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Collector Suzanne McFayden on Finding Art That Moves the Soul

Killian Wright-Jackson
Jan 4, 2023 3:00PM

Portrait of Suzanne McFayden with a painting by Julia Jo. Photo by Olivia Frierson. Courtesy of Suzanne McFayden.

Few collectors have minds as crystalline as Suzanne McFayden. Serving as board chair of the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas, and an esteemed patron at the Studio Museum in Harlem, her effect can raise a vibration. With her honeyed lilt and resonant inflections, immediately one feels compelled to sit up straight. McFayden’s snatch-your-spirit elegance is a balm.

“I’m only interested in works that move the soul,” McFayden said of her approach to collecting. “I call it a quickening, usually a blood-rushing sensation I feel in my stomach. It’s an urge that makes me want to get closer, one that lures me in to learn or ask questions. That’s the feeling I enjoy the most, and it really doesn’t happen often.”

McFayden, while sitting in front of a breathtaking mural called Stay Focus by Delphine Desane, recalled the first time that this “quickening” took hold. She was at Art Basel in 2010, where she encountered a lithograph of the Caribbean sea by Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto. When she learned that Sugimoto was inspired by his time in Jamaica—McFayden’s place of birth—she felt as if he were speaking directly to her. It’s this kind of communion that inspires each of her purchases.

McFayden’s first “serious art purchase” was in 2014: I Have Peg Leg Nightmares by Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu. The wondrous watercolor collage depicts a woman looking over her shoulder, hands clasped primly in leather gloves, wrists snaked in diamonds. The woman is nude, one leg severed above the knee, as blood spills gorgeously like strewn rose petals.

Installation view of works by Deborah Roberts, Adrienne Elise Tarver, and Delphine Desane, hung on a mural by Diego Miro. Photo by Olivia Frierson. Courtesy of Suzanne McFayden.

Portrait of Suzanne McFayden with a painting by Bony Ramirez. Photo by Olivia Frierson. Courtesy of Suzanne McFayden.

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“At the time my kids found the portrait a little scary,” McFayden recalled, laughing. “But I fell in love instantly. Mutu’s works reflect the conditions that many Black women, across the diaspora, find themselves in. Even though we may be wounded, we still go on and we often find ways to make beauty of the pain we’ve endured.”

McFayden is fixated with internal alchemy, experienced through the depth of feeling. Rather than rush to consume the next best thing, McFayden is interested in forging personal connections and exploring deeper histories with works that will evolve with her over time.

McFayden’s collection is an amalgam of her ever-changing moods, sensations, and dreams, from a neon text by British artist Tracey Emin that reads “TRUST YOURSELF”—an aphorism of inestimable value given the dismemberment facilitated through mass media—to dreamy photographs by Ethiopian American artist Awol Erizku.

A true Taurus, she has an affinity for works that conjure beauty. McFayden’s definition is not characterized by formal aesthetics, however, but by a kind of internal ignition that charges the senses. For example, in her hydrotherapy room, a Noah Davis nude hangs on the wall, a reminder to embrace in her own sensuality.

Portrait of Suzanne McFayden with a painting by Jerrell Gibbs, hung on a mural by Diego Miro. Photo by Olivia Frierson. Courtesy of Suzanne McFayden.

A faithfulness of “respecting her feelings” was also instilled in McFayden at an early age, she told Artsy: “I grew up around women who were always fully embodied, who claimed themselves with complete authority, women who were central to themselves. As a young girl, I wasn’t fully aware of how powerful their sovereignty was, especially in relation to the legacy of colonialism and enslavement that surrounded us. In hindsight, I can understand how vital it was for me to have women on both sides of my family who were steadfast regardless of their environment or circumstances.”

As a writer and avid reader, McFayden is interested in the “alchemy of truth” that is distilled through art.

Witnessing Mutu responding to Constantin Brâncuși’s narrowed primitive gaze which inspired his “African” works, or learning the source of inspiration behind the young Black boy in Titus Kaphar’s portrait Enough About You, had a revelatory impact on her: “I don’t like art that’s trivial,” she said. “It’s important to me that art demands an emotion, a memory, that in some way it touches the lives of other people or expands a conversation.”

Still, this isn’t to suggest that McFayden is solely partial to severely sophisticated modernist masterworks. Simple, minimal art can be equally stimulating. One of her recent purchases was a work by visual artist Kenny Rivero. “Every time I see his work it brings a smile to my face,” she said. “There’s something playful in his exhibitions.”

Other artists who’ve helped nourish McFayden’s creativity include Alma Thomas, whom she described as a “force offering a way forward,” and Joan Mitchell, “an artist of real power who continued making work regardless of what was happening around her.” Both, she said, were eons ahead of their time: Thomas and Mitchell sizzled with élan and sock-it-to-me styles, bulldozing their way through eras of feminine domestic subjection. Paving a way for our current cultural reckoning, nothing excites McFayden more than the seismic shift across the art world today.

Portrait of Suzanne McFayden with a painting by Delphine Desane, hung on a mural by Diego Miro. Photo by Olivia Frierson. Courtesy of Suzanne McFayden.

“When I was a child growing up in Jamaica…the standard of beauty was typecast as one thing. I see much more self-love and self-acceptance which is exploding across the art world,” she said. “We’re witnessing Black artists reclaiming abstraction, allowing themselves to make work that is more radical, more political, and more fluid.”

One recent experience of this came during this year’s Venice Biennale; McFayden was moved to tears by the seismic showcases of Simone Leigh and Sonia Boyce and the ever-expanding fields of unity across cultures.

“We know that art is a pendulum, but this is not a moment, this is not a phase,” McFayden said. “I had a renowned art collector say to me, ‘I’ve never seen the American pavilion look as good as what Simone has done to it.’ When you see that sort of reaction live, it’s not being said out of tokenism. The elastic band isn’t just going to snap back into place. Of course, there’s fear from artists who aren’t of color and might feel as if they’re being squeezed out, but no…finally they’re being called to merit their spots.”

When we spoke with McFayden, she was rotating her collection for winter. A synchrony of works that match the winter season was called forth, with works from Deborah Roberts, Rachel Jones, Qualeasha Jones, Sheila Hicks and Adrienne Elise Tarver returning, though abstraction is the mood and medium of the moment.

McFayden continues to challenge herself to support in meaningful ways. Inspired by Agnes Gund and her efforts of selling works of art to fund causes, McFayden sees no value in graceless profiteering. Instead, she looks forward: “We can all do more, especially in these times, to support not only ourselves but to help our next generation.”

Killian Wright-Jackson
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019