At the beginning of the 2018 box office hit Black Panther, a young African man stands before a glass case of West African masks and weapons in the (fictional) Museum of Great Britain. “How do you think your ancestors got these?” he asks the prim white curator. “Do you think they paid a fair price, or did they take it, like they took everything else?”
As museums around the world increasingly become the sites of heated public debate on colonial histories, an exhibition at Burlington’s Amy E. Tarrant Gallery offers a more nuanced and exceptional story of collecting, and sharing, African art.
“The Intrepid Couple and the Story of Authentica African Imports” opens a window onto the life of Jack and Lydia Clemmons, a trailblazing African American couple who purchased a Charlotte farmstead in 1962.
The exhibition was curated by Lydia and her daughter, also Lydia Clemmons, with the encouragement of former Flynn Center for the Performing Arts executive director John Killacky. It uses a selection of African art and ceremonial objects, accompanied by text and recorded family storytelling, to celebrate the path the Clemmonses wove between Vermont and Africa.
Collected over several decades, the works on view range from a Cameroonian water buffalo mask to Tanzanian butterfly-wing “paintings” to West African trade beads and Ghanaian kente cloth.
The Clemmonses first traveled to Africa in 1984, when they were in their sixties. Jack, a pathologist at the University of Vermont, was offered a position researching the then-mysterious HIV virus at what is now the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre. Lydia joined him, working as a nurse anesthetist. Thus began the couple’s 20-year era of travel throughout the African continent, which led to the incidental birth of the first African retail mail-order business in the U.S