By Colin (Dusty) Hind
Shortly after the Bermuda National Gallery opened its doors (30 years ago next month), it was decided that an exhibition of African art should be sought.
Conceived as both a national platform for local artists and an exhibition space for international works, it was quickly agreed that an exhibition honouring the cultural heritage of Bermuda’s African diaspora would be integral to BNG.
Advice was sought from BNG Trustee Colin (Dusty) Hind, an expert in African art who had begun collecting works from the continent 10 years earlier. He was asked to help secure a suitable exhibition and, later, a permanent collection of African art for the Bermuda National Gallery.
Here, Dusty Hind recounts the origins of the collection, which consists of 37 works, representing 22 peoples from 12 countries in sub-Saharan West Africa, ranging from ritual sculpture to masks, functional objects and textiles.
In the summer of 1992, my wife Barbara and I contacted Susan Vogel, the Founding Director of the Museum for African Art in New York (now renamed The Africa Center). We visited with her and curator, Polly Nooter Roberts, at their offices on Broadway, opposite the new home of for the Museum being designed by Mya Lin, architect of the Viet Nam Memorial in Washington. The inaugural exhibit at the new premises was to be Secrecy, African Art that Conceals and Reveals.
Realizing that the show would present objects from all over Africa, rather than a single peoples or region, it was ideal as an exhibit for the Bermuda National Gallery after the New York presentation. Trustees Cyril Packwood and Dr. Charles Zuill joined me in presenting the idea to the whole Board of Trustees. Excitement grew and Secrecy, African Art that Conceals and Reveals was displayed at the Bermuda National Gallery (October 3 – December 31, 1993). BNG’s first exhibition of international works was a great success. In 1994, I was asked to do a small exhibit in the Ondaatje Wing of BNG to continue with the coverage of African Art: The Power and Glory: Masks from Black Africa (February 9 – May 6, 1996). This, too, was warmly received.
The idea for a National Collection of African Art began with a phone call in 1995 from my friend Brian Gaisford, owner if the Hemingway African Gallery, New York. He had acquired about 25 objects from the estate of a well-known and well-respected African art dealer in New York called John J. Klejman, who represented collector Klause Perls for many years. Brian’s idea was for me to sell my small collection and purchase some of this collection which was high quality and had provenance. My thoughts went to the BNG and a possible opportunity to create a national collection of traditional African Art for Bermuda. It was a way for the Gallery to sustain its inclusion of and emphasis on, art from Africa. Again, I shared the concept with my fellow Trustees, Cyril Packwood and Dr. Chares Zuill. Their response was emphatic, “We must do this”.
Fundraising began, but Cyril, Charles and I were adamant that we wanted a grass-roots approach. Perhaps families and schools would like to participate. Twenty objects were chosen from the Kledgman Collection. Also three large pieces from inventory at the Hemingway Gallery, a big Dogan door, an imposing Kola Nut Bowl and a large and powerful Bwa Peoples Hawk mask. We arrived at a total price for the works and divided by the twenty-three. If a family wanted to donate a work in memory of a departed loved-one, the amount was $1,800; an individual donation was the same, $1,800. Twenty five years later, the names are still associated with the collection. What was glorious to us was that when we had enough donations, we realized that they were spread evenly between the black and white donors.
Dr. Polly Nooter Roberts and her husband, Dr. Allan F. Roberts, were curating the exhibit and compiling the catalogue; but the show had taken on a life of its own. A generous long-time supporter of BNG, who preferred to be anonymous, called me and offered to loan ten pieces that were currently on loan to the High Museum in Atlanta. Other collectors donated or loaned additional works. Celebration: The African Collection opened on September 27 1996 with forty objects on proud display. It truly was a celebration.
Over the years since the BNG’s permanent collection of African art was compiled and presented, many of our exhibitions have included pieces from it. Art history was changed forever by the visit of Picasso to the ethnographic museum in the Palais du Trocadéro in 1906 when he encountered tribal African masks and figures for the first time, describing them as “magical objects, intercessors against everything” and a “purity of expression”. Gaugin, Brancusi, Lipchitz, Modigliani, Klee, Giacometti, Moore, de Kooning and Bermuda’s own Graham Foster and Bill “Mussie” Ming were all hugely influenced by the art of Africa. It is a great joy to see the collection reassembled again, a quarter of a century later.
The African Collection: Our People, Our Places, Our Stories is on display at the Bermuda National Gallery through to May.