Home » A new book tells the story of Newark’s ‘activist collector’ of African art

A new book tells the story of Newark’s ‘activist collector’ of African art

In 1938, a Black housekeeper and hairstylist from Newark, New Jersey, made a remarkable journey to South Africa, driven partly by her desire to understand her ancestral heritage. Lida Clanton Broner was also an activist, and during her trip she lectured and circulated among South Africa’s Black intellectual elite.

She also collected art, and in a new book, “The Activist Collector,” curator and author Christa Clarke chronicles Broner’s remarkable life. “Weekend All Things Considered” host Tiffany Hanssen spoke with Clarke about Broner’s trip and the art she collected. (This conversation was lightly edited for length and clarity.)

A portrait of a woman with brown hair, and a book cover.
Curator and author Christa Clarke details Lida Clanton Broner’s life and mission in a new book, “The Activist Collector.”Courtesy Christa Clarke and the Newark Museum of Art

Hanssen: Let’s start with Lida Clanton Broner: who was she, and what was it that made her want to go to South Africa specifically?

Clarke: Lida Broner was born in 1895, and she was the granddaughter of enslaved Africans, whose stories inspired her lifelong dream to travel to the continent of their birth.

In many ways, she was a very ordinary woman. She lived in Newark, New Jersey, most of her life, where she raised her son, Leroy, and worked as a housekeeper and a hairstylist. But she was also a grassroots activist, and ended up on this remarkable journey to South Africa, where she forged ties across the Atlantic with like-minded Africans dedicated to Black liberation.

A old, discolored passport photograph
Lida Clanton Broner encountered numerous obstacles on her journey to South Africa, including a rejected visa application.Courtesy Newark Museum of Art

It’s 1938 – I have to imagine for anybody, this would’ve been a fairly arduous trip to make, let alone for a Black woman with modest means, as you’ve said. Do we know how difficult that trip was for her? Was it dangerous for her?

Well, we have a good sense of what the trip was like, because her archive is now at the Newark Museum of Art. And in her diary, she chronicles what the journey was like for her. She crossed the Atlantic by boat, a trip that took one month with the stop in London, and her third-class passage cost the equivalent of $8,000 today. In South Africa, she traveled some 2,000 miles, which is remarkable, in all four provinces and Basutoland, which is now known as Lesotho.

She traveled by train, by car, by donkey and sometimes on foot. So the journey she made is remarkable on many levels. But most challenging to be a woman alone, a Black woman alone, traveling to South Africa was incredibly challenging in 1938. She had trouble getting a visa. Her visa was rejected initially.

She experienced racism routinely, from the moment she got on the boat throughout her trip to South Africa, where she was meeting with people whose lives were deeply impacted by really restricted segregation and laws that were in place that later became apartheid.

A old black and white photograph of young women in South Africa
Young women at the Helping Hand Hostel, Johannesburg, October 1938.Lida C. Broner, courtesy Newark Museum of Art

I mentioned during this trip she also collected art. So what kind of artwork did Lida collect? What did she bring back to Newark? Did she keep them for herself? Did she immediately start sharing them with the community?

She collected about 150 works of art. They’re rather humble objects: everyday examples of needlework given by women who were forming clubs in South Africa, beadwork from women living in more rural areas, wooden utensils and woven mats from schoolchildren.

And all of these works were mostly gifted to her by people who wanted them to be shown in America. Lida Broner was very consciously building what she described as a museum, a collection of objects which she intended for public display as a way to showcase the everyday realities of Black South Africans in a segregationist country.

Earthenware vessels in assored shapes, sizes and colors
Lida Clanton Broner acquired these examples of earthenware vessels made by South Sotho women in Johannesburg, in October 1938.Courtesy Newark Museum of Art

So she intended it for public display – is that what ultimately happened? Can people go and see it now?

It was intended for public display. And when she returned to Newark in early 1939, she mobilized the collection and had a number of what I call activist exhibitions. Mostly these were exhibitions at places where Black people in the U.S. were limited, in terms of where they could display art. They were at YMCAs, public libraries, sometimes churches.

But one of the exhibitions was at the Newark Museum in 1943, so that was rather unusual. She displayed the works, talked to people wearing South African dress, talked about her experiences. They were really a very unusual opportunity to connect audiences to people, places and ideas – to the reality of segregationist South Africa, at a time when Africa seemed very far away to many people in the U.S., and most museums were displaying African art in a rather primitivizing way.

An old, discolored newspaper clipping
Lida Clanton Broner was photographed in African attire for a Newark News article on her 1943 Newark Museum exhibition.Courtesy Newark Museum of Art

And what about today?

Today, the objects are currently still in storage. But the museum has plans to mount a small display later in the spring that will be focused and based on the work of this book.

Speaking of the book, the title is “The Activist Collector.” We’ve talked about her activism. Is that really what motivated you to write about her?

Well, I didn’t actually know about her activism when I first encountered her. As a curator at the Newark Museum, I began to look at some of the collection that she gave the museum in 1947. They were rather humble objects. But the grandsons came to the museum in 2014, just out of the blue, wanting to see their grandmother’s collection, and came back with her vast personal archive, which they’ve gifted to the museum.

It’s really through this archive that I was able to tell the story of her activism, and present these artworks in a different light than you would typically see them in the museum. They’re not representative examples of Zulu beadwork, but really touchstones that illuminate the lives of people whose stories are often hidden and are just being unearthed today. She ended up being an activist, and used her collection in anti-colonial exhibitions that are rather unique in the landscape of museum history.

“The Activist Collector: Lida Clanton Broner’s 1938 Journey from Newark to South Africa” is newly published by the Newark Museum of Art, distributed by Rutgers University Press.

Source : Gothamist