February 2, 2023
1950s policeman from Nigeria

Culture Bridge

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John Danford remembered for his collection of exquisite pieces of Victorian and Elizabethan west African art during 2022 Black History Month

The October celebration of Black History Month in the United Kingdom will be remembered for being bittersweet as it marks the end of the second Elizabethan Age and the beginning of a new era of closer cultural links between Britain and Anglophone Africa. A black cultural trust, Ifa Yoruba Contemporary Arts based in Birmingham has decided to bring the John Danford Collection of art created during the Victorian and the beginning of the Elizabethan era in west Africa to light during the annual black history festivities.

Ibo Nigerian Dance Mask. Painted wood, 1952 Courtesy Centre of West African Studies Birmingham

In the UK, Black History Month was first celebrated in London in 1987, as part of African Jubilee Year, when on October 1 incidentally the date Nigeria got its independence from the United Kingdom, Dr Maulana Karenga the creator of the African American holiday of Kwanzaa, was invited to speak at an event at County Hall London to mark the contributions of Black people throughout history. The Danford Collection could thus be seen as the subscription of white people to the development and promotion of modern African art.

Yoruba Mother and Child. Nigerian, wood and cowrie shells 1950s Centre of West African Studies Birmingham

The intense pieces of art collected by John Danford a British artist himself famous for his book Nigeria in Costume his illustrations of Nigerians in the 1950s, are textiles, paintings and sculpture from the Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria exhibited permanently at the University of Birmingham.

Graphic print of a Nigerian Police officer Ibadan District 1950s by John Danford

Danford born in 1913 Dublin, moved to London with his family and won a scholarship to Wimbledon Art School. At the age of 21, he was accepted into the Royal Academy and, while there, won several coveted prizes for both Art and Sculpture. Serving as a British Army officer in the West African Frontier Force fighting in Burma, he was appointed by the British Council which was created in 1934 by the Foreign Office to support English education abroad and promote British culture, upon demobilisation in 1946 to lead efforts to develop and support modern African art.

Selection of calabashes. Yoruba, 1940s. Centre of West African Studies Birmingham

His bridge building at a time when the traditional royal and religious patronage was on the wane was highly appreciated in Yorubaland due to his role as patron of traditional carvers like Bamgboye and Lamidi Fakeye bringing modern Nigerian art to a global audience.

Graphic print of a Nigerian princess 1950s by John Danford

During the next ten years that he worked to promote the study of Nigerian art, he built up what became the largest private collection of West African art and artefacts of the modern period. In 1956, he acted as guide to Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip when they visited Nigeria for 20 days and introduced them to modern Nigerian art.

The Irish master artist and collector died in 1970 and will be remembered by his contributing to creating an art bridge between two cultures and engaging the British audience’s aesthetic sensibilities to modern African art.

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