By Nicole Rhoden
The upcoming 16th Annual International Art & Antiques Fair at Chicago’s Merchandise Mart from April 26-29 features exhibitors from around the world, showcasing art, antiques and jewelry from B.C. to the 20th Century.
Taking a place of prominence at the Fair along side works by artists like Vincent Van Gogh, Salvador Dali and Claude Monet, will be pieces from the collection of Kip McKesson, owner of Kip McKesson African Art Gallery in Michigan.
Kip has spent decades as a world traveler and developed an interest in international art over the course of his adventures. While McKesson’s gallery is in Michigan, he and his wife Wambui spend seven to eight months of the year in Tanzania in search of authentic, museum-quality African art pieces.
A Kenyan native and fine arts graduate of Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Wambui creates her own jewelry pieces for the collection, integrating antique components into her designs.
Many of the objects in the McKessons’ collection have been passed down for generations. “Everything that we sell is authentic. This means that it was not (originally) meant to be sold, but was meant to be used in a traditional, often ceremonial, setting,” says McKesson. “Most of our pieces are from the 19th or early 20th century, though some are much older.”
In fact, many of the tribal shows that the McKessons exhibit in are vetted, with a cutoff date of 1945, or allow only pieces displaying a continuing tribal tradition that has not changed.
Maintaining such high standards in an African art collection is increasingly difficult due to high demand and a resulting surge in counterfeit artifacts.
Explains McKesson, “It’s difficult to find items that aren’t copies, that aren’t made to be sold as art. In order to find good pieces you have to go deeper and deeper into the bush.”
To acquire their treasures, the McKessons rely heavily on groups of runners who spend extended stays with tribes — two to three months at a time — riding bikes from village to village.
“Without them, we wouldn’t have a job,” says McKesson. Many of these runners have upward of 20 years of experience selecting authentic African artifacts and have worked with McKesson since he first arrived in Tanzania in 1998.
McKesson emphasizes that all of the objects he and Wambui sell have significance far beyond their aesthetic value. “They all are representative of the cultures from which they come,” he says.
The McKessons collect handcrafted wooden furniture and vessels, pyro-decorated gourd containers, finely woven baskets, and other “utilitarian” art that intertwines beauty and function.
Also among the collection are original tribal jewelry and brightly colored woven hats (top image)from Ethiopia which, when displayed in a collection, resemble a folk art painting. McKesson lovingly calls these purposeful pieces “objects of beauty.”
Kip also exhibits an array of “power objects,” sculptural pieces designed specifically for ritualistic purposes.
“Power objects are pieces that were used by a diviner, or traditional doctor from the ethnic group. They are deemed to have special powers that can be evoked through the diviner who uses them,” explains McKesson of the objects’ spiritual value.
The McKessons’ exhibit will display a collection of 19th century pilgrim staffs from the Oromo peoples of Ethiopia. “These Y-shaped wooden staffs are quite rare,” says McKesson.
“They were carried by the faithful in a pilgrimage to a pagan saint who lived hundreds of years ago. Some of the pilgrims traveled for months to reach the holy site. When those along the way saw the staff, they knew that these were pilgrims and were required to offer them sustenance for their long journey.”
(For more information about Kip McKesson African Art Gallery, visit www.kipmckesson.com. To find out more about the International Art & Antiques Fair, visit www.merchandisemartantiques.com/spring.)