Eric Edwards lives on an unassuming street lined with tall, red-brick buildings in Bed-Stuy. His own building is otherwise innocuous, and lends itself to no more rumination than any neighboring apartment complex. But inside this building, and in his very apartment, Edwards stows an estimated $10 million collection of African art and tribal artifacts.
His collection sprawls so densely across the floor, it’s as if it is part of it, growing from the ground beneath. The effect is impressive, if somewhat jarring; the smooth and jagged contours of his sculptures, drums, tools, weapons and weavings careen towards the ceiling like breaking waves in a choppy current. To walk through this living room is to experience generations of African history, and you’d be a fool if you weren’t anxious about breaking a piece worth more than your yearly salary.
At the end of the vibrant maze stands Edwards, a retired AT&T executive who’s lived in Brooklyn his whole life, minus a two year stint in Atlanta. Although his collection elicits awe and wonder in guests, Edwards is thoroughly at ease among “the spirits.”
“I protect them and they protect me,” he says.
Even though he lives alone, Edwards is never, in fact, without company.
Edwards’ sister, Myrna Edwards-Williams, says that her brother has “always been a collector, since he was little.” She invokes memories of Eric fiddling with things like Lionel Trains and baseball cards as a boy, only to find him polishing dust off a massive shelf packed with 40,000 LPs as a man.
While his 1,600 piece collection of African art borders on the fringes of compulsion, especially considering the lengths he’s gone to acquire certain works, Edwards is more like an archaeologist searching for missing links than a collector looking to profit. The artifacts, which he gradually acquired through auctions and his relationships with different gallery owners over the last forty-five years, span all fifty-four countries of the African continent. Some are even 2,000 years old.
His pursuit is the preservation of history, something for which he gained reverence through his father as a boy.
“He realized that we needed to know something about our culture and our history because he saw it wasn’t taught in the public school system,” Edwards says of his father, an immigrant from Barbados in the 1930s. This importance of knowing one’s self and one’s heritage is the reason Edwards has been amassing these artifacts for so long.
Edwards said his dad emphasized education so as to “inoculate us from racism so we would always be proud of ourselves, know where we came from and know that we can accomplish whatever we wanted to.”
In the spirit of that message, Edwards, who only unveiled his collection publically for the first time in 2003, announced a Kickstarter campaign this month geared towards opening The Cultural Museum of African Art, a would-be permanent home for his assemblage that he hopes to establish in Bed-Stuy.
Opening a museum isn’t a matter of simply celebrating the precious relics in his possession, but rather, a way of extending his dad’s message of personal empowerment. Edwards wants to convey the multi-faceted aspects of African heritage to a large audience, primarily young people of color.
Edwards says that giving African-American kids a window into their cultural past will inevitably translate into “a greater sense of self-respect and motivation…and it’s going to make them better citizens and contributors to society, and we really need that.”
Although Edwards’ collection has gradually crowded the floor space of his apartment over the years and stayed put there, his experience in acquiring such a vast cadre of artifacts is as rich and varied as the objects themselves.
He points to a weaving from Cameroon to illustrate this concept, explaining that a royal family performed a passage of rights to formally grant him ownership of the object, which had originally belonged to a tribal chief. The ceremony didn’t take place in Cameroon however, but right in his apartment in Brooklyn, next to his kitchen.
“For me to take possession of this piece, he [the chief] had to send emissaries here to Brooklyn with the piece, totally enshrouded in a special casing, which they had to unwrap. Then there was as special ceremony that they conducted in the Bamileke language,” says Edwards.
Experiences like these have been more or less par for the course throughout the later years of Edwards’ time as a collector. He says he’s gotten numerous invitations to spend time with different royal families across Africa, something he’s been lucky enough to do on occasion, but he’s more interested in bringing those families to Brooklyn.
In doing so, Edwards hopes he can incorporate some of these African dignitaries into his museum’s programming. “I intend to bring some of the royal families, some of the chiefs, the kings, special ceremonies… to present them to the public,” he says.
By thrusting the limelight on the thousands year-old cultures that have inspired him throughout his life, Edwards’s museum will “make a difference in the lives of children and adults of all ethnicities,” according to his sister Myrna Edwards-Williams.
“I know what it can do for kids, it can change them once they start knowing who they are and where they came from,” she says.
The Museum, which if it reaches its goal of $35,000 via Kickstarter, will open in September 2016. Although he’s had offers to move his collection to other boroughs and even out of state, Edwards is adamant about Bed-Stuy as an ideal location.
That sentiment harkens back to his roots and again to the spirit of giving back to his community. He says he wants to put young people of color “where I was many years ago when my father talked to us about our culture and our history and why it’s important.”
If you’d like to donate to Edwards’s Kickstarter, visit here.
Follow Sam Blum on Twitter @Blumnessmonster