George Nelson Preston/Profile
Preston posing with selected pieces from the MoAaO Collection, Harlem, NYC, 2010. This image was originally commissioned by and exhibited at the Studio Museum of Harlem, NYC.
Dr. George Nelson Preston
aka Nana Kwaku Anakwa,
the Aboafohene of Akuapem-Mamfe
and Akuapem Kyidom
By Petra Richterova, PhD
“His colleagues value his work not only for the uniqueness of the data he presents, but for his thoughtful analyses. He remains an original thinker as well as careful scholar, challenging our perceptions with his own insight. [He is] an important role model…for his students…[and] colleagues as well. He extends himself beyond more conventional scholars to communicate his knowledge with others.” Jean Borgatti, PhD, Art Historian, Clark University
George Nelson Preston – scholar of African art, curator, poet, enstooled Akan chief, a Founding Director of the Museum of Art and Origins along with Dr. Dinah Papi, and New York City native – is one of the foremost art historians and collectors in the US. Preston belongs to a distinguished group of Africanists at the forefront of art historical studies generating new knowledge and perspectives. His residence, a four and one half story landmark Town House designed by Henri Fourchet (1898), is also home to the museum (MoAaO) and stands as one of Harlem’s cultural treasures and best-kept secrets. This demure historique is located in the Sugar Hill district, first made famous by residents such as Lena Horne, Paul Robeson, Canada Lee, Charles Alston and their contemporaries. Today, Sugar Hill and the Museum of Art and Origins are important loci of the New Harlem Renaissance. MoAaO houses one of the world’s finest collections of African art and is the only institution I know about where visitors are able to handle objects while referring to pertinent literature.
A voracious student, no corner of the globe seems to have escaped Preston’s scrutiny. Telling of his passion about the pursuit of wisdom, Preston’s curriculum vitae identifies him both as Scholar and Explorer. Citizen of the world and somewhat of a renaissance man, Preston studies Chinese in his spare time, and is able to recite poetry in at least five languages. This oratory talent comes into play in his lectures, which should not be missed, both for their content and form. Attesting to his performance facilities, Preston also enjoyed a brief acting career, playing the lead role in Israel Horowitz’s off Broadway one-act play, “The Indian Wants the Bronx.” He portrays the logistically and existentially lost Gupta, an elderly Indian man who arrives in New York City speaking virtually no English. Preston inherited the role from John Cazale, memorized his parts in Hindi and delivered the role alongside Al Pacino and Matthew Cole for six months.
Preston in state at the annual Ohum, wearing chiefly regalia. Akuapem-Mamfe, Ghana, January 2, 2001. (L) Photo: Petra Richterova. Preston (in b&w kente) greeted by Ghana’s president John Kofi Agyekum Kufuor. (R) Akuapem-Akuropong, 2002. Photo: Courtesy of George N. Preston.
He also remains the only person I’ve met outside of my native Czech Republic that is able to explain the somewhat esoteric, but important, lot of the German-occupied Sudetenland of western (former) Czechoslovakia. Similarly, Dr. Preston is equally at home with world politics or carpentry. This pragmatic know-how compliments Preston’s philosophical latitude, and explicit knowledge of the African world and its artistic traditions. At MoAaO, you are certainly going to get more than theory. At any given vernissage, you are likely to run into just about anyone, ranging from Kurt Thometz, Preston’s neighbor the private librarian to the rich and famous, and owner of Jumel Terrace Books – “an oasis for the unrestrained pursuit of knowledge” in the “revolutionary and colonial Washington Heights” – to put it in the words of The New York Times; Fred Brathwait aka Fab 5 Freddy, the pioneering hip hop artist and visionary historian; Havana-born saxophonist and composer Yosvany Terry Cabrera and his brother, bassist, Yunior; Jamaican anthropologist and former Urban Bush Women dancer, Yanique Hume; humorist and writer Fran Lebowitz; Mrs. Jackie Robinson, widow of the major league baseball player (who broke the color line in 1947); the mystical Monaco-based painter Basil Alkazzi; two-time Grammy Award winning drummer Will Calhoun, as well as the late Dr. Werner Muensterberger, psychologist, author and esteemed collector of African art.
