Tomorrow, May 14, a rare collection of African tribal art will go on display at the Bruce Museum. The exhibition, "Power Incarnate: Allan Stone's Collection of Sculpture from the Congo," offers an up-close look at works of tribal art amassed by Stone, a noted art dealer.
Stone, who died four years ago, lived in Purchase with his wife Clare (formerly of Greenwich), where they raised six daughters.
One of those daughters, Jessie Stone, 43, who attended Whitby School in Greenwich on her way to becoming a medical doctor, has closely identified with both Africa and her father's African art collection. She spends six months of the year in Uganda running a rural primary healthcare clinic, where she provides malaria education and prevention, and she has started her own African art collection, inspired by her father's legacy.
Jessie, who is also a professional white-water kayaker and member of the U.S. Women's Freestyle Kayak Team, was on her way to compete in Germany at the World Championships when Greenwich Citizen asked her a few questions to learn more about her late father's passion for African art.
What was your experience growing up with your father's African art? And how do you describe them?
There was always African art in the Purchase house. A relatively small portion of that art will be in the exhibit at the Bruce Museum. This art is not for everyone. Some people are disturbed by African tribal art, but I have always really enjoyed African art and felt very comfortable with it. I grew up with these sculpted power figures, their primitiveness. From my exposure to my father's African art collection, I felt a certain familiarity with the way in which people lived from the first time I went to Africa more than 20 years ago.
These African pieces were not produced as art -- they were used in the culture. This is purposeful art. With the nail fetishes, a nail would be added every time there was a significant event or ceremony. The carved figures were kept for many, many years, passed on from tribal chief to tribal chief. Some carvers of particular tribes had a reputation for carving quite elegant figures. The figures were used more to speak to the spirits, for more crops, more rainfall, keeping away evil spirits etc.
What was it about tribal African art that attracted your father?
Dad had a very particular aesthetic sensibility. He really responded to a certain energy and intensity the African art had. "These things are keeping me alive," he once said, "I'm not kidding." It was not an intellectual response but a heart and gut experience. It was from a pure gut level -- Do I like it or not? It was more about aesthetics than provenance. He reacted similarly to other strong art he collected.
Your father became interested in African tribal art before you were born. How did he first become interested in African art? Where did he acquire it?
Through other tribal dealers and artists. One of my dad's favorite artists was John Graham who had a collection of African art. And Mert Simpson, an African art dealer educated Dad a lot. Ninety-five percent of it he bought in New York. He did not like to travel and somehow the objects managed to find him through the various dealers and runners.
How rare is this tribal art? When was it first collected?
It is very rare to find high quality African art, so most of the pieces in the show are quite rare. The Congo is an enormous country with an incredibly rich history of making art, while Uganda, which is one of Congo's neighbors, has a poor history of making art or objects used for ceremonial purposes. Missionaries were among the first to bring African tribal art to Europe and the U.S. After African art started to be collected and people realized there was a market for it, Africans started copying the original figures, and the business of fakes developed, which is big business today. The fakes lack that strength of purpose that the original objects have. That's how you can tell which ones are real or fake.
Have you been collecting African art? If so, how do you see this tribal art having relevance today and would your dad agree with you?
Yes, I have been collecting African art since before my father died. He knew well of my love of African art and supported my interest in it by trying to teach me what he knew. Since his death, my passion and interest in African art has only increased and I have been lucky enough to continue to learn and be exposed to new and different pieces, though I must confess that my favorite African pieces are still the power figures from the Congo. African art has influenced many artists over time, such as Picasso and John Graham, and continues to influence artists today. It is art that has withstood the test of time and I think my father would definitely agree with that. The Bruce Museum show provides a wonderful opportunity to see a group of these very beautiful and intense pieces altogether for their first public viewing.
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The Bruce exhibit, "Power Incarnate: Allan Stone's Collection of Sculpture from the Congo," will be on view from May 14 through Sept. 4, 2011. For more information visit www.brucemuseum.org, or call 869-0376.