By Okechukwu Uwaezuoke
From two exits, the guests poured out of the hall into the bar. With the formalities now thankfully over, it was time for the multi-racial audience to mingle freely while the cocktail-laden trays circulated.
This, by the way, was at Wheatbaker Hotel in the well-heeled Ikoyi neighbourhood of Lagos. The event? The formal launch of the book, Making History: The Femi Akinsanya Art Collection, which was authored by the US-based Professor Sylvester Okwuonodu Ogbechie.
And history was indeed made that Thursday evening. Even this convergence of aficionados of all colours and social standings was in itself noteworthy, albeit not unusual. Besides, an event that flaunts as its guest of honour the Onitsha monarch, Nnaemeka Achebe among many dignitaries, also deserves more than fleeting media attention.
Of course, Professor Ogbechie had other things in mind when he conceived title of this ground-breaking book. “The title of the book, Making History, speaks to shifts in methodology and discursive practices that map the changing historiography of African art studies,” he writes in the book.
“It also speaks more directly to the production and validation of artworks and art collections in African art studies, which in this instance uses the process of documenting the Akinsanya Collection to foreground a valid yet neglected context of African art collecting.”
Credit to whom it is due – in this case to the self-effacing and amiable collector Femi Akinsanya, at whose instance the throng of art connoisseurs and enthusiasts was summoned.
The avid art collector, meticulous in his endeavour to document his first-rate hoard of traditional African art, was able to link up with the University of California, Santa Barbara-based Professor Ogbechie thanks to the renowned female artist, Ndidi Dike.
For Professor Ogbechie, it was literally love at first sight with the Femi Akinsanya Art Collection the moment he crossed the threshold into the collector’s residence. He saw an Olowe of Ise palace door, whose provenance he was later able to validate, and the rest was history.
Kelechi Amadi-Obi, a celebrated Nigerian photographer, was soon co-opted for the snapshots of the museum-quality traditional art pieces interspersed in the 278-page book, published by 5 Continents Editions, an Italy-based foremost international publisher of books on African art.
“Both the Nigerian Art historian Prof Sylvester Ogbechie and the collector, Femi Akinsanya have added a new chapter to our understanding of collection of objects and artworks of interest and providing alternate sources of preserving Nigerian heritage,” acknowledged the reviewer of the book Nath Mayo Adediran, a former director of Nigerian Museums and president of the International Council of African Museums (also known by its acronym AFRICOM).
Well deserved were the plaudits at the formal ceremony graced by art collectors like Dotun Sulaiman (the Interswitch chairman), Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi (a leading economist and a former Minister of National Planning), Omooba Yemisi Shyllon (the Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation chairman), Sammy Olagbaju, Neil Coventry, Rahman Akhar (who runs the Signature Gallery outlets in both Ikoyi and Victoria Island) and Olaseinde Odimayo (who runs the Africa Treasure House) among others.
The concentration of guests at the venue was so much that old acquaintances hardly had enough time to acknowledge each other’s presence. However, the impressive roll call of the artistic greats could hardly have escaped a keen observer. First, there was the septuagenarian artist,
Bruce Onobrakpeya, who still had that get-up-and-go deportment of a much younger man. Then, there was Kolade Osinowo, an acknowledged master who not so recently retired from the Yaba College of Technology. Of course, there were many others like Olu Amoda, Duke Asidere, Tam Fiofori, Tobenna Okwuosa, George Edozie, Olu Ajayi and Ndidi Dike.
Call Making History a celebration of over 200 unique masks, sculptures and other important traditional 3D artworks in a book form and you would not be wrong. Collected by Femi Akinsanya, an investment banker, who has been collecting ever since he had some disposable income about three decades ago, these art pieces are of Yoruba, Igbo, Urhobo, Cross River, Benin and Benue River Valley origins.
The book itself, the collector earlier intimated a coterie of art-biased news hounds at briefing, was the apt finale of the three-year collaboration between him and the author. The latter, in any case, decries what he deems a marginalisation of both African collectors and their collections in the global art community.
This, he argued, is because the collections have not been exhibited, researched, photographed, authenticated and written about.
Meanwhile, a leading journal on African art – titled African Arts – in its documentation of over 2000 exhibitions promoting the African art collections of Europeans and Americans made no mention of any African collector. Nor were any of the collections located in the continent.
Sandra Obiago, the event’s compere, alluded in an anecdote to the African art works displayed in western museums as cookies while the cookie jar is in Africa. “Making History not only demonstrates that we have world class collections which can rival any in the British Museum or the Louvre in Paris, it will also challenge art patrons to professionalise the art management process by investing more in researching, documenting and exhibiting their private collections locally and internationally,” she said.
Corroborating the cookie jar analogy, the book contests the assertion that nothing much of value still remains in Africa given the fact that the continent’s richest cultural treasures were pillaged during colonialism.
“Making History is a unique, valuable, well delivered, scholarly work by Nigerian art historian Ogbechie, which will add a lot of value to museums and university collections across the world,” said Adediran.
“It also clearly points to the fact that Nigerian museum laws, which prohibit citizens from buying and selling antiquities, need to be updated, so that individuals, communities, local governments and even universities can begin to partner with government to protect and exhibit our best cultural artefacts.”
The Obi of Onitsha had in his speech decried the attitude of Nigeria’s ruling class, who he said “have often acted as if arts and culture are alien luxuries that developing countries could ill afford.
But our ancestors prove such perceptions are wholly misplaced as shown convincingly by the antiquity, quality, quantity and diversity of traditional art in the Akinsanya Collection and many other collections in Africa.”
He also called “an urgent review of our National Policy on Arts and Culture and its implementation with a view to achieving greater relevance and sustainability such that our art and culture will become key development resources.”
The exhibition segment of the event, curated by Professor Ogbechie, opened to the public on Friday, January 27 and closed on Wednesday, February 1. The entire package was part of the Collectors’ Series programme, the first of which opened at the same venue.