Faith Ringgold’s quilt of Maya Angelou sells big at auction
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    Photos of Victorian blacks & Maya Angelou art auction

    “This looks interesting,” my auction buddy Janet wrote in the email. The first words that caught my eye in the story she had sent were “Victorian Era Blacks” and “Rare photos of 19th-century blacks.”

    I obviously was intrigued. The story told of an upcoming exhibit at the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art at Harvard University of photos of blacks who lived in England during the 19th century. Described as rare and never-before-seen, the photos had been unearthed in Getty Images’ Hulton Archive in London. They were reproduced from glass plates that had been wrapped and tied in brown paper.

    The exhibit will be proceeding at the same time as Swann Auction Galleries in New York will be selling works from the art collection of Maya Angelou, who died last year. The auction will be held Sept. 15, and features works from such artists as John Biggers, Faith Ringgold, Romare Bearden and Elizabeth Catlett.

    Two boys from the African Choir

    Albert Jonas and John Xiniwe of the African Choir, 1891. Photo from’s Hulton Archive.

    Photographs of Victorian blacks

    The “Black Chronicles II” exhibit will run from Sept. 2 to Dec. 11 at Harvard. It was held a year ago at Rivington Place in London, and included 200 photos from the 19th and early 20th century (prior to 1938).

    The photos were made for carte-de-visites, small photos (2.5″ x 4″) mounted on hard cards that were exchanged between family members. They were quite popular with soldiers during the Civil War, and remained so with the public for decades. Some carte-de-visites also included landscapes and other subjects.

    The people in Black Chronicles II were photographed in their best clothes – in much the same way as African American photographers such as James Van Der Zee in Harlem and the Scurlocks in Washington captured African Americans during the first half of the 20th century. Some of the Victorian blacks also jested in front of the camera.

    Sarah Forbes Bonetta

    Sarah Forbes Bonetta, a West African who became the goddaughter of Queen Victoria. Photo from Library of Nineteenth-Century Photography.

    People from all walks of life – the ordinary and the well-to-do, celebrities and royalty – are represented. Included are members of the African Choir, a group of South African singers who were photographed, like some of the others, by the London Stereoscophic Company.

    One of the loveliest is a photo of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, a West African who lost her parents in a tribal war in 1847, was enslaved by the Dahomeyan victors and then turned over to a captain in the British Royal Navy, who asked to take her for the queen. He presented her to Queen Victoria, who had her raised as her goddaughter. Bonetta died in 1888.

    Four small photographic prints of Bonetta are in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.

    This exhibit is part of an ongoing research project titled “The Missing Chapter.” It is being conducted by the research center Autograph ABP to uncover photographs showing the presence of blacks in the history of Great Britain. The first Black Chronicles was an exhibit in London of the works of four photographers who chronicled the lives of African Americans in Chicago and England.

    Peter Jackson.

    An 1889 photo of boxer Peter Jackson, made by the London Stereoscopic Company. Photo from Autograph ABP/Getty’s Hulton Archive.

    The director of the Harvard gallery, Vera Ingrid Grant, noted in an article that the photos show that “blacks of the era not only were very present in daily public life, but also prospered and enjoyed a certain dignity and social status.”

    That reminded me of a 1900 exhibit that W.E.B. DuBois and others mounted at the “Exposition Universelle (world’s fair)” in Paris. “The Exhibit of American Negroes” was located in a plain white building on the banks of the Seine and featured displays showing the accomplishments of African Americans. Among other things, it included more than 500 photos of blacks as well-dressed and prosperous – in their homes, churches and their own businesses.

     “Maya’s Quilt of Life”

    “Maya’s Quilt of Life,” by Faith Ringgold. It is one of 44 artworks from Maya Angelou’s collection to be auctioned.

    Maya Angelou art auction at Swann

    Maya Angelou collected artwork that inspired her or was inspired by her, according to the Swann website, and included several female artists. There are 44 artworks in the auction: lithographs and serigraphs (that are affordable), along with original paintings and a metal sculpture by Mel Edwards, made in her honor and presented to her by the Organization of Women Writers of Africa in 2011.

    An oil titled “The Protector of Home and Family” – showing a woman holding a rifle – was one that Angelou painted in 1969 after finishing “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” a homage to the strength of African American women, noted the Swann catalog. It is estimated at $15,000 to $25,000.

    Another of the works is a Ringgold quilt titled “Maya’s Quilt of Life” that Oprah Winfrey commissioned in 1989 as a 60th birthday gift to Angelou. The quilt hung in Angelou’s home in Harlem, and is estimated at $150,000 to $250,000. Ringgold is known for her story quilts on whose perimeter she writes a story about the images on the cloth. This quilt includes excerpts from several of Angelou’s works.

    This is not the first sale of artwork owned by Angelou. In early August, Laster Fine Arts & Antiques in Winston-Salem, NC, held an estate sale (prices were fixed) at Angelou’s home of other artwork, books, furniture, household items and more. Angelou lived and taught in Winston-Salem for years.


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