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New York man works to open African art museum

africa-artOpen the door of a seemingly normal New York apartment and the unwary visitor is transported to another world. Tribal drums jostle for space with forbidding statues and flamboyant masks. Eric Edwards, a retired phone company executive born and bred in Brooklyn, has spent 44 years amassing an astonishing African art collection.

Friends thought he was crazy but now he plans to put the whole exotic, chaotic collection on public display. “Most people thought I was totally out of my mind for spending so much money on these things,” he says from a tiny sofa, hemmed in by art from all 54 countries in Africa crammed floor to ceiling in his duplex. Visitors tread a narrow path from door to kitchen, careful not to knock over any ancient Nubian relics or ceremonial drums. “I just had this huge love of African art, because it was not just about the art. It was about me,” Edwards said.

His interest was sparked by his Barbadian father, who sought to counter racism in New York by teaching his children African history that would instill them with a sense of pride and identity. Edwards wants to instill the same pride in other African Americans by setting up a cultural museum of African Art in the city. He wants the museum to be in Brooklyn, the increasingly desirable New York borough that is home to one of the most concentrated African American communities in the US. He believes it could open as early as 2016.

‘We are at an impasse’
America has been awash with racial tensions incited by police killings of unarmed black men, and the massacre of black worshippers by a white gunman in a Charleston church. Edwards says the need for a cultural center has never been greater. “We are at an impasse, for sure, as far as connectivity and communication between the races and appreciation of the races,” he said. “I can’t see a better way to bring people together than through the appreciation of the African artifacts and the stories that they tell. But getting the museum up and running is a struggle. His collection, which he values at $10 million, is being professionally appraised, the results of which will make the future clearer. A crowdfunding campaign designed to raise $35,000, in what Edwards says is more about publicity than anything else, has raised less than $4,000.

He says he has the support of city officials and is working to secure private funds, and has engaged an architect-Rodney Leon-who designed the African Burial Ground Memorial in New York. Leon says talks are underway to rent a mansion in Brooklyn’s Bedford Stuyvesant, but suggested an opening date in 2016 might be too ambitious. “There is a lot that has to happen concurrently. I think it’s a real rare, once in a lifetime opportunity,” Leon said. “If it takes a couple of extra years to get the museum right I think it’s worth it... It would be an amazing opportunity to put something like this in Brooklyn and to have it really accessible to the local population.” Edwards also has the support of his sister, Myrna Edwards-Williams, a retired school principal tasked with setting up a curriculum for ancient African studies that the museum can impart. “We really want to help change the youth because a lot of them a very troubled now for various reasons,” she said. “There is such dire need of help, advice, and (to) give them a knowledge of their culture, of who they really are,” she said. But it would not be the first African museum in New York.

The Africa Center
Manhattan’s flashy Fifth Avenue is home to the Africa Center, in a building yet to be finished with a projected budget of nearly $100 million. Its managing director is a former US ambassador to Botswana and Chelsea Clinton is on the board of trustees. It was first established in 1984 as the Center for African Art and in 1992 was renamed The Museum for African Art. The museum’s curators have organized dozens of exhibitions that have travelled the world. In 2013 it became The Africa Center, a space for art, a policy center and a business hub, although no exhibitions are currently on view. Edwards says his museum can be set up more easily and be a draw for Brooklyn. So what would his father think? Edwards pauses. “I think he would be very proud.” — AFP

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This article was published on 05/07/2015