An African art collector plans to create a museum. Why does Harris County store his works for free?

Protected by wire cages and a new roof, some 1,200 pieces of African art can be found inside a Sunnyside warehouse under the watchful eye of security cameras and criminal investigators.

Houston real estate agent Sam Njunuri has been collecting the works since the 1970s, with the goal of creating a museum and cultural center. To become a reality, his vision needs partners, financial support and physical space.

For more than three years, however, Harris County taxpayers have been unwitting and possibly illegal benefactors of the project. As of January 2018, Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis has stored Njunuri’s works in the county warehouse for free.

Although Ellis received permission from the court of commissioners to receive 14 pieces to display in county buildings, his precinct later accepted more than 1,400, of which few have been on public display.

The original deal expired in January 2020, leaving Njunuri’s collection of masks, furniture and sculptures in limbo. The works cannot be returned as the county prosecutor’s office has not been able to confirm that Njunuri actually owns them. And this office, which deals with civil cases, said its investigation was suspended pending the outcome of a criminal investigation by the public prosecutor. The district attorney’s office declined to comment.

Legal and ethical questions regarding the arrangement focus on a key concern: What did county taxpayers receive in return for a valuable benefit to a private art collector?

City 1’s claim that it planned to find enough county buildings for the 1,400 works “does not pass the odor test,” said Lloyd Gite, owner of the Gite Gallery of African art at Third Ward. He said Njunuri’s pieces were impressive and urged the county to be transparent about its involvement in the collection.

“I think the main thing – and I think Rodney would agree with that – is that the audience has to experience this art. It’s a wonderful art, ”he said. “If the county wants to pay for this, this is something they have to vote on.”

Ellis declined to be interviewed by the Chronicle and did not respond to emailed questions about taxpayer spending on art, the knowledge of Njnuri’s planning commissioner, and why his office took over. a collection 100 times the size specified in the contract.

Spokesman Bill Miller said Ellis hopes all investigations are completed quickly so that the art can be returned to Njunuri and displayed publicly in the near future.

“Commissioner Ellis knows Mr. Njunuri but has not spoken to him for a while. He takes it on his word that he owns the art in question, ”Miller said. “The commissioner has hired a very capable lawyer to look at every detail of this whole case. They told him he was not guilty.

Njunuri, a Houston real estate agent from Kenya, declined to appear for an interview but corresponded with the Chronicle via a series of text messages from November.

He described an ambitious goal of creating a museum showcasing 5,000 works of art from 54 African countries as a global attraction for Houston.

“(I) have been on this project since 1972/3 and ready to go until I die,” he said. “(I) spent over 50 years building it and thousands of hour (s) talking to dealers in Africa.”

Njunuri said he did not know the value of his collection and did not disclose its full size. He told investigators last year he had additional artwork stored out of state. The collector said he viewed a partnership with Precinct 1 as a way for the public to view his pieces while he worked on the museum project.

Houston attorney Ken Okorie said he was helping Njunuri set up a non-profit organization to operate the museum and said the collector has no interest in profiting from the business.

“He’s as decent a human being as you can find him. … I have never met someone who devotes all of their effort and time to caring about art, ”Okorie said. “It’s Sam. It’s his passion.

Okorie said Njunuri could give details of each piece in his collection, but said he was not aware of any written documents documenting the works.

Commercial parts?

African art has been exported to the West since colonial times, said Christopher B. Steiner, author of “African Art in Transit” and professor at Connecticut College. Generally speaking, he said, this art falls into two categories.

The former are pieces that artists designed for Indigenous use, such as masks and statues, which Western curators consider to be authentic works suitable for museums. Many are hundreds of years old, Steiner said.

The latter are works produced specifically for Western consumption, sold in bazaars from Abidjan to Dar es Salaam or exported to the United States and Europe. Often these are copies of genuine works and may vary in quality of craftsmanship. Unlike museum pieces, however, there is little demand for documentation when selling tourist art.

