A clock in the middle of a room
The Argyll Collection (some of which is shown here on display in Lochgilphead) was the brainchild of Edinburgh-born Naomi Mitchison

Art lovers have a unique opportunity to hear from the researchers working with the most significant collection of African modernist art in Scotland, as part of The Royal Society of Edinburgh’s flagship Curious event series.

The artworks belong to The Argyll Collection, an educational collection owned by Argyll and Bute Council, and the event will be one of the first times that will be discussed in detail in a national forum, and the event is free to all to attend – both in person and online – with the opportunity to put questions to the people at the forefront of the project.

Dr Kate Cowcher, lecturer at the University of St Andrews, has worked with colleagues at Argyll and Bute Council since 2018 to recover a significant and overlooked cluster of African modern artworks in the county’s Collection. She will be joined by technical art history and conservation expert Professor Christina Young of the University of Glasgow and art historian Professor Angelo Kakande of Makerere University in Uganda.

Dr Cowcher said: “This will be one of the first times that we have talked at length about the collection in a national forum, raising awareness of this collection and its significance remains a major motivation behind the project. Curious is a great opportunity for us to discuss the rich histories we have uncovered, and to engage in an important conversation about the future care of these artworks.

“This is a local authority-owned collection, but it has national and international significance and speaking about it at The Royal Society of Edinburgh gives us the chance to underscore just how important it is.” 

A close up of a sign
Sangomas by Lucky Sibiya

The Argyll Collection is the brainchild of the late Edinburgh-born Naomi Mitchison, who settled in Carradale. Baroness Mitchison CBE used her connections in the art world to purchase artwork from Scottish artists and brought them to Argyll to be used as educational resources for children in rural schools.

In the 1960s, following the establishment of her friendship with a young dignitary from what is today Botswana, Mitchison bought works from artists selling at exhibitions in Kampala, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, and sent them back to Dunoon, where they became part of The Argyll Collection. 

Dr Cowcher said: “These artworks are a testament to her very international, very progressive vision, but they also provide key insights into the very outward-looking, very dynamic art scene in east Africa in the 60s, centered around key institutions such as the art school at Makerere in Uganda or the lively gallery of the Chemchemi Creative Centre in Kenya.”

However, in the intervening decades, the significance of this cluster of artworks in The Argyll Collection was overlooked, and more importantly the details of their provenance were lost. 

As well as tracing their individual histories, Dr Cowcher is currently working with Prof. Christina Young from the Kelvin Centre at the University of Glasgow on the first technical analysis of the artworks. At Curious Prof Young will reveal some of her findings and discuss what tools such as infrared reflectography can tell us about an artwork’s make-up and the choices of its maker.

The question of the collection’s conservation is of prime importance. Examinations in March, supported by the University of St Andrews and Culture, Heritage and Arts, Argyll and Isles (CHARTS) revealed that of the 12 artworks only three need immediate conservation attention.

This work will be carried by a professional conservator in autumn 2023, with support from the University of St Andrews’ Impact and Innovation Fund. Once conserved, the entire collection can be brought back into circulation and, it is hoped, be exhibited both within and beyond Argyll and Bute.

A painting on the wall
The Fishermen by Louis Mbughuni

The collection has already had a brief airing at Dunoon Burgh Hall back in the summer of 2021 in the exhibition Dar to Dunoon: Modern African Art from the Argyll Collection.

Dr Cowcher said: “Part of the current conversation about this collection is how we can empower local communities to do the sort of conservation checking that people at a museum would do.”

Dr Cowcher will shortly be welcoming Prof. Angelo Kakande from Makerere University in Uganda, who is an expert in east African modernist art. Prof. Kakande will be visiting Scotland in September as Global Fellow at the University of St Andrews and will be a key participant in the Curious roundtable discussion.

Dr Cowcher said: “I hope that people coming to the roundtable would be inspired by Mitchison’s vision and leave with some sense of awareness of importance of access to public art, some sense of awareness of excitement about the fact that this internationally significant collection lives in Scotland. Its existence should be a point of pride for us all.”

The event Uncovering Argyll’s African art collection will be held at 6pm tomorrow (15 September) at The Royal Society of Edinburgh, and online. Visit www.rse-curious.com to book your free ticket.