Mark Lyers was among the dozens of people who filled the Gallery of African Wildlife and Contemporary Art in Capitol Heights recently as it welcomed one of its most celebrated artists: Charles A. Bibbs.
Tuxedoed butlers hovered, offering platters of wine and goblets of mineral water, fruits and pate. The standing-room only crowd of silk-and-sequined ladies and gentlemen in suits and ties awaited their turns to meet the artist.
The prominent Los Angeles painter, known for his skill at depicting contemporary African, African American and Native American subjects in media, unveiled his latest work, "Ladies in Red."
"A long time ago, you wouldn't see the [black] artists because they didn't have that many shows," says Lyers, a Prince George's County police officer from Mitchellville who added a framed, limited-edition print of "Ladies in Red" to the art collection he began amassing eight years ago. (Despite several offers from various patrons, the original was not for sale.)
"The original was unveiled here--that's something special. To have him number [the print] and sign it for you is really special."
The event was special, but thanks to the gallery, not the rarity such gatherings once were. As one of the few fine art galleries in Prince George's, it has promoted African and African American artists since it was founded in 1987 by Wisson (pronounced WHY-SON) West. The art space has been at its current location for the past year.
If you're driving across Central Avenue in Capitol Heights, you've probably seen the gallery and the work inside. The glass-fronted storefront space in the Park Central strip mall reveals six massive display panels hung with colorful, three-dimensional reliefs, masks and hanging calabashes.
Inside, there are also cases displaying small stone and ebony carvings and African jewelry. Other items are scattered throughout the store, among them a life-size, mahogany sculpture of African figures and a metal candleholder in the form of a stick figure.
The gallery displays the work of contemporary artists from the United States and the Caribbean, artists such as Bibbs, John Nelson, Joseph Holston, Bernard Brooks, Leroy Campbell and Paul Goodknight. Its repertoire also includes the high-end works by master painters and sculptors from Africa, such as Daniel Njoroge, Boniface Kimani and James Nzwili.
On the interior wall above the glass entrance, several wildlife paintings by Paul Kimotho are displayed. Kimotho's African scenes are what first inspired the gallery's owner to get into the art business.
After growing up in Arizona and Oregon and receiving a degree in political science at the University of Oregon, West joined the Peace Corps. It was while serving in Kenya and Tanzania from 1979 to 1986 working on projects involving horticulture and animal husbandry that he developed a deep appreciation for African art.
"That's when I started seeing east Africans with their magnificent work in wood and wildlife carvings," he recalls. "My desire was to bring the work of master east African painters and sculptors to the United States."
When he moved back to the states in the mid-1980s, he settled in Prince George's County, where he discovered a ready-made market for African products. But he was dismayed to see that much of the African work for sale was of inferior quality.
"It became my challenge to make sure the best of Africa came into the U.S.," he said.
West also was disappointed to find that the U.S. wildlife-art market was dominated by white artists. "There is something very, very inconsistent and wrong with that, so we wanted to do all that we could to promote the African wildlife master painters and sculptors."
West initially sold the works at trade shows and art festivals in the area. Then, in 1993, he opened his first small gallery and manufacturing facility in Capitol Heights, about a mile away from the current location. As the gallery's clientele developed and expanded, the time became ripe to open a premiere art gallery. He moved into the current 3,500-square-foot storefront in July of 1998.
"It has taken almost 12 to 13 years to open a premiere gallery," he says. "So that suggests that it hasn't been without its difficulties. It is a good market and a competitive one."
There are at least a half-dozen black-owned art galleries in Prince George's, some of which display original works and have rotating exhibitions like West's gallery. (Others are more commercially focused, stocking mostly prints and other inexpensive reproductions.)
West attributes the high concentration to the demographics and purchasing power of this population and the number of educated and progressive-thinking people who live in the area.
Such a rich market makes it easier for him to fulfill the dream he's harbored since his days living and working in Africa.
"It is our aim to expose African Americans and others to the wildlife, the landscape, the flora and fauna of Africa, so they can have a better understanding of it," he says.
The Gallery of African Wildlife and Contemporary Art is at 7919 Central Ave. in Capitol Heights and is open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday; and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. For more information, call 301-808-6987.
CAPTION: Ronald Jennings, of Upper Marlboro, and Daniese Armstrong, of Washington, look at a piece by Charles A. Bibbs at the Gallery of African Wildlife and Contemporary Art.
CAPTION: Ronald Jennings makes his way around the gallery to get a good view of works by Charles A. Bibbs.