My interest in African art began in the early 1960's, when I served as President of the African American Heritage Association. The primary goal of the organization was to bring African history to the attention of the American, black and white. This obviously included the introduction of “African Art”. I became fairly knowledgeable of the African artifacts in residence at the Chicago museums. In 1966, the U. S. Peace Corps was to enter a newly independent West African country called Upper Volta (later changed to Burkina Faso). I was recruited as the Deputy Director and became the Director a year later. Many of the West African artifacts were collected during my three-year residence in this country.
Almost immediately upon arrival, I sought out those who were knowledgeable regarding cultural customs especially those reflected through the arts. I soon became aware that, while there was a museum, it was controlled by the French. It was also well known that most of the culturally historical artifacts were to be found in public and private collections in France. While the national museum was taken over by the Voltaic government at independence, no resources existed for its maintenance. An Upper Voltarian, now Bukinabe, (Upper Volta Upper is now Bukina Faso) Dr. Traore was appointed museum director, and we developed a close relationship. I assisted him in fund-raising, staffing etc. This also placed me in a position to be aware of the availability of art objects from various ethnic groups. An understanding was developed that objects were available only after the museums board’s approvals. This usually meant that prior examples existed in sufficient number and quality to allow additional pieces to be used to raise needed funds.
My relationship with the museum staff, board, and supporters resulted in contact with similar groups in surrounding countries from which I was able to collect artifacts as well as information regarding their purpose. In many instances, over the years spent in Africa, I was able to discuss with the ethnic group elders the symbolism reflected in the objects. In most cases, they found it difficult to understand western interest or view of the object as "art". Many, however, were able to note a decline in "technical" skills of some modern carvers.
In all of the African countries in which I served, I attempted to collect some sample of authentic artifacts. This was not always possible. In many places, however, there is a thriving market of copies, some of which are equal in quality to those produced by current traditional artists. On a few occasions, I purchased such objects, but experience over the years has taught me to distinguish the difference between the old and new. When in doubt, I have contacted local museums.
Many artifacts in the collection through western eyes would be viewed as functional: baskets, paintings, crosses, jewelry, hats, stools, games, and bowls. These were collected to represent cultural activities as well as artistic creativity and African aesthetics. The present collection took place over a twenty-year period and spans a time ranging from about 3-4,000 B.C. to the 1970's.
East St. Louis, Illinois