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Something all his own

Grant Hill's collection of African-American art is a family affair


Grant Hill is more famous than Romare Bearden. That's the way the world is: NBA players just draw more attention from the general public than artists do. Hill's not complaining: "It's a great feeling.It's a humbling feeling, the reaction that we as professional athletes get from the public," he says. "But in some respects, our values are a little out of whack." By way of restoring a little balance, Hill is putting the limelight on artists' contributions to African-American culture by sharing his private art collection with the public.

The NBA basketball star and Duke University alum has been collecting art for only a few years, but the 46 pieces in Something All Our Own: The Grant Hill Collection of African American Art, a traveling exhibition of works from his private collection, reflect a life spent in the presence of art. It will end its journey at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in a show running from March 3-July 16.

The exhibit includes 13 works by Bearden, a North Carolina native who grew up in the middle of the Harlem Renaissance. (A concurrent exhibit at the Nasher titled Conjuring Bearden explores the theme of the conjur woman, a spirit figure in Southern African-American culture, in Bearden's work.) Twenty-one pieces by Elizabeth Catlett, an elder among today's African-American artists, include several color lithographs from the series For My People and two bronze sculptures titled "Standing Mother and Child," reportedly Hill's favorites of the collection. Then there are the lesser known works, such as "The Upper Room," a mysterious lithograph by John Biggers that portrays three women carrying a one-room house; "Sophisticated Lady," a watercolor portrait by Malcolm Brown; and the vibrant, lighthearted "Church Service" by self-taught artist John Coleman, which portrays a traditional country church service with all its hats, hymns and Hallelujahs. Together, the pieces in Hill's collection demonstrate a range of work from the 20th century that explores the strength of African-American families, especially women.

After a long practice, a rehab session (he's had several surgeries on his ankle), and a string of other calls promoting the exhibit, Hill took time to speak with the Independent from his home, as his 4-year-old daughter Myla Grace competed for his attention. He says the theme of Something All Our Own came together not by design, but as a byproduct of the focus that family life has given him. Hill credits his wife, Tamia, with much of the selections and with coining the title of the exhibition. "I have to give her credit for that," he says. But the sentiment comes from both of them. "This is part of our family, part of our race. It's who we are."

A catalogue published by Duke University Press includes full-color reproductions of all 46 of the works in the exhibition, as well as essays by scholars John Hope Franklin, Elizabeth Alexander and Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, sportswriter William C. Rhoden, and a conversation with Grant Hill and his father, Calvin Hill. Commentary from curator/editor Alvia J. Wardlaw and Grant Hill accompany each piece. Three paintings of solitary women by Hughie Lee-Smith are reminiscent of Edward Hopper. In them, Hill comments, he sees his own mother as a young woman, contemplating her future. Hill doesn't claim to be an art historian, and his comments are entirely without pretension, those of a person who relates to art on layperson's terms, according to the emotions and memories the images conjure.

In collecting the pieces, Hill says, he went with his gut. "There wasn't a curator that I worked with," he says. "It was just what I liked, what looked good, what reminded me of something I read about or was told, or what I've learned about African-American history, some story from my great-grandmother. Those are the meaning behind the choices."

Hill does admit to being heavily influenced by his parents, Calvin and Janet Hill. The younger Hill followed in the footsteps of his father, an Ivy League educated athlete who had a long professional career with the Dallas Cowboys. The Hills raised their children in a home full of art, much of it from Africa and other developing countries. It was Grant's parents who introduced him to the African-American artists that later became part of his own collection. "When I first got started, I gravitated to the artists they collected," he says.

While Hill sees himself as an athlete, not an artist, the experience of collecting has made him aware of the important role of patrons in the art world. "When I spend time with my parents' friends, they knew these artists--they supported them, they had relationships with them." Hill says he'll never forget meeting Elizabeth Catlett at her studio in Mexico, where his mother purchased a piece of her work. "I think it gives it more meaning when you know the artist. Not to take away from the other pieces. But I'd like to eventually do more of that."

Kimerly Rorschach, director of the Nasher, says Hill's collection is a work in progress, and that's part of what makes it interesting to visitors. Like The Evolution of the Nasher Collection, the inaugural exhibit that brings together selected pieces from namesake Duke alum Raymond Nasher, "this is another opportunity for museum goers to explore not only the art but the process of collecting that art," she says. "I've found that people are very interested in how people build a collection, and I think that adds a whole new dimension of interest to an exhibition."

"He's a young man still in his 30s," Rorschach says of Hill. "He hasn't really been at this very long, when you compare him to Ray Nasher who started in the '50s. But I think the pieces in his collection represent a very strong and cohesive vision--a wish to document and portray African-American cultural traditions in the 20th century. It's not a comprehensive collection in terms of the artists represented. He hasn't done that yet, and perhaps he will go in that direction. I think we're seeing a snapshot of a collection still in formation."

Durham was the site of Hill's first art purchase, a print of a painting by Durham native Ernie Barnes, a former NFL player who got serious about painting after retiring from sports. Barnes, known for his highly stylized scenes of African-American life, was recently commissioned to do a painting for Kanye West. "I couldn't say it was collecting, but I bought my first piece while in college," says Hill. "I was staying in the Summit Apartments my junior year, and I wanted to decorate my apartment. I went to the old South Square Mall gallery, on the second floor. I knew that Barnes was an artist from Durham who was a former athlete, and they just happened to have a piece called "Fast Break" that was a picture of a basketball play. It's perfect, you know, it just made sense."

After graduating with a degree in history, Hill was the No. 1 draft pick and played for the Detroit Pistons until joining the Orlando Magic in 2000. Something All Our Own was first displayed in Orlando in 2003. Durham will be the last stop on its seven-city tour.

In the years since Something All Our Own was first displayed, Grant and Tamia Hill have filled their home with more diverse pieces. "I think I have grown in some regards. I don't have the technical eye that some collectors have. I simply buy pieces that I like, and a lot of the pieces are by African-American masters. In the last five years, I've researched and found out about other artists, names like Robert Duncanson and Edward Mitchell Bannister.

"It would be great to identify the masters of the future," he says, "and they're out there." x


Something All Our Own will be on display from March 3 through July 16 at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. See for details.


Fiona Morgan worked for Duke University Press while the catalogue for Something All Our Own was being produced there.

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