Madame Tussaud Could Learn From Harlem Wax Artist
Entrepreneur brings his brand of self-promotion to the display of important African-American figures
NEW YORK — In a Harlem neighborhood dotted with vacant houses, Raven Chanticleer has assembled a pantheon of black heroes and included himself on the roster.
Here, in what is billed as the world's only African-American wax museum, he has sculpted greats such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, and Raven Chanticleer. The latter earns a place here because, after all, it's his townhouse, his art, and his museum.
''I deserve all the awards,'' he says in a self-promotional tone as integral to his showman personality as his dashiki robe, cap, and scandals. ''This is all my work, a one-man show.''
Educated in art and design in New York, Paris, and Ghana, Mr. Chanticleer started his career in the mid-1960s as a fashion designer at Bergdorf Goodman. But in recent years, he has turned his attention more to art. In 1989, he opened this museum on a little-trafficked side street of West 115th Street.
''I was impressed by Madam Tussaud's on a field trip to Paris, but she had no black 'herons or sherons'; they were all lily-white,'' he says, using his own terminology for male and female heroes.
''I said 'I won't take this for an answer; I will open the first black wax museum in the world.' ''
Open only by appointment and scented with incense, Chanticleer's museum is an eclectic mix of about 20 wax figures, paintings, and assorted sculptures. ''This is a spaceman made out of clothes hangers,'' he explains in a confident, booming voice. Other displays he shows off are a lamp made out of wooden popsicle sticks and several portraits made from coconuts.
At a small gift-shop counter, he passes his hand over a wizard encased in a crystal ball. With thunder sounding, the wizard proffers a fortune, a little voodoo-magic courtesy of Chanticleer's laboratory.
Non-African-Americans are virtually absent from the museum's art or are shown in less-than-flattering light: one figure is of the late mass-murderer Jeffrey Dahmer.
Another painting renders the Biblical Last Supper with Malcolm X, Thurgood Marshall, and other prominent blacks at the dinner table. These and other images of African-Americans should help visitors appreciate their role in history, he says.
While paintings atop straw-covered walls take up much of the two-room museum, it is the wax figures in the back that are the centerpiece. Some, such as Malcolm X or former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, are convincing portraits. Others are more impressionistic; Duke Ellington, for instance, has an oversize head with an unusually large jaw and smile.
The artist likes to shroud his wax technique in some secrecy, and he carefully guards his studio. ''My studio is very sacred; I don't let anybody go there.''
Research is a big part of the work, Chanticleer explains. It takes him about a month in the library reading about the person and studying photographs before he begins designing the wax figure. Then he prepares a body of papier-mache and melts long strips of colored wax to craft the face and hands. Because he uses thicker wax than Madame Tussaud's, there's little danger of melting, he says proudly.
Chanticleer also suits up the wax figures with his own fashion designs. ''I'm very versatile,'' he says, adding that he has also appeared in several movies, including 'The Wiz.' ''I've created clothes for pets, I've created clothes out of garbage bags, I've created clothes for big voluptuous women.''
It generally costs about $3,000 to complete a wax figure, funds he gathers by charging his 300 to 400 monthly visitors $10 admission. Next on his list is tennis star Arthur Ashe; later, he hopes to render images of oft-forgotten black rodeo cowboys.
His next big dream is to expand the museum onto his now-vacant lot next door. Unlike the current museum, which he financed himself, he may have to look to outside help.
For now, Chanticleer wants to stay in Harlem, once home to many of the figures that inspired his wax creations, rather than move to another part of the city with more tourist traffic. ''I'm a son of Harlem,'' he says.