A passionate collector takes his inherited collection of traditional art to another level Adewole Ajao writes
A pleasing problem, Solomon Ogbonna Nwinyinya calls his current art collection. The baton has now passed into the hand of this Ebonyi State indigene decades after understudying his late father Chief Aguene Nwinyinya Okorie. The more than 400 carvings and sculptures, which adorn his Lagos home, are the bequest from his dad (whose was better known by his title, Agu Udo I of Onicha Igboeze). Before his passage in 2004, the chief instructed that his 6700 artworks be shared among his surviving children. “My dad was born in 1901 and died in 2004,” the collector explained during a tour of his house. “He was described as a native doctor because he used to collect art from the primary dealers and makers.”
A bronze horse, which recently escaped the bid of a popular entrepreneur, was standing conspicuously beside the swimming pool outside. The sentry mounted on it with outstretched hands beckoned the visitor to a section lined with his other wooden colleagues who coalesced to make the scene idyllic. Most of the works, Nwinyinya revealed, were put in storage after being ferried to Lagos during several trips to Ebonyi and back. This was the only logical way to reduce the wear and tear already discernible in some works.
“Some took five years. Some were months and it was based on when I had the capacity,” he said of those trips.
Comprising furniture, carvings, terracotta, jewellery, ancient ornaments, keys, bronze forms and other forms, they are a shot in the arm for private efforts at compiling multifarious art. With sound artworks going for pricey amounts nowadays, his recollection on how his dad made the purchases via trading by barter are indeed nostalgic. Back then, bags of Abakaliki rice, yams and other crops were legal tender. With this mode of payment, a collection whose provenance has not been completely verified swelled.
“We have about 98 percent [of works] of Nigerian origin,” said Nwinyinya. “Others are from Mali, Zaire and Cameroon.”
Revealing that he has no plans to sell any of the cherished works due to his personal beliefs, Nwinyinya added that the dream is for two galleries in Lagos and Ebonyi States that will display the works. These structures will also house museums that he hopes will increase the value of the works while boosting the tourism potentials of the country. Both structures will be called the Aguene Art Foundation.
“I won’t sell [them]. My brother’s collection is in my care and I am holding it to do what I will as per the museum. He will also support [my efforts]. I have got a place in Lekki Phase One to build a gallery for modern art. The second floor will be a museum.”
A book will also be launched on November 17 at the Eko Hotel and Suites. Titled White Man’s Interest in African Art: Unknown Facts, it is a document that hopes to bring aficionados closer to the collection and their history. This effort was boosted by his father’s painstaking attention to documenting the origin of each work.
“I have a Canadian and another foreigner partnering in the set up. They are also curators. My father made a very vital history of the works; he documented who he bought them from and whenever there was blood on any one of the works, he ensured they (sellers) made a thumbprint [to prove they were not stolen from a shrine].”
While he remained reticent about the value of the total haul, he claimed it for surpassed that of a modest collection of paintings and sculptures he had acquired.
“I collect other works. What I collect more are modern paintings that I can afford. I also collect Osogbo art. I go there and have about 40 commissioned works at home.”