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Perilous journey to bring African fine art to Michigan’s West Coast

By |2008-05-01T09:00:00-04:00May 1st, 2008|Entertainment|

By Michael H. Margolin

Searching a foreign country for fine art to sell in their gallery isn’t without risks. Walter Petersen and Michael Tischleder, his partner in Saugatuck’s Amazwi Contemporary Art, landed in the capital of Zimbabwe “during the time leading up to their (national) elections”, Tischleder said by cell phone between his son’s hockey games.
The “reigning” president Robert Mugabe was running for re-election and Western journalists were excluded. “I was questioned for twenty minutes,” Tischleder said, and, after four years of traveling to Africa to seek out contemporary art, “this was the first time I felt like I might be turned away. Mostly I was worried for our friend, Liz,” a resident with whom they stayed a week.
They made it into Harare – the capitol – and were able to conduct business, meeting and talking to artists and shipping paintings to the U.S. for sale in the gallery. The Zimbabweans, on the other hand, have not achieved closure: The results of the election still have not been declared.
The irony is that the gallery partners had bypassed Nairobi because of the unrest following December’s presidential elections in Kenya (“our most popular art market at Amazwi” he wrote in an e-mail.) The show opening on the May 3 will, however, feature some 40 works by Kenyan-born Ben Njuguna.
On this African junket the partners traveled to South Africa, Zambia, Tanzania and Uganda in search of contemporary paintings and sculpture by indigenous artists.
Amazwi means “voice” in Zulu, Tischleder said, and the gallery is meant to be a place speaking to the works of living, producing artists. Operating since 2004 in Saugatuck’s historic downtown, Amazwi carries “no masks, shields, spears – we are trying to break the perception that African art is (only) masks, wood carvings, tribal things such as drums,” Tischleder said, emphatically.
Instead, paintings ranging in size up to 24 x 36 are done in vibrant colors, using “local landscapes and people as the vernacular,” each country having its’ localized visual language”, according to Tischleder. The web site features some 300 paintings and perhaps a dozen sculptures, bearing out his assertion of vibrancy in coloration.

In some of the works they brought back from Zimbabwe there is political content, though “guarded and masked. In the themes of daily life you can see the deterioration, and there are some comments on HIV,” a major health problem in Africa.
This will not deter or daunt Amazwi customers. According to Tischleder, the gallery draws from an NPR demographic – referring to National Public Radio with its high content in politics and social issues. “Our visitors are sophisticated art buyers,” he stated, of the population that vacations on the Western shore of Michigan. “Half are from Chicago,” he says, with others from Michigan, Ohio, Indiana. “We attract a lot of clients from the Metro Detroit area,” adds Tischleder.
“Saugatuck…has the feel of Cape Cod, it has an old town feeling, a harbor, an historic district and Oval Beach, rated as one of the top ten beaches in the United States,” Tischleder said. “It is a gay and lesbian enclave” as well, and there are a lot of empty nesters.
Prices at the gallery range from as little as $150, he says, so they get some customers who are making their first buy of original art. Larger canvasses go for as high as $1,800.
Summertime is, of course, the height of its season – which is why they travel to Africa in January and February when it is warm there. The gallery opens on May 3 and the final show opens on Columbus Day weekend – Oct. 10, 11 for the Saugatuck-Douglas Gallery Walk – and the gallery remains open through Christmas.
Located in a newly refurbished historic building, there are also two guest suites available at the rear of the gallery. If you stay in one of the suites, you get 10% off at the gallery. Sleep Saugatuck, and buy African.

About the Author:

Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.
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