AN AVID COLLECTOR OF AFRICAN AMERICAN ART, Maya Angelou (1928-2014) surrounded herself with paintings, sculpture, fine prints and works on paper. The vaunted poet and author acquired works by Romare Bearden, John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Melvin Edwards and Faith Ringgold, among many others, that have largely remained unseen by the public. In September, the private collection will be available to view and purchase at Swann Auction Galleries in New York.

This week, Swann announced The Art Collection of Maya Angelou would be offered for sale on Sept. 15. Forty-three works will be auctioned including a story quilt by Ringgold that Oprah Winfrey commissioned for Angelou’s birthday in 1989; a 1962 painting by Biggers depicting an African market; “The Obeah’s Choice,” a 1986 watercolor by Bearden; and a 1993 photograph of Angelou by Jean Moutoussamy-Ashe.


Nigel Freeman, Swann’s director of African-American Fine Art, says the collection shows the natural affinity Angelou had with many visual artists. “Their common artistic interests and experiences are evident in the narrative and expressive qualities of the work in the collection,” he said in a press release.

The collection shows the natural affinity Angelou had with many visual artists. “Their common artistic interests and experiences are evident in the narrative and expressive qualities of the work in the collection.”
— Nigel Freeman, Swann Auction Galleries

ANGELOU, WHO TAUGHT AT WAKE FOREST University for more than 30 years, died at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C., on May 28, 2014. She was 86. Her health had been failing for some time and she had heart problems.

The author of more than a dozen books including essay and poetry collections, Angelou came to literary prominence after writing her first autobiographical work. Published in 1969, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” documents her traumatic early years. Nominated for an American Book Award, the bestselling memoir is a staple on academic reading lists.

Angelou was a true renaissance woman who also sang, danced and acted on Broadway. In San Francisco, she was the first black streetcar conductor and in Cairo she worked as a magazine editor. Active in the Civil Rights Movement, she was friendly with James Baldwin, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., and later in life Winfrey became like a daughter to her.

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FAITH RINGGOLD, “Maya’s Quilt of Life,” 1989 (acrylic on canvas with pieced fabric border). Estimate $150,000 to $250,000.


Angelou read a poem, “On the Pulse of the Morning,” at the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton and, in 2000, Clinton honored her with a National Medal of Arts. President Barack Obama presented Angelou with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

In 2010, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem acquired Angelou’s archive of papers and documents, including a draft of “On the Pulse of the Morning,” and correspondence with Baldwin, Chester Himes and Gordon Parks.

She received a rare national honor in April when the United States Postal Service issued a Forever stamp featuring her likeness and a quote. The recognition, which was announced at a ceremony attended by First Lady Michelle Obama and Winfrey, was undermined by the fact that the selected quote was erroneously attributed to Angelou and actually belonged to another author.

A FAITHFUL BELIEVER IN THE INTERSECTION of art and culture, Angelou’s poem “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me” was published in 1993 as a children’s book illustrated with paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Nearly two decades ago, Angelou lent her imprimatur to “Bearing Witness: Contemporary Works by African American Women Artists” a major exhibition of works by 25 artists.

“African American art and culture are not separate nor can they be separated,” Angelou wrote in the foreword to the 1996 catalog.

“In the lyrical canvas of Lois Mailou Jones, the phrase the explains how we have kept lyricism in our lives is ‘Over my head, I hear music in the air.’ Elizabeth Catlett‘s vibrant strength in sculpture and drawings can be heard in the divine order to Moses to ‘Go down, way down in Egypt land and let my people go.’ Selma Burke‘s majestic sculpture brings to mind the heroic line, ‘I’m a child of the King. I’m a child of the king. With Jesus my Savior, I’m a child of the King.'”


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JOHN BIGGERS, “Kumasi Market,” 1962 (oil and acrylic on masonite board). Estimate $100,000 to $150,000.


LAST MONTH, NEARLY 200 WORKS OF ART belonging to Angelou were offered for sale at Laster’s Fine Art & Antiques in Winston-Salem. The Winston-Salem Journal reported that Synthia Saint James and Phoebe Beasley were among the artists represented at the April 17 sale. Paintings, prints and sculptures were sold. Many of the works depicted Angelou.

Owner Larry Laster told the newspaper that the art came from Angelou’s home on Bartram Road and her office on Valley Road and that the gallery had also been retained to conduct estate sales at each location.

In New York, a fully illustrated catalog will be produced for the Sept. 15 Swann sale featuring examples of fine art from Angelou’s collection.

“Imagination and creativity were central pillars of my mother’s work life. She appreciated a well-turned, lyrical phrase as much as the lines and contours of a well sculpted figure or the transcending brush strokes that accent an image… Art to her was a means of communicating ideas, emotions and feelings that the originating artist may not have had the words to express,” said Guy Johnson, Angelou’s son, in the Swann release.

“Her family is happy to have the art that she loved, bring joy and inspiration to the lives of others.” CT


The author of an impressive collection of books spanning memoir, poetry and essays, Maya Angelou penned the foreword to the catalog “Bearing Witness: Contemporary Works by African American Women Artists,” a 1996 exhibition organized by the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art. Her children’s book “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me” is illustrated by Jean-Michel Basquiat.


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