Works from the private art collection of renowned poet and author Maya Angelou will soon go on public display. Not in a museum, however, but for a sale at Swann Auction Galleries scheduled for September 15 in Manhattan. The auction, which will be preceded by a seven-day public preview, offers a rare glimpse of some 50 pieces from the poet’s collection. Many are by renowned African American artists such as Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden; a number are by Angelou’s close friends, including John Biggers and Elizabeth Catlett, and even include personal messages inscribed on them.
“To: Dr. Angelou — You give me hope and inspiration,” Alonzo Adam pencilled along the left arm of the subject of “Phenomenal Woman” (1993), a watercolor depicting a proud African American woman raising her arms with strength and confidence. Women are prominently featured in Angelou’s collection, from a portrait of a washerwoman by Samella Lewis to a gouache-and-ink piece of two sisters playing Mankala by Tom Feelings, signed “To Maya with Black Love.” Feelings, who met Angelou in Ghana in the early 1960s, later drew a portrait of her mother Vivian Baxter, whom she called “Lady B“; the sketch of the standing nude, which was reproduced in Angelou’s book Now Sheba Sings the Song, is also up for sale. Elizabeth Catlett, whom the poet referred to as the “queen of the arts,” contributes more portraits of spirited women, from a resolute face on the subway to an old, tired-looking woman with a broom, titled “Survivor” (1983).
Also in the collection are a number of portraits of Angelou herself, from a regal, black-and-white print by Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe to a bold, blue-and-yellow watercolor by Richard Yarde. There’s even a wonderful self-portrait — believed to be the first known work of visual art by the poet to be publicly shown — of a pregnant Angelou holding a gun, gazing fixedly at an unseen target and ready to fire. She painted it during the winter of 1969, shortly after finishing her acclaimed autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and titled it, “The Protector of Home and Family.”
Another highlight of the collection is a Faith Ringgold story quilt, “Maya’s Quilt of Life” (1989), which Oprah Winfrey commissioned for Angelou’s 61st birthday and later hung in the poet’s Harlem home. Side panels of hand-written quotations from Angelou’s poems frame a portrait of Angelou wearing her signature outfit of patterned African dress and headscarf, with the text sourced from works such as Gather Together in My Name, The Heart of a Woman, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
The pieces in the auction are but a sample of Angelou’s personal trove, which, according to her son Guy Johnson, consisted of over 500 works. As he writes in the accompanying catalogue’s introduction, art resonated with Angelou as much as poetry did:
For my mother, paintings, sculpture, dance and music were ways of translating the intangible into digestible bites; these forms of art were ways of expressing feelings and emotions that resisted the confinement of words. 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 or the ones that balance the composition of colors in a painting. If she saw a beautiful dance piece or heard a phenomenal musical riff or melody she would talk about it admiringly for days afterward. Imagination and creativity were the central pillars of her work life.