More than masks: Atlanta puts African fine art increasingly on display

Jean-Patrick Guichard is a long-time collector of African art and plans to open a gallery for the work in metro Atlanta in 2018. (Jenni Girtman / Atlanta Event Photography)

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Jean-Patrick Guichard is a long-time collector of African art and plans to open a gallery for the work in metro Atlanta in 2018. (Jenni Girtman / Atlanta Event Photography)

Story by Anya Martin. Photos by Jenni Girtman.

In 1985, while visiting an art school in Dakar, Senegal, Jean-Patrick Guichard was captivated by the work of young artist Cheikh Tidiane Kéïta. As a college student, Guichard could only afford $400 for a large acrylic painting textured with cardboard and tar depicting a faceless young man sitting on the ground.

“[Kéïta] doesn’t have a face in any of his paintings because he wants people to be drawn into the body’s language, the expression of the body,” Guichard says.

Today, Kéïta’s painting hangs as the centerpiece of the dining room where Guichard, now 53 and a dealer in African art, hosts dinner parties for small groups of contemporary art collectors. He estimates the painting now is worth at least $20,000. Guichard’s personal collection has grown to more than 1,000 works of African art displayed throughout his four-bedroom, 5,900-square-foot Fairburn home.

Earlier this year, Atlanta’s High Museum of Art stood in for a London institution in “Black Panther,” a hit movie that celebrated African design amid its superheroics. In the real world, Atlanta is poised to become a center for contemporary African art — one of the fastest growing segments in the art-collecting world, according to the Contemporary Art Market Report 2017.

Atlanta already boasts two important African art collections at the High and at Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum. Meanwhile, Guichard is scouting locations on the west side with plans this fall to open the city’s first fine art gallery to specialize in artists from French-speaking West Africa.

Practical art

Americans tend to be most familiar with traditional African art, characterized by some sort of practical or ritual use, says Amanda Hawley Hellman, curator of African Art at the Carlos Museum (which has a collection of 1,700 pieces, about 35 of which are on display). Such works can include masks used in ritual dance or a beaded bowl, which Kom tribal kings used to offer kola nuts and palm wine to royal guests.

She finds that some American viewers have misconceptions about African art, colored by news coverage that emphasizes the continent’s poverty and unrest rather than its positive achievements. “This has created a generalization that Africa and its visual culture is not as sophisticated as Western art,” Hellman says.

She cites a carving of Mami Wata, a Nigerian water spirit known for her unpredictability, which dates to the early-to-mid 19th century. “The Carlos’ Mami Wata is stylized, and the red undercoating shows her anger and her devotees’ attempt to cool it with the application of kaolin on the surface,” she says. “Though all of the work served a purpose/function, the aesthetic choices made by the artist are conscious expressions of culture. We don’t seem to have the same conflict around calling a medieval altarpiece or an 18th century royal portrait, for example, art in spite of their original function.”

Carol Thompson, the High’s Fred and Rita Richman Curator of African Art, shares Hellman’s view. “With anything related to Africa, you always have to address stereotypes and expectations,” Thompson says.

Since Thompson took the then newly created position in 2001, she has expanded the High’s collection to more than 1,000 works spanning the African diaspora. She also curated several special exhibitions, including last year’s “Making Africa,” Atlanta’s biggest African art exhibition to date.

Including significant works by contemporary fine artists is important to tell the full story of African art, Thompson says. One of her favorite acquisitions is “Taago” by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui. The over-10-foot-long, nearly 7-foot-tall “metal cloth” piece pays tribute to the Ghanaian craft of weaving “kente” cloth, but may remind some viewers of Gustav Klimt, she says.

“[El Anatsui] carried it in his carry-on suitcase, folded just like cloth,” she adds. “It’s aluminum, so it’s not heavy.”

The stuff of stories

Guichard finds that the storytelling is what bridges traditional tribal work with contemporary creations. Traditional works, whether masks, carvings or paintings, reflect a story through ritual use, just as African fine art does through its subjects conveyed via a wide variety of styles and media.

In the downstairs corridor, a mini-gallery in itself, a pair of wrecked wooden galleons with tattered sails are rendered in meticulous detail in a painting by Julien Sinzogan, a Benin artist who now lives in Paris. Nearby, an abstract piece by world-renowned deceased Nigerian artist/musician Twins Seven Seven was inspired by Yoruba mythology and features two figures with large oval eyes, pointed hair and talon-like toenails. That painting’s “tale” is extended because it was gifted to Guichard by Leo Sarkisian, longtime host of the Music Time in Africa program for Voice of America radio.

“There are beautiful stories, compelling stories, some sad stories, but those are stories that enrich your life,” Guichard says.

Guichard’s own story of collecting African art evolved naturally. His father was from Guinea, and while majoring in black studies at San Francisco State University, Guichard regularly visited his mother, a U.S. State Department public affairs officer based in Burkina Faso.

After Guichard graduated, he moved to Washington, D.C., to work in international development. He continued to travel to Africa, expanding his collection and also getting to know artists he admired. On a 2009 trip to Senegal, one artist said, “We can sell our art here without you. Why don’t you do something for us?”

That request spurred him to found Guichard Solutions, a nonprofit that helps young artists from French-speaking Africa achieve recognition in the United States. In that role, he has facilitated numerous exhibitions at Serengeti Gallery in Capitol City, Md. Guichard moved to Atlanta in 2014 and custom-built his home for maximum space to hang his art, starting with a powerful 18-foot wall of masks above his living room sofa.

Guichard expects that the global success of “Black Panther” will increase awareness of African art and create opportunities to educate people away from preconceptions. He says that a woman messaged him after seeing a photo on Facebook featuring his painting “Sisters” (2010) by Senegalese artist Mahmoud Baba Ly.

She wanted it because the two women with long necks adorned in colorful jewelry reminded her of the female warriors in “Black Panter.”

“No, you can’t have it,” he replied, “but I’ll introduce you to some other pieces!”

The Michael C. Carlos Museum. Emory University, 571 Kilgo Circle. 404-727-4282.

The High Museum. Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St. 404-733-4400.

Insider tips

When buying African art, consider first “what speaks to you,” Guichard says. Beyond that, if you are trying to predict the next wave of rising African artists, find out if their work has been exhibited in galleries in their own country. “It’s a good sign, even if it’s just a university gallery,” he says.

Visit and learn. The High’s ArtClix mobile app enables visitors to learn more about specific marked works in their African art collections. At the Carlos, works are not accompanied by written descriptions so that visitors will encounter them as art first, but can learn more via an iPod-friendly audio guide.