In 2018 Kate Cowcher (University of St Andrews) partnered with Madeleine Conn (Argyll and Bute Council) to begin a research project examining the twelve works of African modern art bought by Naomi Mitchison for the Argyll Collection. The Argyll Collection is a public art initiative, whose holdings are housed in and travel around schools and public institutions in Argyll and Bute. Established by the writer and Argyll County Councillor Naomi Mitchison in the 1960s, the collection was designed to allow rural communities, and particularly school children, who did not otherwise have access to major museums to enjoy interesting works of modern and contemporary art.
Mitchison, working with Jim Tyre, art advisor for Argyll and Bute Council, focused mostly on collecting works of Scottish art. However, starting in the mid-1960s, she acquired works from the various locations that she visited on her travels in East and Southern Africa, including Nairobi, Kampala, Dar es Salaam and Lusaka. Since their acquisition in the 1960s and 1970s, however, much of the information about the African works, including, in some cases, the names of artists and titles, had been misplaced. As a result, the significance of the Argyll Collection’s holdings has been overlooked.
The research project has revealed that the collection’s twelve works are by some of the most notable artists from East and Southern Africa, many of whom trained at the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts at Makerere College (now Makerere University) in Kampala, Uganda. Mitchison visited Makerere in the mid-1960s and bought work from students of painting and printmaking, artists who went on to have notable careers across East Africa and internationally. She also purchased other work at major galleries, such as the ChemChemi Creative Centre in Nairobi, and from already renowned artists, such as Tanzania’s Samuel Ntiro and Zambia’s Henry Tayali. These works offer a unique insight into developments in modern art in the region in the first decade of independence. Together, they constitute a historically significant collection.
At the start of the project only one of the twelve works could be confidently attributed. Since then, Kate and Madeleine, with significant help from two research assistants (both St Andrews Art History alumni), Elikem Logan and Meredith Loper, have been able to re-attribute ten out of twelve works of art. This is thanks to archival research, contacts at Makerere University in Uganda, connections made with extended family of the artists in Africa, Europe and North America, and, in two cases, with the artists themselves.
The research generated by this project is currently being used to develop educational materials and information. With the new findings, the African artworks in the Argyll Collection can be restored as exciting learning resources, allowing students in Argyll, Bute and beyond to enjoy historically significant examples of African modern art, and the rich stories of their makers.
For more on the project and detailed information on the artworks, visit: https://www.argyll-bute.gov.uk/argyllcollection/research
This project was supported by a Research Support Grant from the Scottish Society for Art History, the University of St Andrews Undergraduate Research Assistant Scheme and the School of Art History at the University of St Andrews.