Saturday 4 February 2012

Making History… romance of art scholar, collector with native content

By Tajudeen Sowole

 Traditional African art may be unattractive to some collectors at home (Nigeria) and abroad, but a scholarly experimentation through a collaboration between Femi Akinsanya African Art Collection (FAAAC) and Sylvetser-Ogbechi-led Aachron Knowledge Systems, may open a new vista to traditional art appreciation.

  LAST week, the Sandra Obiago-led art initiative, The Collectors’ Series, formally presented the art historian Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie’s latest book, Making History: African Collectors and the Canon of African Art. The presentation at the Wheatbaker Hotel, Ikoyi, Lagos, was accompanied by a salon exhibition under the theme, Making History: The Femi Akinsanya African Art Collection.

  Published by 5 Continents Editions, an Italy-based publisher of African art subject, and launched by the Obi of Onitsha, Igwe Achebe Agbogidi, the 278-page hardcover book has added a fresh dimension to documentation of African art.  

 Despite the excitement and accolades Akinsanya and Ogbechie are enjoying for this stride, they may have, however, set a template for deeper probity in provenance, which could challenge some of their claims. Reason: traditional African art, particularly of museum prospect as presented by FAAAC and Ogbechie, is among the most complex in art documentation and appreciation.

OGBECHIE, a professor of Global African Art History and Visual Culture at the University of California Santa Barbara, USA, is also the author of Ben Enwonwu: the Making of an African Modernist, published in 2009. Akinsanya has been collecting “for the past 30 years,” and boasts of over “600 traditional and about 100 contemporary artworks.”
FAAAC's collection of Olowe door

  Making History… he says in his explanatory note to the book, “is the pilot project of my Aachron Knowledge Systems programme”.

 Prof. Ogbechie clarified that Making History was the pilot project of the Aachron Knowledge System (AKS) Initiative  through which he conceived of and sold the idea of a professional art collections management programme to Mr. Akinsanya that included documentation and publication of his African art collection in a book and website.”

   Ogbechie founded Aachron in 2006 to educate Nigerian collectors and the general public about the equity value of different forms of global African arts and culture. It also provides art management and art-equity consultancy to art collectors, creates content for art-learning programs, and produces educational publications on African arts.

  On the process that led to his deciding to write and publish Making History, he stated: “I came to Lagos in summer 2008 and pitched the Aachron idea to several collectors before finally meeting Akinsanya and reaching an agreement with him to apply the Aachron platform to his collection. The book was the end point of a work process that started in 2009 with initial photographic documentation of the collection (which I did), and eventual professional registration of the collection by a registrar I brought in from the USA to do the job.

  “I also brought in a scientist from Milan, Italy to take samples of the artworks and analyze them to determine their possible dates of production. Afterwards, I contracted Kelechi Amadi Obi to professionally photograph the artworks and then traveled to Milan where I got 5 Continents editions (a noted publisher of African art books) to agree to publish the book in English and French editions (resulting essentially in two books). This was followed by one year of research and writing, which resulted in the final manuscript for the book.

  “I also exerted significant control over the editing of the book, and its design and layout, while managing every situation that arose during the publication process. 

  He added, “Basically, I formed Aachron to educate Nigerian (and African) collectors about how to professionalize their collections so that these can become relevant in discussions of African art collections and thereby gain equity value. The equity value of an art collection is its monetary and discursive value over time, which relies on documentation, publication and circulation of the collection”.

  AKINSANYA’s collection, Ogbechie stated, cuts across tribes such as Yoruba, Igbo, Urhobo, Cross River, Benin and Benue River Valley. Indeed, the collector and the art historian, appear adequately prepared to make history.

  As he took guests to the book presentation through the 23 works on display — selected from the 200 documented in the book — Ogbechie, the art historian, impressed with his profound knowledge of these cultural and religious objects. He stressed that the publication and the exhibition that accompanied its launch, “expand awareness in Nigeria of the importance of professionalising the art collections’ management process, which is still in its infancy despite large and growing number of Nigeria collectors who collect different aspects of traditional and modern Nigerian art.”

  At a preview session held few days before the exhibition and book launch, Ogbechie disclosed that lack of adequate attention given to African collectors of traditional art inspired the writing of the book.

  The book, he explains, “sheds light on a neglected constituency of African collectors who are currently marginalised in discourses about their own cultural heritage.”

