Eric Edwards is a collector. His two-story apartment, inside a modest red brick building in Bedford Stuyvesant, not far from the Pratt Institute, is packed to the brim. Tens of thousands of records take up the back walls; signed photographs of Little Richard, Run DMC, and several others are proudly displayed, and a myriad of high end audio equipment has found a home in a crowded corner. All of these are easy to miss, however, as you walk through a labyrinth of thousands of African artifacts littered across the floor and tables, dictating a walking path from the door into the kitchen.
The artifacts won’t be there long though. By this time next year Edwards plans to open The Cultural Museum of African Art in Bedford Stuyvesant, using his own collection as the premiere attraction. The museum will allow Edwards to assure the protection and appreciation of his art for generations, and to professionally catalogue and appraise every piece in his collection. But for Edwards the goal of the museum (its location has not been announced) is much more ambitious: To create a vehicle for Brooklyn residents to better understand the historical importance of African ancestors.
“I believe in a goal that everyone of all ethnicities, but particularly young African Americans, need to know their history and their importance,” says Edwards. “And they need to know the gifts of their ancestors to the world in order to strengthen them in their self-awareness.”
Edwards is an intellectual, brimming with confidence and a knowledge of his craft that stems from decades of dedicated study. He speaks about his art in the relaxed but passionate manner of a man removed from a hobby and immersed in expertise. He grew up in Bedford Stuyvesant during the 1960’s and remembers a racially divided New York City, but he never bought into the “ghetto” tag placed on Bed-Stuy. Instead he remembers a vibrant environment filled with interesting characters and charisma.
“As a youngster I loved Bedford Stuyvesant, with all of my friends,” said Edwards.” I loved the atmosphere, so when they called it a ghetto I never could quite understand why they said that or what it meant, because it wasn’t a ghetto to us.”
His interest in African artifacts began with his father, an immigrant from Barbados, who instilled a strong foundation in African history and culture in Edwards and his siblings. Edwards began collecting artifacts as a hobby in the 1970’s and continued while working as a network designer for AT&T and later as he moved into the music business, where his collection of audio equipment began. He boasts of owning five of the limited McIntosh MC3500 mono block amplifiers, widely considered one of the best and most historically significant amplifiers ever made. It was the selling this type of equipment, and other equipment like it, that helped to fund Edwards vast collection of African art.
Edwards is a self-taught collector, relying on reading, a large network of friends in the field, and more than 45 years of experience in deciding which pieces are worthy of taking in. Today the collection includes nearly 2,500 pieces from all 54 African nations, with the oldest piece, a Nubian royal woman made of granite, dating back around 4,000 years. A ten-month appraisal process of the art is set to yield a precise valuation of the collection at the end of the month, but Edwards’ own estimation puts the value at just over $10 million.
The museum is meant to act primarily as a place of learning, with an educational team hired by Edwards already working on building a curriculum and a means to teach history through the artifacts. But Edwards sees another benefit, too. Edwards sees a means for people of all ethnic groups to come away with a greater understanding and respect for African history, and those of African descent. And thus, he believes that the museum can act as a healing experience to improve racial tensions.
“I tell African Americans that they need to go back further into history than American slavery. Our existence didn’t start in the 1600’s,” says Edwards. “By getting into the art and realizing that for people who feel abused, it’s important for them to realize the greatness of the bigger society of humankind, and that they made major contributions they aren’t aware of. Other people who inflict pain and misery upon people who they think are worth less than them, they do it out of ignorance of the past. I believe this will bring people together.”
His father, Edwards emphasizes, was his starting point. “Because of the environment we grew up in, not just Brooklyn but New York City, he knew it was important for us to know our culture. Where we came from, how important we were,” says Edwards. “Because of my ties to Bedford Stuyvesant I would like to have the museum there.”