Preston is a living testament to the hidden truths behind the veil of cultural stratification, and at 73 remains fully engaged in his life-long love affair with art, humanity and ancient culture. As such, Preston is one of the few Afro-Descendants in the field of African art in the US. His interest, however, did not develop out of fashion, profit or a sense of cultural decorum. He was drawn to Africa due to a genuine compatibility of sensibility, both intellectual and artistic. Nana Anakwa moves effortlessly between his formal training in art history and the diverse contexts inherent to art-making in the African diaspora. Preston, who is professor Emeritus at City College, CUNY, since 2006, installed the permanent African collection at the Brooklyn Museum in 1968, and since then has worked on projects at the Smithsonian Institute, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The Museum for African Art, the Los Angeles County Museum, Museu AfroBrasil, Museo de Arte Moderno in Buenos Aires, Palacio Conde y Duque in Madrid, Galerie Kleber in Paris, and Museu de Arte da Cidade de São Paulo.
Preston in Accra, Ghana, 1998 (L). A moment of relaxation at home in Akuapem-Mamfe, southern Ghana, 2001 (R). Photos: Petra Richterova.
Preston posing with a Museum of Art and Origins poster designed by Aay Preston-Myint. The ceramic, made c. 1930 was a gift from the widow of the late Mamfehene Nana Manteyaw Panyin, Akuapem-Mamfe, Ghana, 1999. Photo: Petra Richterova.
As a scholar, Preston originated the exhibition “Sets, Series and Ensembles” at the Museum for African art and authored an accompanying publication bearing the same title (1985). This was the first exhibition in which African art works were exhibited in groups of the sets, series or ensembles to which they belonged – in contrast to what Preston dubbed “the museum aesthetic of solitary objects.” The books Emanoel Araújo: Afrominimalist Brasileiro (Brazilian Afrominimalist) (1988), African Art Masterpieces (1991) as well as dozens of articles in various catalogues and journals followed, and Preston is currently working on the forthcoming Clock of the Earth and The Black Hand of Orpheus: Four Hundred Years of African Presence in the Art of the Americas. Giving the reader a feel for Preston’s range, his lectures include “African Art in Context and the Museum Aesthetic,” “The Fante People of Ghana and their Flags,” “Why Are There African Masks? In Order to Clothe the Invisible,” “The Rubber Ball Game of the Americas,” “African, Greco-Roman and Renaissance Sources of the Art of Romare Bearden,” “What Does Gold Mean to the Akan? Everything and Nothing,” “An Iconography of Constraint,” “Herman Melville and the Art of the South Seas,” and “Mind Over Method.”
No student of art should miss the essay “African Art: New Perspectives” in African Art Masterpieces (1991) where Preston situates the field from a culture-historical perspective. Mindful of the fact that no single comprehensive text exists on African art comparable to Gardner’s Art Throughout the Ages, Preston brings us a bird’s eye overview of the field of African art and the problem of applying Eurocentric approaches to the study of non-Western lore in a succinct and elegant fashion. He examines geography, archaeology, linguistics and cultural trends – whether artistic or ideological – and builds the reader towards an African-based perspective. Preston illuminates grave conceptual discrepancies by demonstrating that terms such as “art” equate to a lingua mortal non dice in the African context: “For example, in the Akan language, what Westerners describe as art, crafts, or architecture is referred to generically as hand-thought. For the African, it was the doing that was named, not the object.” Preston reminds us that terms such as “art” do not provide any essential information about the nature of the work, problematizing its generic use to describe plastic works produced on the African continent and identifying it as reductionist. Who made the work? How was it made? How was it used and for what purpose? Who is the expected audience? What are the object’s formal qualities? What are the consequences for a culture without that object or ceremony? Given the array of circumstances, functions and motivations that have brought about an object’s existence in the African context, how could a single foreign term or “ism” possibly suffice? Moreover, Preston enters the philosophical realm and furthers his argument by asking another logical and basic question: “How does one approach the study of a culture entirely different from his or her own?” Unwinding from the West’s lingering tendency to ‘ahistoricize’ African culture, Preston goes on to point out that in any given culture, there is no correlation between the aesthetic and our platonic “the good.” We may appreciate an object for its aesthetic or intellectual merit, but may not understand or “like” its original function or meaning. Similarly, aligned with the teachings of Roy Sieber and Robert Farris Thompson, Preston reminds us that the Western “museum aesthetic” does not correlate with an object’s intended purpose, which in the case of African masks usually involves music and dance, without which the masks would not come out and become activated. Thus, with every object comes a way of life and a system of values, opening the door to a unique world, if we are willing and/or welcome to enter as scholars and explorers. Only through examining cultural context can we begin to approach a holistic appreciation of African art forms, and a well-rounded, wholesome appreciation depends on familiarity with the given cosmological framework and language – which includes verbal, visual, sonic and embodied knowledge. Setting the stage for exploring African artworks on their own terms, Preston’s essay provides the ABC’s for a common-sense Africa-centered approach to art history. He calls this “mind over method.”
