also true in the UK that there is little room for the development of an independent mind. The combination of the propaganda machine called, television, the news included, and the cartel of global marketing companies controlling perceptions of ‘good’ imagery and tastes, stands in the way of anyone having an independent mind and ultimately having an education in the true sense of the word.

The idea of a Black art collector then becomes somewhat of an oxymoron. We’re more interested in acquiring high performance cars and expensive clothes. We may invest in property but as for art, it has to be evocative of things European to be of value to us and certainly anointed by the media before it enters our homes. That may sound harsh, but it is quite a leap to grow up in a society that is negative of most things African and emerge as an adult with an appreciation of African images to the point of making significant financial investments and having these images in your living space. Where there are a few millionaires, such as Jamaica and Barbados and pockets of excess wealth from oil as in Nigeria and Trinidad, there are and in some cases have been collectors of art produced by local Black artists. On a trip to Jamaica in 2008, sculptor Raymond Watson spoke frustratingly about how art collectors have changed. Those with money who used to spend it on purchasing art, now talk of money being short but still travel to Milan and Paris to shop for clothes, with no decline in their ownership of new Pajeros and other imported 4x4 cars.

So it is indeed a surprise to find a Black man, British born, of African and Indian heritage via the Caribbean, collecting African art. Not just one or two pieces but multiples from specific artists. Marcus McKenzie owns some outstanding early paintings by his sister Claudette www.mckenziebassant.co.uk He visited Fowokan’s home in the 1980s to see his sculptures and was so captivated by the pieces that he vowed to himself that he would purchase a piece one day. That day came when his son Jacob was born; Marcus purchased his first piece of Fowokan’s sculpture. He now owns four Fowokan sculptures, including three that were exhibited at the Royal Academy. He paid for many of these pieces over periods of a year and sometimes years. He speaks of the sculptures that he purchased as investments and gifts that he will pass on his children.

When Marcus first went to South Africa with his wife and young children, Fowokan asked him to make sure he returned with a ‘good luck’ stone. After spending almost two years in South Africa, Fowokan never expected that Marcus would return, not with ‘a’ stone, but with a collection of majestic stone sculptures, images of ordinary South Africans sensitively carved out of colourful semi-precious stones such as South African jade and Africastone. Over his many years of travelling to South Africa, Marcus has built up a unique collection of stone sculptures and a wealth of information about the artists, the Chikumbiriki brothers, Caspar Darare and the medium of South African semi-precious stones. As Marcus’ collection grew, a new persona as a man of African descent emerged, a more powerful, confident and sensitive person.  Marcus’ collection of these stone sculptures is a gift to all of us, but to Black people in particular. He didn’t just invest in a piece of stone sculpture, by acquiring a comprehensive collection; he understood the importance of Africans having access to the range of incredible stone sculptures created by the Chikumbiriki brothers and Caspar Darare. Without his single action, the works would be purchased individually and most likely in private collections, scattered in different parts of the world. This is the action of an independent mind, one that grew in spite of the absence of an appreciation of African art throughout his schooling and university education. Having transcended the propaganda on things African from his schooling and university education, I think we can safely say that Marcus, as a collector of African art has emerged as an ‘educated’ man according to both Quintillian and James Baldwin!

When Fowokan asked Marcus to bring back a stone from South Africa, I don’t think he quite expected that Marcus would return with stones in the plural, and certainly not such comprehensive works of art in stone.

Margaret Andrews

June 2011

 

 

Marcus says of himself:

 

In affirmation

 

From Africa to the Caribbean, fused with India, a son of the Diaspora came forth. Honed by the harsh realities of Europe, my spirit tirelessly sought reunification with Mother Africa and the safety and warmth of her bosom.

 

An ancestry of slavery and colonial rule, my formative years were negatively impacted by overt racism coupled with pernicious subtleties and constitutional fallacies; an alien existence became my lot.

 

African sculptures, resembling and black like me, became companions on my journey. Positive expressions of my kin, imbued with regal dignity and beauty.

 

Ostensibly inanimate but graced with poetic movement – talking faces; the very essence and rich diversity of the African Diaspora, captured by a fallen comrade in a display of wondrous mastery through the medium of South African Jade.

 

And so, it became a proud connection and bond with the spirit of my ancestors, a powerful and confident depiction of the African Diaspora, rebuffing the explicit and subliminal negativity of the fires of western bondage.

 

It is with pride that I recount my story knowing privilege, and the guidance of the ancestors afforded me the opportunity to amass such a collection.

 

And so I say; I am of the African Diaspora.

 

Marcus McKenzie (Kofi Dzata)

Marcus can be contacted at: mmjoburg@hotmail.com

 

Marcus McKenzie
Marcus McKenzie

 

Sculptures by

The Chikumbirike Brothers:

Canaan, Moses and Joshua

were born in Zimbabwe.

 

Canaan was the most prolific

 of the brothers as can be seen

 from the slides. Canaan’s abilities

were noticed by the missionaries

who offered what help they could

 to promote and market his work. 

In 1972, he attended the

Driefortain School of Art

where he received an

Art Certificate. From 1975 onwards,

Canaan immersed himself in

sculpture and began to make

a mark in the world of art.

 

Moses’ career started at an

early age with clay as his first

choice of medium.  Later he

progressed to soap stone then

 to verdite a stone unique to

Southern Africa. Moses credits

the inspiration for his own work

to his great grandfather Gumira

who was a hunter and originally

sculpted in ivory.

 

Joshua was born in June

of 1960 and was the seventh

brother of ten boys.  After

completing his education and

with much assistance from

his gifted older brother Canaan,

Joshua embarked on his career

as an artist spending time

in both Malawi and South Africa.

 

The Stone 

South African Jade is a

semi-precious gemstone

that varies In shade. 

It can be colourless when pure,

white to forest green.

Found in South Africa,

it has a hardness rating of

6.5 – 7.5 on Moh’s scale of

hardness.  South African

Jade is purported

to have mystical properties.