   Aside promotion by museums, home and abroad, traditional art hardly gets the kind of attention Making History… has given it. Observers always note that the complexity of provenance stems from a widely held view that authentic traditional art had all gone with the looting of the continent’s cultural objects. For this reason, historians, collectors and dealers are cautious in handling such art. 

  Responding to such conclusion, Ogbechie stated, that “the book refutes the general misconception that since Africa’s richest cultural treasures were pillaged during colonialism, nothing of much value still remains in Africa.” 

  FOR diverse reasons including claims about modernism and religious beliefs, demand for traditional art seems to be waning at home, despite the efforts of art historians to draw a line between the artistic and religious contents of these objects.

  For example, the 20th century period, which most of the Akinsanya collections examined elaborately in Making History… was very significant in the struggle between modernism and traditional religions across Africa. This, perhaps, led to loss of anthropological details of works that are connected to shrines or symbols of faiths. And despite the fact that their subsistence thrives under the shadow of art, the creators of these objects were becoming less popular, hence their anonymity.  

   The unrecorded identity of these artists has become a recurring, and grey aspect in documenting traditional African art.

  Although Making History… unavoidably, is entangled in this web, it, however, attempts to provide some crucial statistics of some of the objects.

Olowe door, currently at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, Washington D.C. U.S.
   These include Epa Mask (Yoruba, Osi), Commemorative Head (Uhunmwum Elao, Edo Kingdom of Benin) and Kneeling Female Figure with Attendants (Olumeye / Agere Ife, Yoruba Ikere-Ekiti. These works have been taken through scientific provenance, so suggests the Infrared (IR)-Spectroscopic test results in the brochure of the exhibition.   

   Among such works given prominence in the book, though not on display, is a door carving said to have been made by the revered carver, Olowe of Ise (b.1875 to 1938) for the Alawe of Ilawe, Ekiti, southwest, Nigeria.

  On page 123 of the book, the author writes that tests on the wood of the door “returned a date of 1935+ / - 8, which places its production within the period of Olowe’s professional practice.”

  The test, which validates the door as produced by Olowe, according to Ogbechie, was carried out by “expert brought to Nigeria from abroad,” during his research for the book.  

  Ogbechie writes that Akinsanya purchased the door “through an art dealer, Theophilus Adedoja, who brokered the sale from a representative of the Alawe (King) of Ilawe’s palace at Ilawe, Ekiti.” 
--> Head of an Oba
  Interestingly, Femi Akinsanya’s acquisition of Olowe door, as Making History… states, is one of the very few of such doors in museums around the world. An identical door, originally belonging to Arinjale of Ise, which Ogbechie highlights in the book, is currently in the collection of Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, Washington D.C. U.S.

  Another Olowe door in that range, though not identical, is also in the collection of the British Museum, U.K.


OGBECHIE’s searchlight on Akinsanya’s collections as featured in the book is indeed commendable.

  However, the issue of provenance on traditional art raised in the past, even by a much later carver, Lamidi Fakeye (1928-2009), for example, is worrisome.

  About a year before his death, the artist was in Lagos to prepare for his last and only solo art exhibition when he came across the catalogue of an art auction held in Lagos, which featured a plaque art piece supposedly signed by Lamidi Fakeye. He did not look at the picture in the catalogue twice before he instantly disowned the piece titled Sango (wood plaque, 1960,36 x 36 cm). The auction house (name withheld) also claimed to have done adequate authentication before displaying the work.  

--> Author and art historian, Prof Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie (left), His Royal Majesty, Igwe Achebe, Agbogidi Obi of Onitsha and collector, Femi Akinsanya during the launch of the book and opening of art exhibition in Lagos…recently.
  AS the gap between appreciations of traditional art at home and abroad keeps widening, sustaining interest in vast collections such as FAAAC may be a challenge.

  For example, recent sale of a Yoruba/Nago horse rider piece at Sotheby’s Paris sales fetched 400,750 Euro. On the contrary, no one showed interest in traditional art collections at two different auctions in Lagos, two years ago. Since then, one of the auction houses has stopped bringing traditional African art for sales.

  Of importance in Making History is the high quality photo production of the collections, captured by Nigerian photographer, Kelechi Amadi-Obi.    For Akinsanya, art is not just valued in financial term. His long time vision, he explained, is for the larger society in the area of research and education, and perhaps, “put in a context, maybe a small museum, but a world class one; that’s my ultimate agenda.”

 Also, the burden of conservation, he noted, “is most important for me, though no such service is available here.”

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