Saturday, October 19, 2013

Paul Hamilton: Art, knowledge and a fundi's wisdom of Africa

Ife, Wunmonija, brass sculpture, early 14thCentury

From the "Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria" exhibit at the Museum for African Art in New York City.

I never had much interest in the collecting and trading of African art until I saw Dr. Paul Hamilton's amazing collection and spoke with him and others about it.  It is quite ironic that most Africans and African Americans - including myself - have no concept of the high demand for African traditional art among the world's elite dealers and collectors. Somehow we never drew the connection between Picasso and Salvador Dali channeling their intensely creative "inner African" and international pricing, supply and demand.  I thoroughly enjoyed my conversations with both Paul Hamilton and Paul's art dealer, Joseph Bankston, as they opened my eyes to the concept of African art as a highly-prized art form.  Perhaps this is just another symptom of the disconnectedness of our modern history, where Africans and African Americans often encounter some perceptual filters when it comes to valuing ourselves and our culture in perspective to how other people see us.  
Paul Hamilton: Art, knowledge and a "fundi's" wisdom of Africa

In his own humble and understated manner, Dr. Paul Hamilton can be described as what people throughout Africa call a “fundi” – a wise and learned man, an elder, a teacher, a researcher or someone who has specialized expertise, skill or knowledge in a given area. The name has many meanings and connotations; a musician can be a jazz fundi, an artist or sculpture can also be a fundi, and an educator or counselor who has a special way with youth is even yet another type of fundi. As an art collector, college professor, school principal and teacher and an author, Paul Hamilton’s life experience naturally confers many dimensions of that respected title.

Now at 72, as he faces retirement, Hamilton has a unique opportunity to reflect on his life journey and place his body of work in an enduring perspective. As the owner of a highly respected African art collection, Hamilton is facing certain decisions regarding the future legacy of his marvelous anthology of authentic carvings, sculptures, paintings, books and manuscripts, drawn from all corners of the African continent.

A visit to Paul Hamilton’s home is an unforgettable experience; sculptures, carvings, masks, figurines and ceremonial folk art of every conceivable size, shape and texture are placed on virtually every available shelf, corner, stairwell, credenza and window sill. The Hamilton home has an atmosphere of grace, antiquity and character; it is something like a living museum, a veritable master symphony of African expressions, qualities and personalities. Of course, Hamilton dearly loves his art, and he happily regales visitors with reams of information about the background, history and religious and ceremonial functions of the various objects of his personal passion.

Earlier this year a group of artists, organizations and Curtis Park community groups were coalescing around a plan – spearheaded by the Denver’s dynamic Redline Art Gallery – to redevelop the historic Temple Emmanuel Synagogue as a theater venue, artist studio and retail space, with Hamilton’s collection serving as the foundation of an African American museum and community arts center. But with administrative changes at Redline and the future of the ambitious project being unclear, Hamilton is now looking toward a new international art auction fundraiser that he hopes will introduce his African art to elite collectors around the world. The black tie art event, which benefits the Howard Dental Center, will be held on December 14 at the Scottish Rite Masonic Center in Denver, is expected to draw between 500 and 800 people.

Joseph Bankston, an art dealer and appraiser who handles Hamilton’s collection, points out that African art has always been among the most prized art forms in the international world of elite artists, galleries and patrons. “African art is one of the strongest art forms on the planet because basically African art has affected Picasso and the rest of the more famous abstract artists of Europe and America and elsewhere,” Bankston told me during a recent conversation at Café on the Points. “They use African design in all of their work, and most of it was a reflection of African art. So if you look at some of Picasso’s art, you’ll see replicas of African ritual pieces, and on and on. If you look at Dali and some of the rest of them, you see African art within them – they basically took their new form of modern art from designs in African art.”

With a soft smile that belies vast experience of decades in the art collecting world, Bankston told me that African art “has always been one of the most collectable arts on the planet, besides Chinese and Asian art and European art. It can be, at some point, one of the most expensive arts to collect; it depends on what it is.” He said that the auction – which will become an annual fundraising event to support dental services for those suffering from HIV/AIDS – is already developing its own buzz, with some well-known celebrities and art collectors expected to be in attendance. Online bidding begins in November, a full month ahead of the actual event.

“We sent out media presentations to all of newspapers and televisions stations, PBS, and also the auction companies will put it out to the public, and it will be widely acknowledged,” Bankston said.  He also noted that premier auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christies will be participating.  

“We’re spending a lot of money on advertising and getting the word out. It will spread. All the galleries will be notified by e-mail and they will notify their clients and artists – so it’s a domino effect. It will spread like wildfire.”

The Howard Dental Center Auction will also feature an in-person appearance by renowned artist Majid Kahhak. Kahhak, who lives near Aspen and is well known for his live performance art paintings of celebrities like Bill Clinton, Ray Charles, Tiger Woods, Marcel Marceau, King Hassan II of Morocco, Jack Nicklaus and former Denver Bronco Terrell Davis.  Local artists are also being encouraged to submit their work.

For Hamilton, the auction is an opportunity to serve the Denver community while also increasing the international profile of his African art collection. Hamilton is donating the full proceeds of several of his pieces that have been appraised at more than $60,000; however, his focus is less on the monetary value and more on a long term institutional arrangement for his collection.

“I’ll make a little money on income tax. The big thing for me will be getting my name out there and getting my collection out there to Europe and Asia and places like that,” Hamilton said in a recent telephone interview. He added that he was very disappointed when he learned the Redline project fell through.

“My idea was to have my collection set up where different art groups and creative people can work and get inspired by the place around them, and also you have some kind of performances. So you take Redline and you expand the concept to have other groups, and then you have my art collection and library.”

Hamilton has had numerous discussions with Blair-Caldwell Museum curator Terry Nelson, but the Museum did not have the space to accommodate his thousands of books and manuscripts, let alone his art pieces, although Hamilton previously loaned some of his collection to the Museum for temporary exhibits. As much as Hamilton loves African art, his scholarly research is particularly close to his heart, which was the basis for his seminal book, “Shattering the Myths: African People’s Contributions to World Civilizations.” “Shattering the Myths,” which includes scientific research of race and evolution, as well as historical perspectives on Ancient Egypt and Nubia, the great kingdoms of West Africa and the African cultural roots of Western science, mathematics, philosophy and religion, is out-of-print after three printings in the mid 90s and remains in high demand.

Currently a teacher at Brady High School in Jefferson County, Hamilton has committed himself to retiring at the end of the 2013-14 school year, and he intends to write a second volume to “Shattering the Myths,” in addition to producing a large, high quality coffee-table photography book on African art.

With the excitement of Howard Dental Center’s First Annual Art Auction and the freedom of a well-deserved retirement, we can expect some new and wonderful offerings from one of Colorado’s great fundis.

This article was originally written for the November 2013 issue of The Urban Spectrum. For more information on the Howard Dental Center Art Auction, see, and for more information on Paul Hamilton and his art collection, see  


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