What Njunuri’s collection includes remains unknown. Three African art scholars who examined photographs of the pieces, including Roslyn Walker, former director of the National Museum of African Art, said they all appeared to be of the tourist variety.

If the works are only commercial pieces, Steiner said, they could still be shown to the public and be useful educational tools.

“Our argument is that these tourist pieces are important artistic productions, and that they are a moment in time that documents this contact between Africa and the West,” Steiner said. “On the other hand, you wouldn’t want to distort this art as ‘masterpieces’ without contextualizing it as pieces made for the market. “

Legal dilemma

Ellis himself is passionate about African art. A Houston TV station in 2009 featured a story about his personal collection, the product of more than three dozen trips to the continent.

The Commissioner’s public art program includes neighborhood murals, a planned lynching memorial, and other works that reflect the diverse communities in Ward 1. Ellis has also used more than $ 11,000 in campaign funds since 2017 to buy works of art for the neighborhood.

Ellis said he met Njunuri in 2017 and was drawn to their mutual interest in African art. Njunuri signed an agreement in August of the same year authorizing his company, African Art Global, to loan 14 pieces to display in buildings in the county.

Angele Johnson, the commissioner’s sister-in-law, is listed as a cabinet administrator. She did not respond to requests for comment; a spokesperson for Precinct 1 said last year Johnson had no financial stake in the company.

Shortly after the Commission of Commissioners approved the deal with African Art Global in January 2018, the Precinct 1 accepted a total of 1,407 pieces. Ellis never sought to change the contract. An invoice from May of this year shows the precinct spent $ 16,000 to move African art.

Reginald Adams, then artistic director of Precinct 1, interviewed Njunuri and learned that the work was stored in poor conditions, in danger of being destroyed by flooding or the brutal humidity of the Gulf Coast.

“One of the tasks given to me was to put all these works of art together in one place so that they could be better stored, better maintained, to eventually be placed in public spaces,” said Adams.

Only 140 works have been shown publicly, said a spokesperson for the speaker. The remaining 1,267 never left the Reed Road warehouse, where they occupy approximately 5,000 square feet. Two art storage facilities in Houston have provided quotes ranging from $ 12,000 to $ 16,000 per month for similar accommodations.

Enclosure 1 also spent $ 220,000 on warehouse upgrades between May 2018 and January 2020, according to Harris County purchase orders. These included a new roof, front door, thermal protection and a new access door. A quarter of the building is used as a studio.

“Controversial for too long”

John Guess, CEO of the Houston Museum of African American Culture, said Ellis invited art professionals to visit the collection in the hopes of finding suitable places to display it. So far, this effort has been unsuccessful, which he attributes to the lack of existing spaces and a historic reluctance on the part of the foundations to support the initiatives of artists of color.

“I know Sam’s idea is a bigger picture, and sometimes it’s scaled down – and he understands that – depending on how much funding you could get,” Guess said. “It is a black asset managed by blacks. This will be a very difficult argument to make, given the biases associated with the fact that there are few black assets.

The county attorney, however, ordered the art to remain in the warehouse until investigations are resolved.

The district attorney’s investigation is likely focused on whether Ellis committed a state offense called official abuse of power, said Adam Gershowitz, professor at William & Mary Law School. The misuse of government resources by an official is illegal, but only if done with the intent of personal gain or to commit fraud, he said.

“Just because something is outrageous doesn’t mean it’s criminal,” Gershowitz said. “Unless prosecutors can prove that Ellis wanted to gain some benefit from it, they’ll be hard pressed to find that.”

Still, Ellis’ legal bills suggest he’s taking the issue seriously. Since the start of 2020, Ellis has used his campaign account to pay two attorneys: $ 149,000 to ethics expert Cris Feldman and $ 64,000 to prominent defense lawyer Rusty Hardin. Both provide advice on the art issue, Feldman said.

Gite, the gallery owner, said he hopes Ellis can resolve the situation soon so the works can finally be on display.

“This has been too controversial for too long, and I think the goodness of this project has been overlooked,” he said.

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Norma D. Ross