Opening Bids: Angelou’s Inspiration

Maya Angelou’s art collection focused on works by African-American masters...

Maya angelou’s extraordinary life spanned careers as a poet, author, dancer, actor, director, professor, and activist. She was also an art collector, though not surprisingly, one very different from most others. “She wasn’t buying what was fashionable, or for an investment,” says Nigel Freeman, director of African-American Fine Art at Swann Galleries in New York. “She knew many artists and was comfortable talking with them. She admired their work, which related to the same common experiences that were in her poems.”

In September, Swann will bring 50 of those works to auction, including pieces by African-American masters Romare Bearden, John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, and Faith Ringgold. Angelou, who died last year, selected art that inspired her, such as OWWA Maya, a 2011 welded-steel sculpture by Melvin Edwards (estimated at $8,000 to $12,000) and Biggers’s 1962 oil-and-acrylic Kumasi Market ($100,000 to $150,000). The star of the sale, though, was a gift: Ringgold’s 1989 story quilt, Maya’s Quilt of Life ($150,000 to $250,000). Commissioned by Oprah Winfrey for Angelou’s 60th birthday, it is the first of Ringgold’s story quilts to be offered at auction and includes passages from Angelou works such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. “It’s a very strong piece, and artistically, it’s a work everyone associates with Faith Ringgold,” Freeman says. “And it used to hang in Angelou’s home in New York.” 

Sale: Swann Galleries, September 15, New York City; swanngalleries.com

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