Thursday 10 May 2012

Unfolding ‘rich reality’ in Lagos Private Collections

By Tajudeen Sowole

Although, it highlights the vibrancy of art collecting in Lagos, a new book on contemporary art, however challenges “expectation” and may provoke debates, even beyond its areas of thematic engagement.

PRESENTED at the Metropolitan Club, Victoria Island, Lagos, the book titled, Contemporary Nigerian Art in Lagos Private Collections captures exciting culture of art collecting.
  More importantly, the 302-page hardcover, which documents works of over 90 artists in the collections of over 35 patrons, can be regarded as a unique book on arts collection in Nigeria.
  Edited by a Lagos-based Spanish architect and art critic, Jess Castellote and published by Bookcraft, with sponsorship by art patron, Sammy Olagbaju, the book derives its strength, and perhaps, uniqueness from the criteria for selecting artists and works for the publication.
  Some of the criteria include painting and sculpture, collections in Lagos, artists working in Nigeria and works produced not earlier than 1985.
  From literary contributions of Prof. dele jegede and Tobenna Okwuosa, the new documentation offers independent perspectives to the book’s subject, aside the views of Castellote and Olagbaju.
   And as the sub-title of the book, New Trees in an Old Forest suggests, it’s, indeed, a celebration of the contemporaneity of Nigerian art. The artists are grouped in three sections, according to their period of birth within the context of Nigeria’s independence: pre-independence, independence and post-independence artists.
  Among 21 artists in the pre-independence era are late Ben Osawe, Yusuf Grillo, Muraina Oyelami, Kolade Oshinowo, Raqib Bashorun and Felix Osiemi. Some of the 33 artists under independence generation include Mike Omoighe, Biodun Olaku, Chinwe Uwatse, Rom Isichei, Duke Asidere, Toyin Alade, Edosa Ogiugo and Bunmi Babatunde.
   Post-independence list contains a total of 46 artists among whom are Onyema Offoedu-Okeke, Samuel Ajobiewe, Peju Alatise, Oliver Enwonwu, Kunle Osundina, Odun Orimolade, Fidelis Odogwu, Tolu Aliki, Juliet Ezenwa-Pearce, Damola Adepoju, George Edozie and Babalola Lawson.
Sponsor of the book, Chief Sammy Olagbaju (left), Guest of Honour, His Royal Highness, Nnaemeka A. Achebe, CFR, the Obi of Onitsha during the public presentation in Lagos… recently

GIVING a sneak view into the private collections of some notable art patrons and exposing who owns what, the book also shows that certain artists whose signatures were widely believed to be attractive and well-established over the decades, specifically within the period covered by the book, may not be favourites of some collectors.
  For example artists such as Kunle Adeyemi, Ini Brown, Olu Ajayi, Kunle Filani who, arguably, have been among the leading names in Lagos art circuit of the last two and half decades are conspicuously missing from the collections published in Contemporary Nigerian Art in Lagos Private Collections, a supposedly ‘Who is Who in Lagos Art of the last 25 years.’
   Perhaps, a brief on these artists will explain the complexity involved in selecting artists for a book of this kind.
  Adeyemi and Filani are known as two of the most consistent artists, even in the exhibition circuits, bridging the perceived barrier between art teaching as a career and full-time studio practice.
  Brown is one of the three most vibrant and well-known watercolourists in Nigeria. In fact, his name, in the past two decades has been synonymous with watercolour. He has been practising in Lagos throughout his career.
  Ajayi, in the past 25 years has given hope to artists who dread venturing into full-time studio practice, particularly in Lagos; his art could compete for the ‘Face of Lagos’ if such award exists in visual arts.   
  That none of the over 30 collectors, mostly dominated by the leading names in art collecting has a single collection of any of these four artists worthy of publishing seems to suggest that art collectors are not as predictable as perceived.
  Did the collectors shield some works —which may include that of top artists not published in the book — from the editor and his team? Castellote’s explanation on criteria for selection of works seems to provide an answer.
  He writes in the preface of the book that the works were selected based on what he describes as “broad perspective.” Insinuating that art collecting in Lagos goes beyond perception, Castellote argues, “we have tried to give quality pre-eminence over quantity or popularity.”
  More specifically, the editor stresses that the selected works and artists, challenged expectation. “The result is the presentation of a much more complex and rich reality than we expected at the beginning of the process,” the editor argues.
  Despite being excluded in the choice of art forms for the book, photography, unavoidably still finds its way as an important medium of reproduction. It has proven that photographing works of art cannot be taken for granted; some of the pictures of the works published expose what seems like lack of professionalism. It may be difficult to detect technical inadequacy in the photography of the paintings in the book, but the sculptures expose the deficiencies, as the pictures appear flat.    
   Creative lighting of objects, which usually give three dimensional illusion, separating the ground and foreground may not be necessary for catalogue of art exhibitions, but it is very crucial for a book of this magnitude. The three dimensional lighting requires in photographing sculptural works is conspicuously missing in the book.
Chief Sonny Oyegunle, representative of Alake of Egbaland, Oba Adedotun Aremu Gbadebo III (left) and the editor of the book, Jess Castellote 

