Robert Williams is standing on the corner
of Hollins Street and South Arlington Avenue, outside Umiri Siki, or "New Day" Gallery, which he runs. African masks and sculptures and African-American collectables crowd the cramped store, where there is no room for customers to actually enter. Williams acts as a guide, bringing items out to the sidewalk to connect his customers with the pieces they desire.
In Williams' view, the spiritual traditions and beliefs of numerous communities from all over the African continent, mainly from its Western regions, mix and mingle with those of West Baltimore, where he was born and raised. Displayed in the windows along with the African objects are photographs of influential blues, doo-wop, and jazz musicians.
"See that guy right there," Williams points to a picture of local jazz legend Mickey Fields. "It's very important to me because he taught me how to play. I came up under him." Williams' father and grandfather were also musicians, and he played with his siblings as the Williams Brothers. "I came up in a time when every corner had a band," says Williams, who still plays the saxophone. "On my block, in my neighborhood, we had four different bands. Everybody was playing."
That was until disco hit. "We worked all the time until they could get a DJ to come in for cheaper and the work ceased," he says. "That was real traumatic for me when disco came in. Right now I don't see but a handful of places to play." Back when he was deep into the music, Williams also got into drugs. An arrest turned his life around, and he has been clean for well over 20 years.
In 1997, he accompanied a friend to an auction in Virginia and bought a container of what the auctioneer called "African shit." He was hooked and soon began selling masks and sculptures from his car. Williams says he sells "black antiques," which he defines as "anything old that was given to me by black people, or represents black people," including controversial items such as "mammy" cookie jars and lawn jockeys. But Williams appreciates the complex histories of these objects, often overturning commonly held beliefs. Pointing out his collection of black lawn jockeys, Williams brings out a framed article on Jocko Graves, a young African-American soldier who served with George Washington when he famously crossed the Delaware River. Graves was told to hold a lantern for the return of the troops and froze to death while completing his task. Washington had a statue of Graves made for Mount Vernon.
Fourteen years ago, Williams rented out the corner space that is now Umiri Siki, where he, his objects, and the music he loves bring a unique presence to the neighborhood. "You know, I grew up close to the kids and the people," Williams says. "I wouldn't say I'm any type of leader or anything like that. I'm just a presence, a different kind of presence. I am a presence that a lot of people don't adapt to." He adds, "You aren't gonna find too many stores with hermaphrodites and things of that nature. It's a different kind of presence."
This presence can be frightening. Even Williams admits that one or two masks "rub me in the wrong way." Many of these objects are used to ward off evil spirits-they are meant to be powerful and off-putting, such as the Nkisi, a small statue with nails coming out of its stomach. Other figures are depicted without garments, with genitalia in full view, a problem for one festival coordinator in Baltimore who considered them offensive.
But Williams doesn't see his pieces as art anyway. "I say they are pieces of wood because nothing matters here but money," he says. "It cost me money to get them. I know the definition of each piece, but they have no power here in this capitalistic society. They're pieces of wood, you know."
Still, Williams finds a lot of support on the street around Hollins Market. "I have a lot of people walk by and make whispers. People walk by and say, 'You have a blessed store,' and they walk away."
But Williams may not be hawking out on the street much longer. He is in the early stages of planning the African World Museum and Gallery, which would provide the space to delve deeper into the cultures and histories represented within his collection. While he currently lacks the funding, he certainly has the objects, the knowledge, and the trust of many in the community. He even has a space in mind: the old Steadman Station firehouse at East Read and North Calvert. With 14 years on the corner seeing the street life of Hollins Market, Williams is ready to come inside.
To see a gallery of photos of Williams and his shop, please go to