West African art adorns new Integrated Science Complex

West African art adorns new Integrated Science Complex

T he walls of Georgia College’s new Integrated Science Complex has original Congo paintings available for study thanks to Jim and Karen Fleece of Greensboro, Georgia.

“The artwork seems simple, but it's full of symbolism,” Jim said. “Now this meaningful artwork will be studied year-after-year.”

As the couple downsized their residence, they thought about donating their art to Georgia College.

“We didn't want to split up the collection, because it's so unique,” Jim said. “It's unlike any other collection in the country. And a museum connection with a university just seemed like a natural place for it—where it can be studied forever.” 

Karen and Jim Fleece
Karen and Jim Fleece

The couple has always had a strong, positive feeling about liberal arts schools, which is why they were interested in Georgia College.

The couple met in 1956 at DePauw University—a liberal arts college in Indiana, where they graduated in 1960.

When Jim retired in 1999, they moved to Reynolds Plantation in Greensboro, Georgia. It was the Georgia Jazz Band that piqued their interest in Georgia College.

The Band performed at Reynolds Plantation, and inspired the couple to learn more about the school. They met Georgia College's former President Rosemary DePaolo and were impressed.

“We spent a lot of time at Georgia College and just always had good experiences,” Karen said.

Jim served on the Foundation Board for eight years, where he was chairman of the Investment Committee.

Jim and Karen started their collection when Jim worked in the Congo from 1989 until 1999. He was a geologist with Exxon where he was trying to find new oil and gas fields in West Africa. Jim traveled back and forth from West Africa once a month for 10 years. This included nearby countries that got bombed including Guinea and Angola. It was high-risk work, so Jim had bodyguards. 

Art from the Congo, donated by Jim and Karen Fleece, serves to decorate and be studied at the Integrated Science Complex.
Art from the Congo, donated by Jim and Karen Fleece, serves to decorate and be studied at the Integrated Science Complex.

In his free time, Jim searched for art from the surrounding villages.

“This place in Brazzaville, Congo, was unlike any other country that I visited,” Jim said. “It was an art colony, similar to what was going on in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when Impressionism was being brought over from Europe. And there were small groups of artists who lived and painted together.”

“Looking for the gems of art paintings was something that I really enjoyed,” he said. “And in many of these paintings, I realized they weren't fine art, but they brought joy to me and others. I didn't know you can look at 1,000 pieces of art before something will talk to you.”

The art represents a 10-year period of time in what was known as the Congo. The West African side of the African continent was undergoing major change during the Cold War. The sides were drawn between West Africa and Russia.

“We were observing an entire culture from the Congo, that dated back to the time of Christ,” Karen said. “And they were an extraordinary group of folks who loved creativity and art. And then as Jim began to meet them, the question became, ‘What can we do to help them?’ So, it all started from there.”

There was a very large and tall Quonset hut with a wrap-around patio. The painters sat on the porch, painted and hung paintings on the wall in the hut. They were hung vertically, 10 paintings high with over 300 paintings. Every now and then a tourist would come along and buy one, but there wasn’t much commerce. 

“Looking for the gems of art paintings was something I really enjoyed. And in many of these paintings, I realized they weren't fine art, but they brought joy to me and others. I didn't know you can look at 1,000 pieces of art before something will talk to you.”
– Jim Fleece

The painters never had lessons or real paint supplies. Instead, they painted on parachutes, grain sacks or burlap. They used very little paint, which they made from berries and different colored mud.

The art is very primitive, because the painters didn't understand dimension.

Some of the faces are painted solid black. As the years went by, Jim noticed painters adding faces to their work. 

“We were observing an entire culture from the Congo that dated back to the time of Christ. And they were an extraordinary group of folks who loved creativity and art. And then as Jim began to meet them, the question became, ‘What can we do to help them?’ So, it all started from there.”
– Karen Fleece

Even though poverty was widespread, Jim learned the painters were cheerful, family-oriented people. You can see it in the paintings of their villages.

“It was a matriarchal society, because they were always showing the women doing housework or going to market,” he said.

“The surprising thing to me was I could see that each artist had their own style,” Jim said. “So, I could tell who painted what by looking at what they painted. Each had their own color schemes and styles and just developed their painting skills on their own.”

Eventually, Jim bought over 300 paintings but lost 31 in a major hotel in Angola, where there was fighting in the streets. The hotel was sacked, and the paintings were stolen.

The people practiced several religions, but the main one was Catholicism. There are a couple of paintings involving the Catholic Church, and others reflect more native agrarian religions.

During the height of the Cold War with Russia, people painted behind the scenes. Tons of propaganda was being painted, authorized by the Communist Party. 

Art from the Congo will be used as a teaching tool.
Art from the Congo will be used as a teaching tool.

One painting remains on Jim’s mind, reminding him of a religious parable. It's called “The Greedy Man and his Diamond.” It illustrates the greed on the face of a man kneeling and clutching a diamond.

“You get what they're trying to teach their children,” Jim said. “I hope that's one that people will notice how well they captured the man's face.”

Karen has her favorites, as well.

“In one painting, all the women are gathered at a fish market,” Karen said. “And the center figure is standing and leaning over, and her skirt takes the shape of a fish. And you see little shapes of fish along the way. It's wonderful to study a different culture this way.”

The Fleeces want their paintings to be used as teaching tools.

“I hope a professor will take an interest in these paintings and dive deep into that culture, and students get to experience what kind of art can really be done by people with no education,” Jim said. “From an academic viewpoint, this collection can mean a lot for the university. When I look into the future, students will see history—what life was really like during those 10 years. And, although the Bantu Tribe was very poor, you see joy in their faces.”