Preston reminds us that we are dealing with cultures that don’t even heed our historically inherited epistemologies or our neat Aristotelian categories. Africans do not put all chairs, all tables, etc. into the same category. Take a careful look: neither do we necessarily. What if a tree, a stool seasoned with ritual sacrifices, a lump of prehistoric slag, an iron sword with a gold handle and another sword impaled in the earth outdoors where it will eventually vanish into rusted powder all belong to the same category and share more or less equal reverence? What if that sword is regarded in greater awe the more it begins to disappear? Suppose the fact that one of these objects (or as some of my colleagues would put it, sign-symbols) is proven to be chronologically older than the others. And that this seniority endows it with some special status? Well, then are all things of seniority given greater respect regardless of their material composition?
Preston’s active involvement in the art world dates back to his teenage years, when he traded artwork with fellow classmates at New York’s High School of Music and Art. He continued this practice into his years at Columbia University: “When I realized how much I liked the works of certain of my fellow students in high school, I began trading art for art. I did the same at The City College of New York, and later some of my colleagues became highly visible in the contemporary art scene.”
In 1959, by age 21, Preston opened the legendary Artist’s Studio, a storefront at 48 east 3rd Street, NYC, where he delivered his own poetry alongside the likes of Jack Kerouac, Frank O’Hara, Dianne Di Prima and Allen Ginsberg.
Preston (right) during his Beat years at a poetry reading, October 25, 1959. (Photograph: Fred W. McDarrah)
Entering Columbia University’s graduate program in the fall of 1966 on a Title IV Grant (dedicated to the study of non-Western cultures and languages), Preston studied under pioneering art historians such as Formalist Paul S. Wingert, and Diffusionist Douglas Frazer, who concentrated on African, Oceanic, and American Indian Art. Preston comments, “Wingert, following Sir Roger Fry, used the same formal language and aesthetic values to describe and localize African art that were used to describe European art. This syntactical tactic had the effect of establishing the aesthetic value of non-Western art as equal to Western art.” From Hans Himmelheber, he formalized his fieldwork techniques that he had intuitively practiced during his personal sojourn among the Mazateca of Mexico in 1963.
As art historical studies became more theoretical, object-centered approaches grew obsolete. Formalism was not only challenged as obsolete, it was considered elitist and stained with the legacy of colonial hegemony. Few graduate students today will have the opportunity to study African objects as part of style provinces and in their context simultaneously. Preston pursued his PhD at the vanguard of African art studies, when classical styles were taught in relation to morphology and milieu and when vast subject areas were unchartered. Preston’s 1973 doctoral thesis, “Twifo-Heman and the Akan Art-Leadership Complex of Ghana,” took on a subject with little previous literature. Given this, for the first time, Preston demonstrated the manipulation of art in lieu of people, the relationship between systems of art, and the ethnic-aesthetic and religio-political authority among the Akan of Southern Ghana. This landmark study was often mined by scholars who visited Ghana fly-by-night and had little regard for citing it. For these reasons, his unique expertise should be attentively passed onto future generations through old-fashioned apprenticeships and multimedia documentation. This includes photographing Preston’s activities in the field, maintaining and becoming familiar with his collections and libraries, conducting interviews, and recording lectures.
