Modern African Art in the Argyll Collection

Jamie Locke-Jones
Wednesday 18 January 2023
Louis Mbughuni (Tanzania), The Fishermen, c. 1964

In 2018 Dr Kate Cowcher found a painting by Tanzanian artist Samuel Ntiro in a public collection on Scotland’s west coast. Chopping Wood (1967) was one of twelve works of modern art purchased for the Argyll Collection by the writer, Naomi Mitchison during her travels in Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. Mitchison founded the Argyll collection to provide art for school children who lived in remote Highland areas and did not have access to museums. The collection consists mostly of Scottish art, but the African works are highly significant. They include works by the continent’s leading modern artists and provide rich insights into independence-era art and culture.  

In the years since their acquisition, key information, including artist names and titles, had been displaced. With funding from the Scottish Society for Art History and the Undergraduate Research Assistant Scheme, Kate began a collaboration with Madeleine Conn, Cultural Coordinator of Argyll and Bute Council, to research and reattribute the works, and to develop educational resources. In March 2019 she travelled to Lochgilphead High School in Argyll, where the works are stored, with two undergraduate research assistants, Meredith Loper and Elikem Logan. Research on that trip, contacts at Makerere University (Kampala) and information from extended family have confirmed the attributions of eleven out of twelve works. Initial findings were published on the Argyll and Bute Council website.

In May 2020, Kate was awarded a University of St Andrews Knowledge Exchange and Impact Fund grant to develop educational materials and an exhibition at Dunoon Burgh Hall. Following consultations with teachers, Oban High School, Tayvallich and Kilmartin Primary Schools are currently piloting lesson ideas. Information sheets for each work will allow teachers to use artworks as foci for lessons on East Africa, modern art, the era of independence and connections between Scotland and the African continent. Further resources will be published on the Dar to Dunoon website. The exhibition, Dar to Dunoon: Modern African Art from the Argyll Collection, opened in Dunoon in May 2021.

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