Inside the Black Art Auction
Historic Auction Taking Place May 16, 2020
Public interest in African American art has grown tremendously in recent years from novice enthusiasts and established collectors alike. Accordingly, collectors across the nation anxiously await Black Art Auction’s (BAA) first online auction scheduled for May 16 at 12pm.
Billed as the only auction house in the world solely dedicated to selling African American fine art, the sale will include more than 100 lots of historically significant works by African American artists, spanning three centuries, in mediums including painting, sculpture, assemblage, photography, printmaking, and ceramics.
Black Art Auction is owned and operated by Thom Pegg. Pegg is the owner of Tyler Fine Art in St Louis, Missouri, and has maintained a gallery there for the past 30 years. He has also been sole owner, or a part owner of galleries in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Indianapolis. He has been involved in the fine art auction business for 25 years, directing specialty auctions of African American art with houses including Toomey (Chicago), Treadway (Cincinnati), Heritage (Dallas), and Ripley (Indianapolis) for the last eight years.
Recently, Dr. Kelli Morgan, Associate Curator of American Art at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, sat down with BAA’s Director Christopher West and Director of Public Relations Kaila Austin for Black Art in America to discuss what collectors can look forward to and the importance of building both a new retail space for those who collect Black art and a new scholarly space for Black art as a whole.
Responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.
KM: Chris, you and Thom have both been in this business for quite some time. There are literally decades of experience between the two of you. So my first questions are why Black arts, why this, and why now?
CW: We decided to start [Black Art Auction] as a place solely dedicated to African American art, to really begin to tell the deeper stories of African American artists and art history. We believe that we can do a lot more for the work without the noise of other items such as, design items, which other auction houses might have. Here, we’re able to focus exclusively on African American material. So, the publications and scholarly essays we produce start to make clearer connections between more well-known artists and others that might have been working in close proximity to them or even participating in the same exhibitions, but are not as familiar to the public.
KM: Yes, I am super excited that you all are doing this too, as much more scholarship is needed on the historic or legacy artists. In addition to that, ventures such as this help create opportunities for younger professionals of color like Kayla, who are just establishing themselves in the field. Kayla, I know that you’ve held various roles within museums, but you are new to the auction world. Could you tell us a little bit about your background and what attracted you to the position?
KA: Sure, my background particularly is in exhibition, installation, and design. I received my Bachelor’s Degree from Indiana University with a triple major in Art History, Black Studies, and Painting, which is a perfect blend of academic training for this position. Yet, my primary focus has been to do exactly what Chris mentioned earlier, illuminate the lives and careers of African American artists within the larger American historical narrative, because if you really want to learn about African American history you have to take a Black Studies course.
African American art is not fully integrated into the traditional canon, so I specifically chose to work in exhibition design as race is a visual construct. It was important to me to change the way people see things, especially the Black body within the exhibition space.
In 2017, I was awarded the inaugural Clowes Memorial Internship at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures at Indiana University, where I spent the summer working with the dress forms of Yoruba-Ghanaian women in efforts to normalize Blackness and promote body positivity within the museum gallery I was in charge of creating a series of forms that didn’t subscribe to Euro-centric beauty models that prefabricated mannequins normally adhere. The result was a manual that the museum submitted to the NEH for funding. My most recent project was the reinstallation of the Africa, Oceania, and Latin American floor at the Eskenazi Museum of Art, also at Indiana University.
KM: That is all really exciting and such important work. In your internship, I find it very interesting that you used the exhibition space, mannequins, and textiles to literally “tailor” the ways in which museum visitors see not only the Black body, but also Black culture, which leads me to my next question. How do you see collectors using BAA as a resource to learn more about Black artists and the various styles in which they worked?
CW: I think a lot of that will come out of the stories we tell. You may attend a Sotheby’s auction and see an Ed Clark or an Alma Thomas, but can’t necessarily bid on such high-priced works. Although BAA surely offers those artists, we will also present works by their lesser-known colleagues that you wouldn’t see in mainstream auctions. Not everyone can afford the giant Sam Gilliam, but at BAA you can get another painter from D.C. who was not as well-known, but was working in a similar vein and at the same time as Sam.
KA: I think we have the ability to show that the Black mind didn’t start with the Harlem Renaissance. We have works that demonstrate that Black intellectual history and Black art history, as part of the American story, goes back to this country’s origins. We have works from nineteenth century traditional romantic landscape paintings to contemporary works that were created as recent as last year.
KM: Indeed, providing work that represents the long lineage of African American art is crucial. But, speaking of contemporary art, Indianapolis has a burgeoning community of Black artists. How do you see BAA participating in activities led by local artists of color?
KA: First and foremost we’re an auction house that’s open to the public, so if you want to come to an auction you’re more than welcome. Second, we’re going to have exhibit space. Whenever I talk to local artists of color in Indianapolis, the sentiment is often that there’s just a general lack of space for us to represent ourselves or to see ourselves historically represented.
CW: Because we work with such a variety of collectors across the country, and are exploring their collections, we have the opportunity to present work by artists who have been intimately collected by private collectors, but not necessarily seen by the broader public. With this in mind, we plan to develop exhibitions that you’re not going to see every day or necessarily see in a museum. It is tremendously worthy work and we have a beautiful space in which to show it.
KM: Absolutely, space is gorgeous! To shift our conversation into some of the work, behind us is John Biggers’s phenomenal conte drawing Cloth Traders, 1958. Biggers was a very important American muralist and university professor, can you share a little bit about this work?
KA: Yes, I think we have about 8 works by Biggers in the auction, and this one is our crowning work. Born in Gastonia, NC in 1924, Biggers attended Hampton in 1939, and in 1957 he received a UNESCO grant that allowed him to travel to Nigeria and Ghana where he kept a small sketchbook, which would later become the source material for Cloth Traders and about 88 other works that were inspired by his trip.
KM: Biggers was well-known for the ways in which he worked to penetrate the invisible but very real curtain between African Americans and Africans on the continent. Now, with there being so much more scholarship, artwork, and understanding of the African Diaspora and the popularity of artists like Didier William, Ebony Patterson, Simone Leigh, etc. how do you think Biggers’s work and his legacy is in conversation with contemporary dialogues pertaining to the Diaspora?
KA: I think Bigger’s work really allows us to create a myth, to create stories that we’ve been historically denied as Diasporic peoples. Meaning, his work created an even larger space for us to reject the images that were being placed on us and allowed for us to begin to create our own visual cultures and visual sovereignty.
KM: What do you think is the most unique aspect of Bigger’s work?
KA: The way he emphasizes the humanity of Black people, the individuality of his subjects. For instance, how this one particular figure is giving another woman in the piece some serious “side-eye.” (laughter) There’s also just a softness and a love to it, and love is not something we get to interpret much or talk much about in the arts.
KM: And Black women too! So many of his subjects are Black women.
KA: Yes, a lot of his works are of Black women. They’re beautiful!
KM: So to conclude, let me ask, what excites you all the most about BAA for the future?
CW: For me, it’s the unknown. We currently have a tentative schedule of two auctions per year, a Spring and a Fall. However, we are also looking forward to possibly doing a third, off-site in a different city. This will be dictated by what collectors or artists we’re working with. We’re really looking forward to being able to tell the stories of the places where the work was collected and/or possibly even the place where the artist was living and making work.
KA: For me, it’s about making connections with other organizations in the city such as the Madame C.J. Walker Theatre and becoming a space where we can have real conversations about how we fix the fundamental cultural problems that have arisen from structural racism.
Be sure to tune in to blackartauction.com at 12pm on May 16 to see Cloth Trader’s and more. You can preview the entire catalogue here.