Preston lecturing using the resources of the MoAaO while professor at City College, CUNY, 2000. Photo: Petra Richterova.
Preston discussing the iconography of Benin art with a group of NYU students at MoAaO, October 2010. (L) Lecturing about Dan art through direct contact with authentic objects, New York University, September 2010. (R) (Photos: Petra Richterova)
His hands-on, open-door teaching style provides students with a once in a lifetime opportunity to learn in an honest, experience-based environment. A generous mentor, numerous students such as Jazz at Lincoln Center Senior Staff Photographer Frank Stewart, who studied with Preston at Cooper Union in 1970, as well as Japanese ceramist Ayano Ohmi and myself who came on the scene in the 1990s, have traveled into the field under Preston’s tutelage. Preston advocates Yale’s own Robert Farris Thompson, the spearhead of a pioneering interdisciplinary and participatory approach to the study of African-based art and culture; he emphasizes fieldwork and language as prerequisites for anyone interested in establishing a ‘visual literacy’ in the art of a given culture. In the classroom, Preston embraces the Style-Area Method (for beginners), followed by the study of key monuments of African art in terms of their context. Thus facilitating students with a formalist way of seeing and writing which is the basis of connoisseurship. This is followed by further exploration of African-based culture at large. For advanced studies, single methodologies are abandoned for a holistic approach drawing on appropriate culture-specific sources and ways of seeing.
As Chief Curator at the Museum of Art and Origins, Preston stresses exposition in relation to history, aesthetics and exceptionality. His museum manifesto also reveals his broad-mindedness and esteem for the cultural and artistic worldwide: “MoAaO addresses the question what generates art and endeavors to exhibit art in dialogue with its origin: culture-historical, environmental, ideological, medium. MoAaO exhibits trans world, trans era, native and contemporary art that is both innovative and rooted in the concerns that gave birth to ‘first arts’ of mankind.” De facto, Preston holds no ethnic or generic preferences when selecting pieces for his collection, but he does favor objects that have a powerful humanistic appeal, “in the Italian Renaissance sense of the term.” In my understanding, Preston responds to the healing nature and inherent truth of art works. Kind, open-minded and deceptively knowledgeable, Preston is a living cultural institution.
MoAaO permanent collection: Preston with Punu bellows, MoAaO. (L) Photo: Petra Richterova, 2000. Tsogo relief panel, MoAaO permanent collection, H. 44cm/17 ¼.” (C) Ngbandi figure, Democratic Republic of Congo, wood, encrustations, kauri shells, H. 52cm/22 ½.” (R) Photos: George N. Preston, 2011.
Dan maternity figure H. 59cm/23.25 inches, carved by Zlan. (L) Dynasty 18, mummified falcon, H. 52 cm/20 ½.” (C) Photos: Petra Richterova, 2011. Akan/Kwahu commemorative portrait of a priest, H. 61 cm/24.” (R) Photo: Adger W. Cowans, 1968.
Preston has over forty years of first-hand experience in west Africa. In 1998 he was elected to the junior chieftaincy of Ankobea at Mamfe, the Kyidom (rear guard) town of the Akuapem Kingdom. In 2001 he was elevated to the position of Aboafohene by the Kyidom Traditional Council of Akuapem-Mamfe.* As chief of development – literally “he who moves the town forward or he who supports or uplifts the town” – Preston fulfills his role as traditional and non-traditional leader through contributing financially, ideologically, and as an ad hoc ambassador to the Akan hierarchy of power. One of his key duties also involves conflict intervention and resolution, and Dr. Preston makes himself available in this capacity at large. If you find yourself in New York City, schedule a consultation with Nana or visit the Museum of Art and Origins to experience the diverse collection of contemporary art, traditional African art, East Asian art, photography, and prints in person.
