Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Warren Robbins Remembered: A Life of Purpose

Warren Robbins in front of the NMAA.
A man with a dream, who lived a purposeful life.
photo by Arnold Newman.
The National Museum of African Art (NMAA) is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and paying what I consider long-overdue homage to its founder, Warren Robbins. When I lived in Washington I became close friends with Warren. It was a friendship that brought many memorable moments to that chapter in my life.

Warren was a brilliant and fascinating man, and we enjoyed each other's company. We both attended lots of Washington parties and gatherings, mostly work-related.  In those days, everything was connected to work.

I met Warren at the exhibit opening of the Jacob Lawrence migration series at the Phillips Gallery in 1986.  It was an historic event, a fantastic exhibit, and Lawrence was present.  I remember that special time so vividly to this day. Warren and I bumped into each other regularly at cultural events after that. I also enjoyed meals at his art-filled home on Capitol Hill, where he hosted lots of meetings and programs as director of the Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communications, his educational nonprofit.  I think the DC humanities council funded a few of Warren's educational programs, always popular. He opened his home to a humanities council event notable for the synergy of fascinating people with a shared interest in the arts and humanities. Warren was always a charming host.  

Warren started collecting African Art when he was a cultural attache in Germany after World War II.  It started, he said, with a wood carving of a man and woman representing the Yoruba people of Nigeria that he bought in Hamburg. He was strolling the streets with his friend S.I. Hayakawa, who later became a US senator from Hawaii. "It caught my eye, and seemed to touch my soul."    I wish I knew more about this period in Warren's life, but it was the beginning of his lifelong passion.  Warren had found his path.

Warren with author Alex Haley.
SI photo.
Warren went on to amass hundreds, then thousands of pieces, and this at a time when few if any Westerners were interested in the art of the African continent. As one African country after another rose up against colonial rule, Warren kept in touch with Africans who were creating new identities and restoring indigenous cultures. He loved to tell the story of a trip to Cameroon in 1973 when he returned a once-lost object. He was treated as a hero and made an honorary king. He had some great stories, photos and artifacts from that trip.

His deep interest became the foundation for his dedicated efforts to collect and preserve African art, and through the collection to promote cross-cultural and interracial understanding.  This was his life's purpose until his death in December 2008, at the age of 85.  How that news shocked and saddened me.

Warren first housed his collection at a home he bought on Capitol Hill in the 1960s, the historic home of the freedom fighter Frederick Douglass.  It seemed fitting, and attracted hundreds of people and future supporters of a National Museum of African Art that arose on the Mall in the nation's capital some 20 years later.  The Warren M. Robbins Library, named in his honor, opened at the new museum at the same time.  It has since become one of the major centers in the US for the research and study of the arts of Africa.

Warren also had hundreds of art pieces and artifacts in his own Capitol Hill homes, two adjoining townhouses.  The first thing one noticed when entering his home was the floor to ceiling art that covered its walls, all manner of African art along with contemporary and European art inspired by African art.

Warren was fascinated with the links he saw between African art and 20th century Western art.  He noted the art of Picasso, Matisse, and Mondrian, for example, and many others.  I believe Warren was among the first to explore this connection, which became embedded in subsequent art criticism and art history.  I learned from Warren.  This remained one of  his favorite topics, and he wrote and gave many lectures, over a thousand, on the African influence on western art.  It was pioneering work.

SI photo. 
Ever the advocate, promoter and fundraiser, Warren was the engine for getting Congressional approval for the Smithsonian Institution's NMAA.  His relentless advocacy was documented in photos, of Warren and several Presidents; Warren and the Mondales and with Hubert Humphrey, a close friend; Warren and Hayakawa and other Congress people; with Alex Haley, Jacob Lawrence, Joseph Campbell, Maya Angelou, great authors, artists, photographers; with movers and shakers. Each photo told a great story.

Warren invited me to be his guest at various cultural functions at international embassies, local theaters and art galleries, and at the exclusive Cosmos club, a private Washington, DC club once closed to women.  Through Warren I met many interesting people, including Frances Humphrey Howard, sister of Hubert Humphrey, with whom Warren was a close friend; Joan Mondale, who loved all kinds of art; Congressional representatives and elected officials who supported Warren's vision.

I'll always remember a gathering at the Cosmos club, when I was seated next to Maya Angelou, another friend of Warren's.  He had made the arrangements because he knew how much I admired this poet.  She talked about poetry and philosophy, and she and Warren laughed at stories I knew nothing about but found fascinating.  I listened and basked in the glory  Two of my favorite people, now gone.

The last time I communicated with Warren I was living in Florida, and had decided to join the Peace Corps.  When I told him I'd be going to Ukraine, he wished me well "in the land of my ancestors."  "What do you mean," I asked him.

"My parents were from Ukraine," he said, "Ukrainian Jews who fled to America, and ended up in Connecticut, where I was born."

"I never knew that. How I wish I could talk with you about them, and talk to them."
"Me too,"  he replied. Warren died a few months before I left for Ukraine. The serendipity of it touched me, such a confluence of emotions. Here I was leaving for Ukraine as Warren was leaving this earth.

I like to think I took my memories of Warren with me, re-connected him with his Ukrainian roots, and fostered a conversation about cross-cultural connections, interracial understanding, and the joys of a self-defined  purposeful life.

Warren taught me the greatest lesson of my life, which he had learned from Joseph Campbell: "to give up the life you planned in order to have the life awaiting you."   And, indeed, a new life awaited me in Washington, where I began to find and make my own path.  I never dreamed it would be like that.  The path is full of many twists and turns, but I feel blessed that I found Warren on it.

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