Harlem Becomes A Destination For African Tribal Art Week

african art in harlem photoBy Mel Brown with additional contributions from Tricia Fraser

For almost a century, Harlem has been known as a destination for contemporary art, culture and fashion. With emerging revitalization, Harlem has experienced yet another cultural metamorphosis. On Sunday March 23, 2014, Harlem officially became a destination for high-end African antiques.

Ghanaian born, Emmanuel Nii-Attram, of Hidden Treasures, mounted a one-day private event to exhibit  selections from extensive private collections of well documented African Art.  Fine African carvings have been available in Harlem for many years, but its presence has been a real sleeper since the Midtown and Upper Eastside antique dealers dominated the market.  That has all changed.

Mr. Nii-Attram has over thirty years of experience in documenting and selling African art.  He comes with a unique perspective.  Not only does he have an BA and MA in Ancient History from the University of Ghana at Accra, but his family is also one of the royal houses of the Ghana aristocracy.  Mr. Nii-Attram learned the oral traditions and culture from an early age from the elders of the family.  He also realized that his presence in Harlem with fine investment grade pieces could make a difference in how traditional African art is viewed by Americans but particularly African Americans.

The opportunity arose to show African art pieces in a four story private home with elegant surroundings.  It was an ideal setting to fulfill Mr. Nii-Attram’s dreams of an antique art show in Harlem.  The exhibition and sale consisted of over thirty fine and well documented pieces from Sub-Saharan art.  It was shown in a private residence in historic Striver’s Row on W. 139th Street. The event was by invitation only.

Fine pieces from the Mende of Sierra Leone, the Baule of Ivory Coast, the Ashanti and Fanti of Ghana, the Bamana of Mali, the Ibibio and Igbo of Nigeria, the Punu and Fang of Gabon and the Chokwe of Democratic Republic of Congo were all well represented.  This included masks and statues from these tribal traditions. (See photos in Appendix 1 below.  Not included here.)

Invited guests were served to a unique experience as Mr. Nii-Attram, the curator, was on hand to provide a guided tour of the exhibition, highlighting important features with a mini-lecture on representative individual pieces of art.  Truly an African Art History Class 101 presented right here in Harlem, NY.

Two groups of art were a real stand out. First, there were excellent masks and statues from the Fang people. This stylistic tradition was made famous by the work of such modern artists as Modigliani and Brancusi.

Helena Rubinstein had a famous collection of Fang pieces which were widely acclaimed.  When they were put up for auction at Sotheby’s in 1966, it famously exceeded all previous prices and put African antiques on the map and highly sought after. Second, another rare treat was a couple, male and female figures, from the Bamana people of Mali, formerly from a well-known New York collection.  It is extremely rare to see a couple of such quality with strong Cubist geometric shapes that were clearly made by the same artist.

The organizing team and host lead by Ms. Tricia Fraser of T. Fraser Productions (TFP), provided the on-site event logistics.  She had the foresight to incorporate a written narrative on each piece in the price list that guests were free to take with them.  This made the visual experience of the art less cumbersome so pieces could be enjoyed more fully without being overwhelmed by the vast amount of information from the expert staff of art advisers on hand.

Mel Brown of Pop World, Inc., one of the principals for the event, described the show in historic terms. “The response has been truly inspiring and encouraging for what we want to do by bring the ancestral culture of Africa to the new energy that is Harlem.  Given the way in which this show has been embraced, we are planning another show for Tribal Art Week May 14-18 of this year that will be open to the general public.  This will be a first for Harlem.  Simultaneously, Sotheby’s will have their Spring Auction of Tribal Art May 16th. Harlem is finally a destination for fine African Tribal Art.”

The current exhibition on Striver’s Row can still be viewed, but by appointment only. Arrangements can be made by contacting Mr. Brown at gymnos_nyc@yahoo.com.

Photo credit: By Tommy Parker

 

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