Paul Hamilton’s African Art Collection: Denver’s Hidden Treasure
By Daniele Dickerson
Some moments in life render you absolutely speechless. Opening the door and walking into Paul Hamilton’s Whittier home is one of them.
When you enter Hamilton’s home— beautiful, but not visually unlike the other houses on the street— your eyes adjust and you realize that you didn’t step into just any house. This space is more like a museum, a library, a treasure trove of wondrous and intricately crafted objects. Every surface, in every direction on every floor of the home, displays sculptures, masks, tokens, statues, carvings, paintings, textiles, and more, all from tribes across Africa. Each piece is labeled with tribal information and dates, with some works created hundreds of years ago.
Hamilton is used to the shock. “It’ll take at least an hour just to see everything, but we could be in here all day, truly,” he laughs as we begin a tour. “I used to say it’s everywhere but the bathrooms, but now it’s there too!”
Over the next couple of hours, the writer, educator and activist points to and contextualizes hundreds of pieces of artwork. The sense of awe I felt walking through the front door never leaves me. “Do your neighbors know that all of this is in here?” I can’t help but ask.
He smiles. “Nope.”
When some people speak, it is best to just listen, take notes, and learn something. Hamilton is one of those people. When he tells you about his life, about the world and how it has (and has not) changed in his lifetime, it’s impossible not to feel inspired. He casually mentions friends and memories that most of us find in textbooks and movies. He traveled with Freedom Riders, demonstrated for Civil Rights, hosted and was hosted by royalty, and his friend, Kwame Ture, used to speak with his classes at the University of Denver.
To hear from a true griot the tales of your people, the history of your people in your state, in your country and on your globe, is truly an unforgettable experience. In this house, one’s context rings loud. Each piece seems to whisper from its carefully catalogued place, “We are connected.”
I try to soak everything in. After viewing Hamilton’s collection, one fact rings clear and true above all others— Black people are both from here and from elsewhere, and are part of something more important and larger than we can conceptualize. To walk through this home with this man, to hear his wisdom and see his artwork feels like a precious gift.
His art collection is truly a gift, and it begs to be shared. He has collected, catalogued and lovingly cared for over 1,200 pieces of art. They range in size from talismans a few inches high to sculptures that tower over rooms. They come from tribes across Africa, representing different regions, migrations and dynasties. The pieces sing out from their spots around the house.
Hamilton explains that he started collecting in the 1980s and never stopped, but the last 15 years of collection have been “absolutely mad.” Collecting this art has become an obsession for which he is widely known, and now art traders contact him when they find African art.
“The pieces just find me now,” he says. “I attract them.”
Walking through the house, he points at and explains each piece— its history, its tribe, its context. More than 250 people have walked through his home over the years. Now he is ready to pass the positions of curator, tour guide and art historian on to others, and maximize the impact of the collection by allowing it to have a permanent home in Denver.
“Denver means a lot. It’s where I became who I am. It’s where my son and grandsons are, and where so much has happened. It means a lot that this collection will live here, beyond any of us,” he explains.
Born in Pueblo in 1941, Hamilton is a man who has seen that city and this state through much fundamental change. Since arriving in Denver in 1959, he has pushed the city forward and thoroughly entrenched himself in the Black community. Whether through his career as an educator at every level of the school system, his time as a Colorado State Representative for Five Points, his entrepreneurial and self-improvement programs, or his collaboration with famed Denver artists, he has done and been a lot for Denver. At 80 years old, he still hopes to do a lot more. “Sharing this collection will free me in a lot of ways. I still have a lot to do, and pretty soon I can.”
As a sign of his character and endlessly giving spirit, his highest hope for the collection’s future is that it continues to inspire others. He wants artists to be able to visit the pieces and let the artwork influence their own work. He believes art can and will change the world, perhaps because he knows so much about its power— to transfix, obsess and transform. “I’m ready for my next chapter and I’m ready for all of this to belong to everyone now.”
