Nov 24, 2013
06:07 AM
Arts & Entertainment

Civil Rights Activist's African Art Collection Comes to Yale Museum

Civil Rights Activist's African Art Collection Comes to Yale Museum

Melanie Stengel/New Haven Register

From left, Joel and SusAnna Grae of New Haven and Frederick John Lamp, the Frances and Benjamin Benenson Foundation curator of African Art, are seen in front of a portion of the collection of African art donated by the Graes at the Yale University Art Gallery. Some pieces date back 3,000 years. The art originally was collected by civil rights activist, Baynard Rustin, honored posthumously this week at the White House with a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Bayard Rustin, a major civil rights activist, leader in the nonviolence movement and singer, also was a sophisticated art collector whose important discoveries now are on display in New Haven.

The chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Rustin was honored posthumously this week at the White House as one of 16 Americans awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

On the second floor of the Yale University Art Gallery, before a wall-size photo of an excavation site, are terra cotta figures standing in an open display meant to simulate the environment of the Sahara Desert.

They represent a small portion of the 243 figures created by artisans in the ancient civilizations of West Africa, somewhere between 1,000 B.C.E. through the first millennium, and donated to the gallery by entrepreneur and philanthropist Joel Grae and his wife, SusAnna Grae, in 2010. (Above, Martin Luther King Jr., left, and Bayard Rustin, who is credited with influencing King’s nonviolent stand during the Civil Rights movement, are seen in 1956. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

“You’ve got a gem in your midst. I hope the people in New Haven can determine who these people were,” said SusAnna Grae of the figures originally collected by Rustin in the 1950s in Nigeria and Niger and obtained by the Graes through a mutual friend.

“This is a great mystery, but it is also great art,” she said at the gallery Friday.

“This is 3,000 years old,” she said, pointing to the oldest figures from the Nok civilization. Joel Grae said that civilization goes back even further.

The faces of the male and female figures from Nok are characterized by triangular eyes incised into the clay with elaborate hairstyles and body jewelry for both sexes.

“I’m an old potter, and how these didn’t blow off in the heating process is a miracle. These were hand built and fired in open grass,” SusAnna Grae said.

The other civilizations are the Katsina and Sokoto, who, along with the Nok, are from Nigeria, while the Bura are from Niger.

See the full story at the New Haven Register online.

Civil Rights Activist's African Art Collection Comes to Yale Museum

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