Kenneth Montague doesn’t fit the script. He doesn’t fit the script of a black man raised by middle class Jamaican parents in Windsor, Canada, going on to become a successful dentist. And he certainly doesn’t fit the script of a boring dentist, since he moonlights as a contemporary art collector, specializing in photography of the African Diaspora. Heck, his collection doesn’t even fit the script of contemporary African art. Kenneth Montague completely overturns the stereotype of contemporary African American art as predominantly depicting suffering. This point is perfectly demonstrated by arguably the most famous work in the “Becoming” exhibition, “Couple Wearing Raccoon Coats.”
This photograph shows the affluence of some of the African American population in Harlem where most of the population was living in destitute poverty.
This photograph also happens to be my favorite piece in the “Becoming” exhibition so I made a point to ask Dr. Montague about it when he visited the Nasher Museum. In his typical anecdotal tone, he told me that his entire collection is inspired by this piece and his motivation for becoming a successful black man and art collector came from viewing this photograph in the Detroit Institute of Art when he was only a child. Viewing this piece at an early age made Dr. Montague believe that he too could rise to prominence in a society were African Americans were still trying to establish an identity in North America. Dr. Montague acquired this painting through direct collaboration with the VanDerZee family after the artist’s death. For more on Kenneth Montague’s unique collection of photographs depicting the “other side” of the black experience, unlike the version propagated by the media, check out this podcast (first row, far right).
IMAGE: James VanDerZee, “Couple in Raccoon Coats,” 1932. Gelatin silver print. 8 x 10 inches. Image courtesy of Donna Musssenden VanDerZee. Dr. Kenneth Montague/ The Wedge Collection.