The Connection of One Art Collector’s African Sculpture Collection to Blues Music

Mississippi attorney and private art collector Wilbur Colom. Image: courtesy of Wilbur Colom.

It is easy to see why buying art might seem unattainable. When was the last time you went to an auction at Sotheby’s? Walked past Picasso in the hallway? Asked a financial advisor to research investment funds devoted to art? 

Buying art should be fun. Remember the poster collection hung in your college dorm room.  Didn’t it make you feel better just looking at it? In simple terms, that’s art. It is as much of a visual emotion as it makes a physical statement about you and what is happening in the larger society around you.  

When it comes to being art, we’ve all heard the advice that we should just buy what we love—but what does it look like to respond to the art visually, emotionally and intellectually?

To boost confidence in the decision-making process, EBONY spoke with Mississippi attorney and private art collector Wilbur Colom, who owns a fantastical collection of Shona stone sculptures, said to be the largest outside of Africa.  Masters in stone architecture, the Shona (Bantu) Kingdom helped build the stone walls surrounding the large and wealthy global trading network empire of Great Zimbabwe, which today stands as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

EBONY: You didn’t go to Zimbabwe to purchase art. Do you remember the moment that changed?

Wilbur Colom: The first [sculpture] I purchased I bought at the market by just looking at it. When I fell in love, I was traveling through valleys going towards Zimbabwe with my son and we had the opportunity to go to the rural areas and see the people who were digging those stones and selecting them. I met a local guy who had three big stones. I mean big as a human being that he dug out with the help of eight to ten guys. One he had been chiseling for months and was close to finishing. He said when he saw this stone, he saw a family. He said the stone tells you what it is going to be. That stone I have now in my yard.

You own more than 150 sculptures. What was the motivation behind buying one to starting a collection?

The sculptures remind me of Blues music up in Mississippi. All these great Blues musicians we had in Mississippi. We used to have guys who could do Blues songs in my little town of Ripley. But now you can’t find a really authentic Blues singer. The same thing was happening in Zimbabwe. There were all these great stone sculptors, but none of the young people were doing it. The art form was dying in my mind so I started collecting because I thought that this was going to be a very unique collection. 

Displaying art in the home is a lot about personal preference. You wanted to display the sculptures both indoors and outdoors. Why was this a critical decision? 

I have an antebellum home. It is ironic to take an antebellum home and fill it up with African sculptures. No pictures of people in the cotton fields picking cotton. It’s the opposite of what you expect. The garden was actually built around the art.

Why is it important for Black folk to own art made by African Americans and Africans?

I grew up in the Civil Rights era in the South. One of the things I remember is that art draws the line of the music. So when you think back on that era, you think about the music and the art. There’s classic pictures of Huey Newton and John Lewis and paintings of Malcolm X that are defining images in our culture. Those images become part of culture and it’s embedded in people and they’re not even conscious of it. Hence, art is very important in defining the culture long term. Also, artists need to sell their art to keep being artists. So one of the reasons why I buy is because I want them to be able to make more. I don’t want them to give up. 

Image: courtesy of Wilbur Colum
Image: courtesy of Wilbur Colum
Image: courtesy of Wilbur Colum
Image: courtesy of Wilbur Colum
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