Collecting Black Art: Pieces from the 1800s in a New Jersey home

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When Andrea Mason travels around the country—be it for work or pleasure—she constantly is on the lookout for out-of-the-way antique shops that may provide an item or two for her collection of African-American art. Mason, director of external partnerships at a major financial corporation, has been collecting Black art for the past 15 years. She developed her interest while attending The High School of Music and Art in New York City, even though the subject was not taught at the school. Researching and studying the history and the beauty of African-American art eventually grew into more than a hobby. It became her passion.

“When I decide to buy a piece, it has to resonate with me. With an eye to its value, I see it as an investment, and that is why my collection is so varied,” Mason says.

As she traveled, she saw that many people collect African-American art or Black imagery. Many focus on contemporary artists, she says, but Black professionals with significant means set themselves apart by collecting high-end art. “Mine is an example of how someone could put together a collection from small and over time achieve a large amount. I started with the kitchen or the Aunt Jemima pieces, as they are commonly called, and gradually the collection evolved to include paintings and lithographs. Over time I have immersed myself in reading and studying about African-American art,” she says.

Adorning her home in Teaneck, N.J., Mason’s collection includes old ceramic tobacco jars and sculptures, lithographs, an 1896 oil on canvas painting titled “Black Boy Holding a Cat,” by Edward Ghol, cloth dolls depicting African-American life in the 1920s, and hundreds of pins and broaches made of porcelain, wood, iron, copper or brass, and semiprecious stones, each of historical significance. Mason wears a different one each day. They are “conversation starters,” she says, and provide her the opportunity to speak about African-American history.

There are pieces celebrating the era of Josephine Baker, the American-born entertainer and singer who became a French citizen in 1937; Charles Smith Hamilton’s “Negro Heaven,” an image in graphite and watercolor; works by Charles Obas, Sisson Blanchard and Wilson Bigaud, all of whom were members of the 1960s group called the Haitian Masters; works by Charles Miller, a Bronx, N.Y., barber who fused abstract and surreal techniques with musical themes; and by Mary Ann Carroll, the only woman in the 1950s group known as the Florida Highwaymen—26 individuals who developed the technique of speed painting landscapes, including the Florida Everglades, and who sold their art from the back of their cars along the A1A and Interstate-95 highways for as little as $20. Today, “Highwaymen” art is highly sought after by collectors. Among Mason’s most recent additions is a piece by Elizabeth Catlett, the renowned Harlem Renaissance painter, lithographer and sculptor.

For the past five years, primarily in February, Black History Month, Mason has held a one-day exhibition of her collection in her home. This year, she will hold the exhibition outdoors in June to coincide with Juneteenth celebrations commemorating the June 19, 1865, announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas. “I create an opportunity to use art to engage others, to have people talk about history and to help people become aware of it,” Mason says.

For advice on starting a collection, contact Andrea Mason at usfolksnj@aol.com.