Ann van de Graaf says it’s time to move on.
The Lynchburg artist recently announced that her Africa House gallery, which she started nearly 10 years ago, will be transitioning away from its physical location on Garfield Avenue, by Virginia University of Lynchburg, to establish a presence at Riverviews Artspace during First Friday each month.
“It’s been a wonderful ride,” says van de Graaf, who wants to spend more time with her husband, Hans.
The move comes on the heels of Africa House’s merger, last spring, with the nonprofit Pharoah’s Marketplace, which sells a variety of fair trade African artifacts imported from West and South Africa in addition to also promoting the cultural exchange between America and Africa.
Since April, Africa House has included a retail space, run by Pharoah’s Marketplace president and founder Cynthia Merchant and featuring items made in Africa, including hand-carved wooden statues, masks, woven baskets and fabric.
Starting this week, Africa House and Pharoah’s Marketplace will become a monthly pop-up art market at Riverviews during First Friday.
“Hopefully that’s what the future is going to hold,” van de Graaf says. “We’re going to be like a satellite. … The spirit will live on.”
Merchant will sell the artifacts and arrange art exhibits, continuing her and van de Graaf’s shared mission to promote cross-cultural understanding through things like art, music and dance.
The items Merchant sells through Pharoah’s Marketplace are all purchased at fair trade markets, she says, primarily in Ghana but also the Congo, Kenya and Nigeria.
“I travel to Africa quite a bit, and I go back and forth,” says Merchant, who would eventually like Pharoah’s Marketplace to adopt a village there. “… When something is purchased through the fair trade market, you are ensured the money goes back to the village it came from or to the artist.”
“Shopping in the marketplaces is a lot of fun,” she adds. “You get to meet the artists themselves. You get to watch them while they work.”
Pharoah’s Marketplace, she says, is “a way for people to … take home a piece of Africa.”
During First Friday, Merchant will be selling the artifacts and highlighting the work of van de Graaf from 5 to 8 p.m.
“Ann has a lot of work of her own at Africa House,” Merchant says. “So we’re going to bring those out and showcase those and sell those to [have proceeds] go back to Africa House for the first one.”
They’ll continue to be open monthly after that, highlighting different artists and items each time.
“We’re providing them with a space, because there’s a lot of traffic here and we want to honor the Africa House and their legacy,” says Kim Soerensen, executive director of both Riverviews and the James River Council for the Arts & Humanities.
“[Ann] has done a lot for Riverviews as well, so that’s the least we can do. She was one of the [founders] of Riverviews, so it’s coming back full circle.”
Interestingly enough, van de Graaf has never formally exhibited her work at Africa House, though she notes “my work is always around.”
Africa House opened to the public in September 2008, nearly two years after van de Graaf bought the house from Virginia University of Lynchburg and began renovating it.
“The vision was always to have it as a gallery to show African-American artists, to encourage poetry readings and cultural events,” van de Graaf says.
The purchase and renovations coincided with the arrival of Dibinga wa Said, who came to Lynchburg in 2007 from the Democratic Republic of Congo to search for the grave of Ota Benga, an African pygmy who had lived nearby at the Virginia Seminary in the early 1900s.
According to Africa House’s website, Dibinga wa Said convinced van de Graaf to organize a conference on Ota Benga and later suggested the name Africa House when he visited her new studio with pygmies participating in the conference.
It also was fitting to illustrate van de Graaf’s passion for the continent. She grew up in the East African town of Mbeya, where her British father was an elephant hunter and later ran a coffee farm, and spent her childhood going back and forth between Africa and England, where she lived with her grandmother during World War II.
Van de Graaf moved to the United States for good in 1956 and Lynchburg in 1959, when her husband got a job with General Electric.
It wasn’t long before van de Graaf became involved in the civil rights movement here. She’s among the founders of the Legacy Museum of African American History and one of her most well-known works of art is “Lord Plant My Feet on Higher Ground,” a panoramic, three-panel painting depicting Lynchburg’s black civil rights leaders.
Van de Graaf also studied sociology and art at what was then Randolph-Macon Woman’s College and was a Virginia Center for the Creative Arts fellow in 1982.
Since Africa House opened, van de Graaf has shown the work of both nationally-known visual artists — including James Phillips, who currently has a painting on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C. — and up-and-coming local ones.
It’s also served as a venue for poetry readings, musical performances and other gatherings.
Merchant — who describes herself and van de Graaf as “two peas in a pod”— says their next step is simply an “evolution. It’s growing. We want to keep it growing. And I think [Riverviews] Artspace is a wonderful place.”
Van de Graaf won’t be officially out of Africa House’s physical location until the end of December. Last week, the space was largely intact. Pieces from the latest exhibit, focusing on Ota Benga, still hung on the walls, and Pharoah’s Marketplace items were displayed in the retail area.
Van de Graaf had a stack of old photos with her in the main gallery, including a black-and-white image of her as a small child in Africa, sitting on a donkey in front of a hut. She lovingly tapped the glass frame, recalling his name, Joseph, and her time spent there as a child.
She also had pictures of early events at Africa House in a small album and talked about people like Violet Mitchell, who has served as one of the gallery’s curators over the years, and the late Barry Donald Jones, a Rustburg native who also helped her book artists there. He died in March, and van de Graaf says that also factored into her decision to move on.
“I think that did something,” she says. “I can’t explain it in words.”
Upstairs, in a sitting room that leads into her studio, hangs a painting she created to commemorate the gallery’s opening, which included African, Cherokee and Episcopal blessings. Her painting depicts each of the clergy who gave those blessings as well as audience members, including her husband.
Van de Graaf sees a certain poetry in ending with an exhibit focused on Ota Benga: “I thought that was a nice rounding of it.”
While she’s leaving the physical Africa House behind, van de Graaf says she’ll eventually find a new studio space to create her own work.
“I think artists never stop painting,” she says. “I won’t ever stop painting.”