A Passion for Collecting African Art

William Dewey

When Allen Davis was asked what qualities he was looking for when he collected African art, he answered, “I don't know, the word that comes to mind, for me, is presence. If the object has a presence, that’s appealing. In other words, do you want to be in its presence? You want to touch it. You want to stand back and examine it. Perhaps admire it, perhaps not. So, that’s the overarching approach, I guess, that I must’ve taken” (Davis interview, August 22, 2019). 

As a boy in Tennessee, Allen Davis spent his “childhood in the countryside. I grew up on a farm and there were woods and streams nearby and I loved making collections of such things as seed pods or leaves or plant material or rocks or birds eggs, anything that required looking deeply at it and seeing whether it was something that could contribute to what I already knew” (Davis interview, August 22, 2019). That was probably the start of his collecting career. He began collecting African art when he was assigned to Liberia in 1958 with the U.S. Diplomatic Corps. He was somewhat acquainted by then with African objects from museums in New York, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. He also remembers acquiring two books from a used bookstore before he left, William Fagg’s Afro-Portuguese Ivories and one about the Barnes Foundation collection in Philadelphia (which included some African art). He also remembers Eliot Elisofon and William Fagg’s The Sculpture of Africa (1958) and an early book by Warren Robbins called African Art in American Collections. He became an avid collector of auction house catalogues on African art, and journals such as African Arts and Artes d’Afrique Noire.

Upon arrival in Liberia he soon became acquainted with a missionary doctor, George Harley, from whom he acquired a number of objects at the Ganta Mission, where he worked (such as the game board in the exhibition). Davis remembers visiting Harley:

It was a fascinating thing to see him in his setting because he did several things that not every missionary felt necessary to learn. He was a blacksmith. He, I guess, had studied Anthropology, as well as medicine and divinity and was just all around a complicated, wonderful person, but his health was not good. . . . He retired from his mission, I believe, after 34 years. I believe he went out in 1925 or thereabouts, and when I finished my two-and-a-half-years there in [Liberia] the spring of 1960, he was preparing to leave at almost the same time I was coming home for transfer. He was coming home to retire. So, I stayed in close touch with him back here and I accompanied, actually invited him myself, and then accompanied him to do lectures to the budding Peace Corps. We went to two universities, one in Pittsburgh, the other one may have been Penn State. (Davis interview, August 22, 2019)

It was during Harley’s retirement in Virginia that Davis acquired some of his favorite objects: the Dan spoon, now at the North Carolina Museum of Art, and the Dan mask and “passport” masks, which are still in his personal collection; these are all in the exhibition. At the same time Davis was visiting Harley in Liberia, African itinerant traders began visiting, and he started acquiring other objects. At the end of his Liberian assignment he went on a cross-country trip to eleven neighboring countries with one of these traders, Talibi Kaaba. He didn’t collect many objects on this trip, but the experience had a huge impact on him. 

Back in the United States, between foreign assignments, Davis became friends with several African art scholars who would have a lasting impact on his collecting practices, including Margaret Plass at the Penn Museum and William Fagg at the British Museum. In 1961 he attended a lecture by Fagg at the American University in Washington, D.C., sitting in in the front row. 

And at the end of the lecture, I had put in my pocket before leaving home, incidentally, a small whistle that had been given to me while I was on a business trip for the State Department to Cameroon. A missionary gave me a little whistle, music maker, and so someone had told me that Margaret Plass was a regular participant in a television program called “What in the World?” And so when the lecture was over, they stayed on the stage for a few minutes while members of the audience went up and made their acquaintance, and so when I did that, said hello, introduced myself, I said, “And I have a puzzle. I don't know what people made this whistle, but I like it very much.” (Davis interview, August 22, 2019) 

Davis, Plass, and Fagg went back to Davis’s house to see the rest of his collection, and soon became fast friends. This was the start of a long relationship. Margaret Plass attended Davis’s wedding and was the godmother of one of his children, and they frequently exchanged small gifts of African art. The Akan goldweight in the shape of an Asante asipim chair in the exhibition was one such gift. (See Wardwell 1986 and Long 1993 for more details about Margaret Plass, and Picton 1993 for details about the career of William Fagg.)

Both scholars visited him at several of his later postings, and he facilitated collecting trips for their museums while also learning from their expertise. When Davis was posted to Ouagadougou in 1968, Fagg, Plass, and another well-known collector and curator, Katherine White, came to visit, and Davis arranged a visit for them to Dogon country in neighboring Mali during the important sigi festival, which occurs only every sixty years. Davis wasn’t able to go along, as he was then the acting chief of staff of the Upper Volta (Burkina Faso) diplomatic post, but he did go with them to the National Museum of Upper Volta on their return from Mali.