IRRESPECTIVE of debates it may generate in the future, the book has added to the current excitement stimulated by a growing interest in Nigerian art. In the last four years, there has been an upsurge in documentation of contemporary Nigerian art.
  In 2009, Prof. Sylvester Ogbechie’s Ben Enwonwu: The Making Of An African Modernist, was launched in Lagos. A year after, it was 101 Nigerian Artists by Ben Bosah and George Edozie, followed by another of Ogbechie’s book, a documentation of Femi Akinsanya’s collection of traditional works titled, Making History: African Collectors and the Canon of African Art, few months ago; and a documentation of Chiedu Offoedu Okeke’s works.
  At the presentation of the book last week,  the reviewer, Femi Lijadu, a lawyer and an art patron noted that “the book is replete with information, images and interesting commentary and analysis, yet for all its scintillating, exciting, stimulating and extensive content, it still manages to be concise.”
  The guest of honour, His Royal Highness, Nnaemeka A. Achebe, CFR, the Obi of Onitsha noted that the book “reflects deep knowledge and genuine passion about its subject.”
   Also, the compere of the book launch ceremony, Mrs Bolanle Austen-Peters described the coming of the book as “phenomenon that in the last three months, two books on Nigerian art have been published.”
Contemporary Nigerian Art in Lagos Private Collections
  Having established his presence on the art collecting turf over the past three decades, Olagbaju, chairman of Visual Arts Society of Nigeria (VASON) said documentation of Nigerian art as contained in the book “is my contribution to art.” He said, “until more books like this are published, many artists would not know where their works are.”
 That the project is more than two years old may also mean that some of the works, perhaps, have moved to other collectors, either through auction or other informal sales.


  1. this publication could not have come at a better time ,yesterday (11th May ) I was shown a publication of the collection of the former finance minister of Senegal El Haj Diop is was a hard backed publication and I have seen several publications like this in the past from Senegalese collectors and the quality was far more better than the publications made by Nigerian Collectors of their collections,expatriates started to bring the Nigerian collector to realise that apart from collecting the documenting of ones collection is an essential component
    We the artists should also bear it in mind that collections are personal and it does not reflect on their prowess and talent different collectors procure works for different reasons so we should not fall into the trap of wanting our works in collections because the collector is regarded as the high authority of the art scene
    Personally I try to place my works in collections where the owners have a close attachment to them and not become something that will be stacked in a room or against a wall
    Kudos to this timely publication and urging more serious Nigerian art collectors to come forward with more rewarding endeavours like this

    1. Tajudeen, there will always be issue; trust the Nigerian factor. But i think the idee of a book on what the collectors like is a good one, It helps us artist understand them. good one. OLA

  2. Mr. Tajudeen l think Mr Godfrey is right when he said he try to place his collections when the owner has a close attachment to it artworks are not only for beautification but inspiring, informative and documenting in which you and your team did a wonderful presentation. Keep it up.