In 1983, walking down a street in Nairobi, Kenya, Lydia and Jack Clemmons were drawn to a group gathered around a local vendor. The woman at the center of the throng was selling bright, sturdy sisal tote bags. Impressed by the bags and their vendor, Lydia bought one and in conversation with the woman learned that she was eager to introduce the totes to the American market.
The Clemmonses had no import or retail experience. They were in Nairobi on a brief vacation after a stint in Tanzania, where Jack, a pathologist at the University of Vermont, worked on AIDS research. Lydia, an anesthesiology nurse, had accompanied him, also working in Mount Kilimanjaro Hospital.
Industrious, intrepid, and with a lifelong can-do attitude, Lydia saw no reason not to leap in to an entrepreneurial endeavor bringing the sisal bags to the United States. In short order, she founded Authentica African Art Imports, the first African art mail-order business in the United States — a business that grew to bring in museum-quality art, textiles, jewelry and more, and was based at the Clemmons family farm in Charlotte.
“The Intrepid Couple and the Story of Authentica African Imports,” a multi-media exhibition of art, photography and storytelling documents the work and travels of Jackson and Lydia Clemmons in Africa and Vermont. The show opens today at the Amy E. Tarrant Gallery at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington.
Ceremonial masks, Chiwara figures, intricate carved granary door panels from Mali, hand-woven textiles, Samburu jewelry and much more are among the artworks from 20 or so African countries. The exhibition also features photography, oral history and biographical information about the Clemmonses.
“Half of the exhibit is about my parents, the other half is about Authentica Africa. The intrepid part is their story, including travels they did and their courage in daring to defy expectations and follow their hearts,” said Lydia Clemmons, Jackson and Lydia senior’s daughter.
Now both 95 years old, energetic, engaging and gracious, the two have led extraordinary lives, although Lydia Clemmons Sr. modestly noted, “I’m sure if most people examine their lives carefully they will discover unusual things.”
Married in the early 1950s, the young doctor and nurse loved travel from the beginning. For their honeymoon, they set out camping from Wisconsin to California. One exhibition panel features this journey, and includes a copy of “The Green Book,” a guide for black travelers of the time, featured in a recently released film.
“For African-Americans, travel in the United States could be a bit dicey. There were Jim Crow laws and sundown towns,” the younger Lydia noted.
In 1962, the Clemmonses moved to Vermont when Jack accepted a position at UVM. With no previous agricultural experience, they purchased a 148-acre farm in Charlotte as their home. Jack, who had learned carpentry from his grandfather, took on the task of restoring outbuildings on the property. Valuing hard work and self-sufficiency, with their five children they raised vegetables and livestock, canned and preserved — Lydia even learned to make soap — all while both parents had prominent medical careers.
Farming was an unusual direction for an African-American family. Today, fewer than half of 1 percent of farms in the United States are owned by African-Americans. In Vermont, 2012 figures document only 19 of nearly 7,000 farms. One of the 19 is the Clemmons farm.
The Clemmons Family Farm (www.clemmonsfamilyfarm.org) is currently in transition from family to nonprofit ownership, with a goal of establishing an organization celebrating African-American heritage and multi-culturalism. The Clemmons’ vision is to create a cultural resource with educational and arts programming.
The exhibition’s second focus is art from Africa — not generalized Africa, but with depth and perspective on distinct cultures and traditions. With superb selections from the Clemmons’ collection, its reach extends from Ndebeli, of South Africa, to Egyptian leatherwork; masks from Benin, Mali and other current West African countries to basketry by the Batwa of the center of the continent to fine Samburu beaded neck collars from the east.
An elegant pair of Chiwara, male and female antelope figures worn in harvest and agricultural ceremonies, symbolizes the union of male and female and farming and fertility. A meticulously beaded white wedding apron, fine lines of beads on leather, includes a geometric pattern recalling a trio of houses. A carved granary door from Mali summons ancestors for protection as it honors the harvest it shields.
Storytelling stations offer links to a variety of related information, including about contemporary art and craft in Africa. Examples of the sisal tote bags that started Lydia Clemmons’ Authentica Africa are in the show, accompanied by links illuminating the harvest and processing of sisal plants.