By: Joel and SusAnna Grae – “You do not really own a work of art until you give it away”
According to Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift
And so we did — 243 pieces, from the little known African civilizations who inhabited the sub-Sahara dating back 1500 to 4000 years. So little is known about this ancient art that it is referred to by the names of modern cities near where it was found: Bura, Katsina, Nok, and Sokoto.
On a rotating basis, this art is now on permanent display at the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut. The environment of this modern gallery structure designed by Louis Kahn is a strong contrast to the ancient terra cotta and stone sculpture. The creative display evokes a sense of the flowing Sahara and is filled with the energy, vitality and mystery of the long gone societies represented. Who were the people who created this sophisticated art? What inspired the artists? How did they learn the craft that would enable such beautiful and creative work that was only discovered in the 20th century, buried in farm fields, abandoned tin mines and river beds?
We built a library of over 100 books referencing the subject, visited numerous museums displaying one piece and occasionally more, traveled and studied the art, all because the mystery taunted us. We understood the importance of this art as unique, historically important and inspirational in its ability to communicate to us on an almost spiritual level. We were the caretakers who built the Collection, lived with it…night and day, viewed it and discussed it, observed what was missing, edited the Collection, traded and upgraded it as the opportunities allowed. It was not unusual for Joel to sit in front of our stadium like display and meditate on some of his business challenges. In fact this art became collaborators and problem solvers as each of their personalities surfaced. In short, they became our extended and peaceful family, our very personal friends and confidants.
Deciding the future of the Collection was always about the ongoing scholarship…we wanted the mystery solved. Our choice to gift the art was clear, and the search for the right institution ended when we met Fredrick Lamp, The Frances & Benjamin Benenson Curator of African Art. He was a kindred soul with hands on experience working in Africa, and an unmatched creative vision and understanding of our goal to have the art studied, written about, exhibited and made available to the public with ongoing lectures, and conferences.
We received our own gift through the cross pollinating efforts of his colleague Roderick McIntosh, Professor of Archaeology and Curator, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, when he conducted a hands-on archaeology class using a selection from our antiquity collection, just months after it was donated. The scholarship continues and the Caretaker’s baton has been passed. Yale will continue to display the art for all mankind to learn about and perhaps
discover its rich heritage…our heritage.
Hopefully these incomparable and historic sub-Sahara terracottas will find their historic place amongst the more recognized art and architecture from the same time period – that of the Pharonic dynasties of Egypt, the Mayan Civilization and the Great Wall of China.