Installation as Nana Anakwa, The Aboafohene of Akuapem-Mamfe, January 19, 2001. The blood of a ram has just been offered to the ancestors after first falling on Preston’s foot. The herbs clenched in his mouth maintain the interregnum between commoner and royalty status. (Photo: Petra Richterova)
Preston mounted on the shoulders of a villager after being ‘captured’ for chieftancy. He was carried through the town of Mamfe for all eyes to see during his 2001 enstoolment. (Photo: Petra Richterova)
Preston walked through the town of Mamfe during his 2001 enstoolment ceremony. (L) Preston greeting villagers as Nana Anakwa II during a durbar following his consecration into chieftancy, Mamfe, Ghana, 2001. He is accompanied by one of his personal mentors, Obosomfo Kponlogo of Larteh. (R) (Photos: Petra Richterova)
Nana Anakwa II in state. Note libation to the ancestors poured in front of his footsteps at each important crossroads of the town. Left foreground, Kwesi Ansa, his linguist with linguist staff, okyeampoma .The finial of the staff depicts Nana Preston uplifting the town. At his left is one of his personal priests Nana Okomfo Kponlogo, of The nearby Guan city-state of Larteh. (Photo: Petra Richterova, 2001)
MoAaO collection: Anon. Makonde, portrait of man inhaling tobacco snuff. Wood, human hair. H. 60cm / 23 ¾.” Photo: David Babersky.
Nana Anakwa II (center) with his ‘carriers,’ Mamfe, Ghana. Courtesy of George N. Preston.
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 George Nelson Preston, African Art Masterpieces, 13.
 Preston, 16.
 Personal communication, New York City, March 2011.
 For Preston’s poetry, see “Africa, Mother Africa,” Black Renaissance Magazine, New York University, Vol. 4, No 1, Spring 2001. Also stay tuned to Clock of the Earth, a forthcoming book of photographs by Frank Stewart and Petra Richterova and poetry by George N. Preston.
 Vision and Design, London 1920.
 George Nelson Preston, July 2011, interview with Petra Richterova, Harlem, NYC.
 Museum of Art and Origins manifesto. Courtesy of George N. Preston.
 George Nelson Preston, personal communication, New York City, February 2011.
* The suite of photographs of George N. Preston’s enstoolement ceremony can be viewed at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; curated by Dr. Howard Dodson, photographed by Petra Richterova, 2001.
About the author:
Dr. Petra Richterova was born in Prague, Czech Republic (1978). In 1996, she moved to New York City to study photography with Frank Stewart and attend a liberal arts program at Hunter College, CUNY. While at Hunter, she obtained several grants in support of fieldwork in west Africa which contributed to her Bachelor of Arts degree (2002). In 2004, Petra was awarded a scholarship to pursue graduate studies at Yale University where she then received her Master of Arts (2005), Master of Philosophy (2008), and Doctor of Philosophy (2010) degrees specializing in the Art of Africa and its Diaspora under the guidance of Robert Farris Thompson. As photographer, Petra has worked extensively with Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Cuban rumba ensemble Yoruba Andabo, the NY-based rock group Living Colour, LA-based performance artist Angelo Moore, Moroccan Gnawa musician Hassan Hakmoun, and NY-based arts organizations Black Light Productions and The Black Rock Coalition, among others. As researcher and photographer, she has worked in Cuba, Jamaica, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Mali and Morocco. Petra has shown at Columbia University in the exhibit “Making Music with Light: Jazz and the Art of Photography,” as well as Museum of Art and Origins exhibitions titled “Sacred Bond: Mothers, Fathers and Legendary Ancestors” and “Delta to Delta: From the Niger to the Mississippi.” Petra is a board member and curator of art at the latter museum, which has branches in New York City and Ghana. Most recently, she has contributed photographs for the Studio Museum in Harlem Postcard Series project (2010), and and was awarded a Postdoctoral Fellowship at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (2011-12). Petra is currently revising her award-winning doctoral thesis on AfroCuban expressive culture (titled “Rumba: A Philosophy of Motion”) into a book manuscript. A book of B&W photographs taken on the African continent is also in editing stages (co-authoring with George N. Preston and Frank Stewart).