This collection of art will make Denver a worthy stop on the path of art seekers and historians.
He intends to donate his personal library with the art collection as well. With more than 2,000 titles on African art and Africa’s global history and impact, his book collection came first, all those years ago, and led to his decades-long love affair with collecting. While doing the research for what would become his landmark book, African Peoples’ Contributions to World Civilizations: Shattering The Myths, he began to collect information and objects that affirmed what he was discovering about Africa’s undeniable impact on global culture. The resulting collection of rare books, posters, objects, and art make very concrete the ephemeral knowledge he has collected over a lifetime. He hopes the context people gain from interacting with the art collection and library “mobilizes them to keep seeing, keep seeking, and to participate in the act of creation.” He believes art begets art, perhaps because he has already seen how artists respond to his powerful collection.
One of Hamilton’s favorite modern Black artists and recent collaborator, Thomas “Detour” Evans, created a photography exhibit in collaboration with Ancestry.com entitled “They Still Live.” The exhibit showcased the impact of bringing Hamilton’s ancient African art into the present. Detour borrowed African masks from the collection and had Black models pose in the masks across Colorado. The resulting photographs encapsulate what is so important about the Hamilton art collection. They Still Live makes the African in African American more real through the incredible power of the photographs.
The collaboration with Detour is one of Hamilton’s favorite results of his years of collecting. He shows me the powerful photos one by one, holding them up and smiling, proud to have played a part in bringing this art into the world. Hamilton has loaned pieces from his collection to several artists, gallerists and museums across the world. By working with Detour and others, the collector has found a way to remind us all in new and exciting ways that the ancients are still here because we are still here, and because our roots run deep our foundation is strong.
This self-knowledge that builds a strong personal foundation is something he wants to bestow upon as many young people as possible. As he puts it, “It’s all about and for the future.”
Following the success of They Still Live, Hamilton, Evans and AncestryDNA collaborated with Arts Street@YEA, a Denver-based organization dedicated to helping high-risk youth channel their talents and natural curiosity into art. Through the collaboration’s “We Still Live” project, young people were invited to Hamilton’s house to view the collection, get inspired, and connect to their roots. The group of 49 kids toured the home, where they learned about African art and made their own masks. The group then learned about their roots through the AncestryDNA process, and remade their masks, armed with the knowledge of their personal heritage. Knowing who they were changed how they saw themselves.
The experience was fun and transformative for all involved, with Hamilton saying that because of this project he “really understood how this art could change the lives of our youth, and get them to express their creativity.”
His backyard has a large sculpture of a Sankofa bird, a word and concept originating with the Akan people of Ghana. He explains its meaning as “you have to look back to move forward, the past and the future are connected through the actions in the present.” He believes that the people of our city deserve a way to deeply know themselves, to look back and move forward.
The Denver African Art Collection group, a network of several individuals dedicated to preserving and housing Hamilton’s collection, has been diligently working, organizing and fundraising in an attempt to keep the collection together and in Denver— where future generations can continue to benefit from it. Should they succeed, this important facet of Denver’s art scene will find a permanent home and Hamilton can rest assured that his legacy will remain in the city he loves so much. His dream is for the collection to serve as a cultural resource center and gallery, so more people can educate themselves, find community, and use what they learn to better the world.
When the details are finalized and the general public can finally view and enjoy his art collection what is now a micro museum hidden in plain sight can return to its original purpose — a house. From his home in Whittier, he can continue making the world more beautiful and more informed about Africa’s influence on culture, art, architecture, music, and as Hamilton puts it, “every last thing there is.”
What does someone like Hamilton, who has already done so much for the culture, hope to do next? He wants to keep giving to Denver, keep sharing and doing all that he can to inspire social change. He wants to write books, train researchers, publish educational theory, and revolutionize the school system. He has no plans to stop shaping the world; he simply looks forward to doing it from a home with a bit more free shelf space.