College of Liberal Arts

Unveiling Stories of the Black Diaspora through Art Collecting

Tue, Feb 28, 2017
Photo by Brian Birzer
Photo by Brian Birzer

It all started with a limited edition print, titled “Carnival Clown” — a colorful depiction of a clown leaping with his whip in the air — purchased from an artist from Saint Kitts.

It’s a playful and fun reflection of the culture of the Caribbean Island, and it spoke to Rudy Green in ways that other decorations had not. This, he thought, was art.

“It was a type of creative expression that was unlike anything I had bought before,” says Green, who purchased the piece in 1986 by an artist named Rose Cameron Smith. “I always point to that purchase as the beginning of my life as an art collector.”

But his wife, Joyce Christian, describes the collection as more of an obsession.  

“I definitely know about that addiction. I live with it,” she laughs. “He is very passionate about the visual arts, and it’s hard to live with him and not catch some of that fever. He’s certainly enriched my life in that respect.”

Hundreds of artworks by or about people of African descent from around the world cover the walls and layer stacks in their home — a growing and ever-changing collection of paintings, prints, sculptures and textiles by masters such as Michael Ray Charles, Elizabeth Catlett and Edouard Duval Carrié that tell stories of each purchase, each artist and the African diaspora.

“I think of what we’re doing as having a very strong, intentional educational component to learn about other cultures,” Green says. As their collection grows, Green and Christian have partnered with the John L. Warfield Center for African & African American Studies to share art, tell stories and allow viewers to interact with narratives from across the African diaspora; thus, The Christian-Green Gallery was created.

The 2,000 square-foot space, located in Jester Hall (JES A232) on the UT Austin campus, provides a platform for art and material culture of the Black Diaspora. The gallery ensures that those at UT, and those further afield, have access to art and archival material that might otherwise not be available. In addition, the Warfield Center, in collaboration with the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies and the LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections, established the Black Diaspora Special Collections, to promote reciprocal collecting, borrowing and storage of art and archival materials.

Since its opening in January 2016, the gallery has hosted three exhibits, featuring works by Eto OtitgbeAngelbert Metoyer and currently a collection of hand-inked images by Nate Powell from the graphic memoir “MARCH,” which chronicles the life of Civil Rights leader John Lewis.

“We are very happy to have the association with the University of Texas, an educational institution that has a common objective with us in promoting the art and using it as a tool for education,” says Green, who received both his J.D. and MBA from UT Austin. “I’m particularly interested in the research component. I want to make things available to scholars so they can tell the stories that have not been told.”

Green uses his own collection to tell stories of his own about the artists he’s met and the work he’s acquired from them. He says he doesn’t feel as though he’s collected work by an artist unless he has at least four pieces. Only then can he begin to unveil parts of their story: how their artwork changed over time; the perspective and cultural lens with which they approach each piece; and the individual growth and evolution of each artist.

Both Christian and Green find value in the relationships they’ve forged with the artists whose art they purchased over the years.

“It just makes the purchase even more meaningful,” says Christian, a native of the island of Dominica and former nurse. “I love to travel. And it’s been really educational exploring and trying to purchase art from people from the diaspora wherever they might have settled around the globe, in places you wouldn’t expect it.”

‘The chase’ for art by artists of African descent has taken them around the world, immersing them in new cultures. Green says the most attractive pieces to him are those that speak most profoundly about the culture from which they derived — like the “Carnival Clown.”

“I think you cannot be completely educated unless you have a very strong understanding of the way that arts and culture influence societies,” Green says. “There’s a part of us, the creative part, that needs to be nurtured. Looking at art, studying art and understanding the story of creative people helps to nurture that part of us.”

Beyond appreciating the art for what it is — as a window into the various cultures of the Black diaspora, revealing perspectives and experiences of artists around the world — Christian and Green say their collection allows them to reflect on their journey as art collectors, the travels they’ve taken and the people they’ve met.

“I strongly believe that you have to have a broad education to be a well-educated person, and the study of art, art history and culture would be part of that complete education,” says Green. “I had always wanted to have a community art space, to allow people to come in and learn and enjoy art; and, in a sense, that’s what is being accomplished through this relationship with the university.”

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