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African art in the heart of Roxbury

Posted by boston.com  December 19, 2013 05:05 PM

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Video by Elizabeth Gills

On the outside, the Hamill Gallery of Tribal Art still bears the appearance of an abandoned industrial building. The front is often barred and locked due to the gallery’s infrequent hours of operation. The windows of the second floor main showroom are clouded enough to prevent its inner fluorescent glow from leaking out onto Washington Street.

The Hamill Gallery does not advertise. It does not grab passersby’s attention with a well-lit window display.

But get close enough to ring the doorbell and you’ll see a white hall lined with dozens of wooden figurines. That’s only the beginning. In the heart of Roxbury, far from the grand architecture of the Museum of Fine Arts and in a neighborhood removed from the tourist traffic of downtown Boston, Tim Hamill keeps his personal collection of African tribal art, an estimated 40,000 relics of culture and history.

Those in-the-know about tribal art go to the Hamill Gallery to see artifacts from far-away countries like Ghana, Mali and Nigeria. The pieces are remnants of cultures an ocean away from the former wallpaper factory next to Dudley Square.

The rarity of these pieces and their distance from their places of origin pay off. Some of the statues inside are valued at thousands of dollars.

The gallery’s location is not what you would expect. Roxbury is a community where the median household income is just over $30,000 and the crime rate is one of highest in the city. Tourists don’t visit the area.

But the Hamill Gallery isn’t exactly typical either.

“We're not on Newbury Street because Tim owns this building. Because we couldn't afford the 16,000 square feet we need on Newbury Street,” said Hamill’s wife and co-owner, Bobbi Hamill. “And because being in that particular environment is not of great interest to us.”

Tim Hamill originally bought the warehouse in the seventies. He was an artist making a living with a framing business he ran out of the first floor. The gallery’s location there today is not by any particular design.

But the Hamills say they aren’t interested in moving up the street to the hip South End or to gallery-littered Newbury Street, where they’re exhibit space would be sandwiched between the same high-end shops that appeal to tribal art’s typical clientele.

Bobbi Hamill, 64, says the Hamill Gallery offers a rare experience in the world of tribal art.But she acknowledges that it bothers her to be in the heart of an African-American community with little access or interest in the high-end artifacts that her husband has bought and brought over the years from Africa. Some neighbors do ring the locked front door and look around, but to survive, the business relies primarily on its web sales and on those who drive up to the back, buy something expensive and then quickly leave the neighborhood.

Bobbi’s husband, Tim, spent years gathering these works from tribal communities all over the continent, mostly through dealers. But, she acknowledges, he never had the artifacts verified, so he really wasn’t sure which were real and which were reproduction.

“When I started out -- and I’m still not an expert, I didn’t know what was authentic.,” Tim said. “ I thought that you could recognize it by its style. Like if this looks like a Picasso, it is a Picasso. That’s not true. Especially in the tribal art world.”

And in the world of tribal art, authentication means the difference between a nice piece of wood and a work worth thousands of dollars.

When the couple married in 2002, Bobbi made verification her first priority. The couple learned almost half of Tim’s collection was inauthentic, or made for sale on the international market. For most collectors this word usually means disaster, but not for the Hamills.

“We’re probably in the vanguard of being upfront about that,” Tim said. “The trend in the tribal art world is to just say everything I have is authentic and everything the other guy has is a piece of junk. We do the opposite.”

In exhibits, the Hamills show the fake pieces next to the real thing, but sell the fakes for hundreds of dollars less. Bobbi says this broadens their customer base.

“The typical customer is someone who finds tribal forms compelling enough to want to own an example but may lack considerable resources to purchase a tribally used piece,” she said. “Therefore [this person] is looking to purchase a well-crafted, made-for-the-art-market reproduction.”

Admission to the Hamill Gallery is free. Bobbi says two kinds of people come in. Some come in the back door after “parking their Mercedes” in the lot. They want to buy something authentic.

Others enter through front door, and she says they are only curious about what’s inside. Bobbi says she prefers these visitors. Talking about the art in its cultural and historical context is Bobbi’s reason for keeping the gallery open.

“Everything here is provocative and dangerous,” she says of the collection. “Not because the piece itself is dangerous but because unless we’re careful, we’re not going to know what we have anymore. It’s just going to be the end of the month and this is how much money we’ve made. We had a good month.”

Bobbi describes the gallery not as a business but as her pulpit. She says some regulars come in from off the street. And the gallery plays host to groups of students from local schools. Bobbi sets up the exhibits with education in mind. She pulls books from the couple’s library and leaves informational packets throughout the room.

Susan Porter is a teacher, artist and regular at the gallery since the 1990s. She says she’s attracted to the gallery because it doesn’t try to be a museum.

“[The Hamills] are not hindered by trying to do things in a classical way,” she said, looking around at the main gallery. “[Bobbi] brings [the art] to life. They’re not just artifacts. They’ve had a life.”

This consciousness of the artwork’s journey blankets every show Bobbi puts together. After the typhoon hit the Philippines in November, the Hamills began a campaign to donate 10 percent of every purchase to relief efforts. Bobbi says exotic art doesn’t arrive in America without some kind of struggle. She hopes by bringing out the cultural nuances of a piece, visitors will be more likely to see the work through this lens.

“Tim would like to make a living out of this,” Bobbi said. “I think what we’re doing is a lot more fun.”

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.

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