The director of that museum, Toumani Triande, helped Fagg, Plass, and White acquire African objects for their museums. Davis usually didn’t acquire things through the museum. Instead he got things from the steady stream of traders offering objects to the expatriate community in Ouagadougou. He depended on the expertise of Toumani Triande and would show him objects he had acquired. This was the beginning of a practice Davis followed for the rest of his African career. He never collected any of the material that has now become the focus of repatriation claims, and always checked with local African museums whether it was permissible to take objects out of the countries.

At his posting to Dakar, Senegal, in 1974, Davis was particularly impressed by the president of the country, Leopold Senghor:

I would like to put Leopold Senghor as influencing me also because I loved the way he wrote and tried to read as much of his poetry as I could find. He also worked really, really seriously at the very elaborate international conference and exhibit that he sponsored there at Dakar, “The First International Festival of Black Arts.”

One of my favorite stories has to do with somebody telling President Senghor that the African sculpture rather often had aspects that weren't absolutely balanced, and for example, in architecture, the towers of the mosque do not exactly have the same height, and sometimes masks that are considered masterpieces, one eye is lower than the other one, and he said, “It’s intentional,” and they said, “What do you mean, Mr. President, it’s intentional?” He said, “It even has a name.” He says, “The Africans do that, not as an accident. It’s called parallelism-asymmetric.” Isn’t that lovely? (Davis interview, August 22, 2019)

When he was posted to Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Davis also became friends with the National Museum director, Father Joseph Cornet, who advised him about local arts, such as the Pende crown in the exhibition. Davis recalled:

We saw each other frequently. He had a small apartment in kind of a gated community, and he would share stories of what was going on that simply wouldn't be known by other people, I suppose, but one of them was that the new museum that he already set up in Kinshasa was robbed one night, and I don't know whether you recall, there's a rather full page photograph of a beautiful Chokwe mask that was among the 40 or 50 things that were taken that night, and they were so good and so widely known, among specialists having to do with African art, that a good many of them, the thieves couldn't unload them, so they brought them and left them on the front porch of his house. (Davis interview, August 22, 2019)

That association led to Davis helping a Cornet protégé, Yemaam Mikoom, to attend school in the United States. In return, Yemaam assisted him in his collecting of Kuba art (several of the Kuba objects in the exhibition were acquired through this association). 

On retirement, Davis volunteered at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and continued collecting. Over the years, Davis has been very generous in donating some of his collection to universities and museums (such as the Palmer Museum of Art). His goal in this, he says, is to “give back, by transferring them to institutions of learning.”

Very shortly after I retired from the foreign service in 1990, I decided that I wanted to be, somehow, connected with the Museum of African Art in a regular way and so I did the course to learn to be a docent, and then, at that time, Roy [Sieber] was the deputy director of the Museum of African Art [see Kreamer 2003 for more details about the career of Roy Sieber]. So, I made some really significant connections with the people [such as Warren Robbins, Bill Siegmann, and others. See Grootaers 2014 for more about Bill Siegmann] who are that serious and that interesting and that highly qualified. In a different way, at the same time, I got to know Mona Gavigan. She, at that time, was the senior docent of the museum and I guess still remains that if she’s still connected with it, but she’s inspiring in a lot of ways. She loves to handle the objects. She loves to research them. She loves to compare them with the best, and there’s just a charming aspect to discussing African art with Mona. She loves it, and it’s obvious. (Davis interview, August 22, 2019)


Grootaers, Jan-Lodwijk, ed. 2014. “Remembering Bill Siegmann.” In Visions from the Forests: The Art of Liberia and Sierra Leone, edited by Jan-Lodwijk Grootaers and Alexander Bortolot, 16–29. Minneapolis: Minneapolis Art Institute.

Kreamer, Christine Mullen. 2003. “A Tribute to Roy Sieber.” African Arts 36 (1): 12–23, 91; 36 (2): 10–29, 94.

Long, Richard. 1993. “Margaret Webster Plass: 1896–1990.” African Arts 26 (2): 91–92.

Picton, John. 1993. “In Memoriam: William Buller Fagg, April 28, 1914–July 10, 1992.” African Arts 26 (2): 33, 91.

Wardwell, Allen. 1986. African Sculpture from the University Museum, University of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Allen Davis with his collection of African art, February 2016.
Photo by William Dewey.

List of Recipients of African Cultural Objects donated from Allen Davis Collection during 1994-2020

Creative Discovery Museum, Chattanooga, Tennessee

Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, Maryland

Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 

Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York

Warren Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communications, Washington, D.C.

Mathers Museum, University of Indiana, Bloomington, Indiana

Governors State University, University Park, Illinois

National Presbyterian School, Washington, D.C.

Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa

National Afro-American Museum, Wilberforce, Ohio

Kent State University, Kent, Ohio

National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Newark Museum of Art, Newark, New Jersey
North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, North Carolina

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia

Longwood University, Farmville, Virginia

Evergreen Museum and Library, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland

National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Palmer Museum of Art, Penn State, University Park, Pennsylvania