Peg Alston lived part of her dream recently as Ivorians packed up the month-long exhibit, perhaps the first of its kind in Africa, of a wide range of black American painters at a private gallery in the bustling downtown of this culture-conscious West African city.
Alston transported 33 paintings by eight artists here from her New York gallery, the Peg Alston Collection, knowing that most of the African elite who are interested in contemporary art "usually buy a lot of European art." She had some misgivings abut how the show would be received in a country such as the Ivory Coast, where there is a heavy overlay of French culture.
It did not hurt the showing that it was held at the Galerie Mitkal, owned by Christiane Houphouet-Boigny, a daughter-in-law of the country's president.
Alston decided to disregard the advice that Ivorians are only interested in figurative art, and she brought the work of a couple of abstract painters as well. Most of the paintings were sold in the price range of $15,000 down to $1,000. "The abstract painters did just as well as the figurative," she said.
The Ivorians showed almost no interest, however, in the African themes that dominate the paintings of Vincent D. Smith.
"Those [paintings] that are visually African in style and image do not pique the interest of Ivorian viewers," Alston acknowledged. "This is my first show outside of the United States, so I think it is too early for me to tell if this will be a universal reaction in Africa," she added.
Alston put on her first exhibit -- of African sculpture -- in New York in 1972. "It was easy then as a lot of sculpture was coming into the country and it wasn't too expensive," she said. Shortly afterward, however, genuine pieces of African sculpture became scarcer and prices rose considerably.
Her black American clientele "didn't understand or have the appreciation for [nontourist African sculpture] and they didn't want to pay the prices," added Alston, who still buys decades-old African brass figures for her personal collection. By 1974, Alston has shifted her gallery showings to contemporary black American painters and left her job as a New York City social worker.
"I know I'll be doing this the rest of my life," she smiled. "It is difficult and not lucrative and I don't have the marketing training or skill -- but I have a dream.
"There are very few outlets for black artists, especially black American artists. And my dream is to represent black American artists all over the world."
The Abidjan show was dominated by the African themes of Pheoris West, whose work evoked a different reaction than Smith's. West likes to create a sense of motion in his paintings and blends modern scenes and his black American faces with African mask sculptures.
"West is very conscious of Africans and African Americans," Alston said, "and he likes to mix the two to show there is very little difference."
Abstract painter Williams T. Williams' swirling, multicolored works were also popular, as were Richard Yarde's watercolors of famous black Americans and Barkley L. Hendricks' photorealist acrylics of people and scenes from America.