5 Takes Offers Inside Look at the Life of an Art Collector
By Rachel Sousa '18 | Friday, December 8, 2017
Rachel Sousa '18
Friday, December 8, 2017
On Wednesday, November 15th, Charlie Derby, a prolific collector of African artwork from nearby Northampton, Mass., visited the University of Massachusetts Amherst to discuss his beloved artwork with the campus and surrounding community. His collection is the feature of 5 Takes on African Art: Exploring the Charles Derby Collection, a current exhibition at the University Museum of Contemporary Art (UMCA). The exhibition is divided into five sections—or “5 Takes”—by five graduate student curators, each highlighting a different aspect of Charles Derby’s collection. Two of the student curators, Kiara Hill and Elizabeth Upenieks, guided the tour that evening.
Loretta Yarlow, director of the UMCA, addressed the crowd before the tour began, explaining that 5 Takes represented a departure for the museum, as it marks the first time outside artwork has been curated by students. Its purpose? To guide and open up conversation, both within the campus community and outside of it.
Derby led the discussion with a brief overview of “how you accumulate things” to allow the audience to imagine an art collector’s lifestyle and frame of mind. As he wandered comfortably between glass display cases, Derby kept his values at the forefront of his talk, making sure to honor the people who taught him what he knows and also to give a sense of his dedication to the artworks themselves. While the audience stood admiring the first work he’d ever collected, a small, wooden Congolese figure of a man. Derby explained that the piece “came to him in a dream,” with a sincerity that affirmed his vast knowledge and appreciation of African art. Before handing off the discussion to the curators, Derby’s unpretentious approach to art and the art world was underscored in his final remark: “there’s always something cool you can collect.”
Hill spoke first about her section of the exhibit, entitled "Feminine Mystique." Kiara selected mainly wooden sculptures commonly used for religious purposes, she explained, which she felt demonstrated the power and prestige of the female form in African culture, and they way these pieces connected directly with the spiritual world. Being of African descent herself, Kiara conveyed to the audience that the collection held a personal significance for her. She expanded on this idea to give a sense of the far-reaching implications of the artworks by pressing the audience to “look at them more than just art pieces, but as vessels of history.” These works, along with the insight of the curators, help to bring about difficult conversations about world history, and bring African art to the forefront of these conversations.
Upenieks, met with the challenge of approaching African art as a white woman, explained that she took special care not to primitize or exoticise the artwork, while still making her connections authentic. She chose to select pieces which "do not live up to our rigid Western standards," such as two crowns from Yoruba, Nigeria which seem to be made with a similar level of craftsmanship and attention to detail. What comes as a surprise to a Western audience, however, is that despite the crowns being of similar quality, one was worn by a religious King, while the other for tourists. Upenieks explained that her western outlook on the world had driven her to assume that the crown made for tourists would be mass-produced or of a lesser quality, while the handiwork of the other crown must have more attention to detail, and be somehow more special. However, she found that this was not the case at all. In short, Upenieks’s end goal was investigate how colonialism affected the Baule ethnic group in Africa, and she explored this idea through an examination of the group’s attitudes towards tourists.
Upenieks’s favorite piece, which also arguably best exemplifies this idea, was a peculiar sculpture which seemed to be an ax, with a gun on the handle—a hybrid between the two weapons. The significance here lies within the implications behind each tool: the gun, Elizabeth explained, represents colonial terror—a tool of violence. In contrast, the ax represents protection and the ability to hunt for food. The combination of the loaded symbol of the gun with the protective symbol of the ax exemplifies for viewers that colonialism was not simply done to Africa, but rather as something that Africans, for better or worse, incorporated into their culture.
After the tour, Hill and Upenieks were encouraged to reflect on the impact that this project has had on them. Hill explained how the curation process for this exhibit pushed her toward different professional field than the one she’d envisioned for herself. As she started to realize the way that artwork really enhances her areas of study, she came to the conclusion that “museums are a neutral space for different conversation” and that they can “shift the dialogue” of difficult conversations. Hill masterfully summed up what she has taken away from this experience by explaining to the audience that “culture is shared, it’s not supposed to be kept in a vacuum.”
As for Upenieks, given that she had already seen herself pursuing museum work after graduating, and having already worked in several museums said simply that this exhibit has only confirmed that she is doing “exactly what I want to be doing.” She added that being able to curate something like this was a great experience, and “something that will influence everything I do [in my field] from now on.”
Derby concluded the tour by picking a few pieces from another part of the exhibit to talk about. More than anything, Derby was interested in the stories behind each, and how they ended up finding themselves in his ownership by some twist (or twists) of fate. With a loving look at his some of his most prized possessions he smiled at the audience before saying, “each and every piece of artwork has a wonderful story.”
5 Takes on African Art: Exploring the Charles Derby Collection runs concurrently with 42 Flags: Paintings by Fred Wilson at the UMCA through December 10. Both exhibitions have been renewed for a spring run from January 23 through April 29, 2018.