Melanie Stengel — New Haven Register
MARY E. O'LEARY, NEW HAVEN REGISTER
New Haven: Bayard Rustin, major civil rights activist
leader in the nonviolence movement and singer, also was a sophisticated
art collector whose important discoveries now are on display in New
The chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Rustin was hnored posthumously this week at the White House as one of 16 Americans awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
On the second floor of the Yale University Art Gallery, before a
wall-size photo of an excavation site, are terra cotta figures standing
in an open display meant to simulate the environment of the Sahara
They represent a small portion of the 243 figures created by
artisans in the ancient civilizations of West Africa, somewhere between
1,000 B.C.E. through the first millennium, and donated to the gallery by enterpreneur and philanthropist Joel Grae and his wife, SusAnna Grae, in 2010.
“You’ve got a gem in your midst. I hope the people in New Haven
can determine who these people were,” said SusAnna Grae of the figures
originally collected by Rustin in the 1950s in Nigeria and Niger and
obtained by the Graes through a mutual friend.
“This is a great mystery, but it is also great art,” she said at the gallery Friday.
“This is 3,000 years old,” she said, pointing to the oldest figures from the Nok Civilization. Joel Grae said that civilization goes back even further.
The faces of the male and female figures from Nok are
characterized by triangular eyes incised into the clay with elaborate
hairstyles and body jewelry for both sexes.
“I’m an old potter, and how these didn’t blow off in the heating
process is a miracle. These were hand built and fired in open grass,”
SusAnna Grae said.
The other civilizations are the Katsina and Sokoto, who, along with the Nok, are from Nigeria, while the Bura are from Niger.
A mother-and-child figure from Katsina, which is about 2,000
years old, has a more sensitive treatment in the facial expression,
SusAnna Grae said. The Sokota figures were “more judgmental,” she said
with “an austere village elder kind of feeling to them.” They also have a
different style of how they are created by overlaying the slabs of clay
to create different layers.
“There are subtle differences between them,” she said, with Egyptian influences apparent.
Rustin had befriended the future presidents of Ghana and Nigeria
when those men were studying at Lincoln University near Rustin’s home in
Pennsylvania, giving him entre to those countries where he went to
study village life, conflict resolution and the apparent peaceful
“There were no battlements or weapons found,” Joel Grae said of the current excavation being undertaken by German archeologists.
“They found tools for agriculture, but not for weapons,” said Frederick John Lamp the Frances and Benjamin Benenson Foundation curator of African Art.
Lamp said many African leaders of the independence movements
studied at Lincoln, including Nnamdi Azikiwe, who became president of
He said Rustin’s time in Africa, before independence, was part of his civil rights training.
“He was interested in studying local government in Africa. It was
all part of his awakening to civil rights and his participation in
organizations like SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) and CORE (Congress on Racial Equality). He was concerned about how to build a more just government here,” Lamp said.
As for the ancient artists themselves, Lamb said “They were definitely skilled.”
He said many figures had bound beards and carried a crook and
whip, like Egyptian leaders. “The pharaoh often was shown with a bound
beard,” Lamp said.
Lamp said the Nok art was contemporaneous with the last
millennium of the Egyptian kingdoms. Joel Grae said it also was the era
of the Great Wall of China and the Mayan civilization, as well as very
Joel Grae said some of the jewelry they have in their collection
from this period had Roman and Egyptian glass. “They were traders,” he
said of the Noks. He said there were beads that came from a quarry in
Lamp said there was no reference to Sokoto and Katsina by art
historians in the major textbook published in 2000, 50 years after
Rustin was assembling his collection.
“We didn’t know it existed,” Lamp said of the major contribution
Rustin has made to understanding the history of the area and the Graes
for donating it to the university for public appreciation.
There are interesting coincidences between Rustin and Lamp, as
both grew up in the same part of Pennsylvania. Also, Rustin was Quaker
and Lamp was Mennonite, each raised in nonviolent cultures.
SusAnna Grae said they choose Yale for their gift because of
Lamp’s scholarly work and his commitment to studying the artwork across
different academic disciplines, as well as offering a course to local
teachers to pass on the discovery to New Haven schoolchildren.
“Our interest was to let people know about it. Very few people
knew anything about this collection. We feel it is quite spectacular and
we wanted it to be studied and to be shared with the community. We
wanted people to see it, rather than be closed up in our home,” SusAnne
Joel Grae said when you go to most museums, it looks like African art only goes back 100 years.
“You don’t have the full picture,” SusAnna Grae said.
“This gives you a very different perspective, especially if you are a person of African descent,” said Joel Grae.
Lamp said the Nok are the oldest art producing culture in Africa
south of the Sahara and the pristine condition of Rustin’s collection
was important for documentary purposes.
He said it reflected the important relationships Rustin was able
to establish in Nigeria as he went to remote villages in that country to
which that no one else had access.
“Bayard had an amazing eye for art. He wasn’t just an amazing
historical figure who organized the many things that he did. He was a
Renaissance man ... way ahead of his time,” SusAnna Grae said.