When you are a passionate collector and, more importantly, an undying supporter of young artists of African descent, three years isn’t a long time. D.C. collector Peggy Cooper Cafritz, who died Sunday at age 70, was willing to wait that long to buy a painting by Njideka Akunyili Crosby.
The artist, who lives and works in Los Angeles, makes large-scale collage paintings at a deliberate pace. Her figurative compositions reflect her Nigerian heritage, document her experiences in America and explore the intimate and quotidian details of domestic life. In a short span, Akunyili Crosby won the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s James Dicke Contemporary Artist Prize (2014); joined Victoria Miro, a major international gallery based in London; received the Studio Museum in Harlem’s Joyce Alexander Wein Artist Prize(2015); and was named a MacArthur “genius” fellow (2017).
It’s a testament to Cafritz’s critical eye and seasoned instinct that these accolades came shortly after Cafritz acquired a portrait by Akunyili Crosby titled “The Beautiful Ones, #1a” (2012), which shows the artist’s older sister in her youth. Cafritz selected this long-awaited painting to grace the cover of “Fired Up! Ready to Go!,” a new book exploring her collection, her life and the many artists in her orbit.
A Washington activist, philanthropist and co-founder of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Cafritz nurtured a nexus of art and politics at her home where elected officials, cultural leaders and artists young and old gathered, surrounded by art displayed in every room. Featuring more than 300 works of African, African American and Caribbean artby El Anatsui, Glenn Ligon, Chris Ofili, Mickalene Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems and many others, her collection was one of the most important of its kind. But nearly the entire collection was destroyed when a fire consumed her 15,000-square-foot residence in 2009.
Almost a decade after that tragedy, this new volume showcases the treasures that Cafritz lost and the new collection she assembled in its wake. The first images in the book show her former home reduced to a charred shell. The following pages capture the collector in the sprawling downtown condominium where she resettled, surrounded by a new crop of paintings, drawings, sculpture and photography. She purchased works by Noah Davis, Barkley L. Hendricks, Nina Chanel Abney, Theaster Gates, Samuel Levi Jones, Henry Taylor, Kara Walker, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Kehinde Wiley, who was commissioned by President Barack Obama to paint his official portrait for the National Portrait Gallery, and hundreds of others, with an emphasis on up-and-coming artists, D.C.-based talentand Duke Ellington students and alumni. Her new collection is vast, surpassing the first one.
The images in this lavishly illustrated volume are complemented by an essay about the nature of collecting by Chicago-based artist Kerry James Marshall; a thoughtful conversation with Cafritz conducted by Studio Museum Director and Chief Curator Thelma Golden; and commentary from New York gallery owner Jack Shainman, whose diverse roster includes many artists represented in the Cafritz collection. In addition, UCLA professor Uri McMillan articulates the significance of her curatorial eye, and conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas shares how his Duke Ellington education helped frame his creative path. The collector also inserts tidbits throughout the book about her encounters with pioneering figures, including artists Alma Thomas and Jacob Lawrence and photographers James VanDerZee and Gordon Parks.
In many ways, this book is a portrait of Cafritz, drawn with her own words, the choices in her collection and insights from some of the most prominent figures in African American art, who are also her longtime friends. In her engrossing opening essay, Cafritz writes about her family, career, support from fellow women and many triumphs and tragedies. From her childhood in the segregated South, where she and her five siblings attended a black Catholic school run by white nuns, to her marriage, children and divorce, Cafritz powers through the decades at a fast clip. It’s a detailed, albeit brief, memoir and a fascinating digest of her political, cultural and collecting philosophies.
“Having had the good fortune to travel to museums all over the globe,” she writes, “I recognize the weight of the world’s great artists. Yet I was always struck by a haunting absence of us, artists of color. This then informed my life’s work, not solely as a collector, but as an advocate for equity, beauty, and permanence, an advocacy that began in Mobile, Alabama. A place where Black people were always, by necessity, fired up and ready to go.”
Early on, Cafritz decided her life’s work would focus on improving the circumstances of underserved populations and forcing change within government and cultural institutions loathe to recognize the value and contributions of diverse communities. That was her goal when she served on the Smithsonian’s Cultural Equity Committee and D.C. school board. Her agenda is the same when it comes to collecting art.
Invited to contribute to the book, artist Simone Leigh took the opportunity to call upon her peers to offer testimonials about their experiences with Cafritz. Titus Kaphar, LaToya Ruby Frazier, William Villalongo and Tschabalala Self said that Cafritz was among the first to purchase their work. She helped them navigate the opaque art world, and she encouraged them to practice on their own terms and mentor younger artists.
Akunyili Crosby described Cafritz as patient and steadfast: “Given the constraints of my production, I kept Peggy waiting for three years to buy a piece. Throughout that time, she was unwavering in her support and would call to congratulate me when big things happened for me.” The boundless possibilities of a talent like Akunyili Crosby’s is what motivates Cafritz’s patronage. How fortunate for the rest of us to now have this gorgeous record of her singular collection and ongoing life’s work.
Victoria L. Valentine is the founder and editor of culturetype.com, which explores art by and about people of African descent.
By Peggy Cooper Cafritz
Rizzoli Electa. 288 pp. $75