Friday 27 July 2012

Challenges of saving ‘over 80-year-old collection’

By Tajudeen Sowole
 In the traditional art collection of late Chief Aguene Nwinyinya Okorie (1901–2004), which is being preserved in Lagos and Ebonyi, comes the challenges of documentation and restoration

Currently in the possession of one of his children, the works may be another revelation in traditional art appreciation, if provenance and scientific dating confirm the claims of the heir, Solomon Ogbonna.  

Largely of wood and bronze, and by unidentified artists, some of the works seen during a visit to Ogbonna’s Ajah, Lagos residence, also showed that there was quite a high level of creativity among the undocumented artists of the 1920s through 60s when his father collected some of the works. 

Apart from artists such as Olowe of Ise (1875- 1938), Lamidi Fakeye (1928-2009), and a few others who were very proficient in traditional art, most artists of the period leaned towards craft and were not documented. Although Ogbonna, while taking his guests through the stores where the works are kept pointed to a wood piece as “an Olowe,” however, the army of undocumented artists of the past may just be among the unknown and unidentified collected by his late father.

And in his effort to salvage the images, Ogbonna is on the verge of cataloging the works in a hardcover with scholarly inputs to preserve the collection. He explained that the book titled The Interest of the White Man in African Art is scheduled for launch in November 2012.

When presented, Ogbonna’s book would have added to the growing list of documented traditional art. Early this year, a book on the traditional art collection of Lagos-based native art aficionado, Femi Akinsanya, and edited by Prof Sylvester Ogbechi titled Making History: The Femi Akinsanya African Art Collection joined the growing list of such rare collections.

For Ogbonna, the book is not just a catalogue but also on the history of a collector who tried to blur the line between art and African traditional religion. He disclosed, “My father started collecting when he was 20 years-old. He was misunderstood for a native doctor. He had 6,700 art pieces in his collection before he died”. Between 2004 and now, the collection, he said, has reduced. “And after his death, I chose to acquire most of his art works. In my possession now, I have nothing less than four thousand pieces; some are here, others are in the east,” he explained.
A set of the Aguene Okorie collection in front of Ogbonna’s house, Ajah, Lekki.

 As complex as provenance of traditional art is, it takes high scholarly input to have works in the genre documented. And more complex when traditional art, in categorisation, is stranded between antiquity and contemporaneity. While details of the scholarly inputs, such as that of the editor(s) would emerge soon, a text of what would be the Foreword to the book from Barr. Obuesi Phillips appears like an appetizer.

Obuesi writes that works of African artists date back to pre-Western documentation. “For centuries, these art forms have continued to arouse the interest of the white man who has continued to intermeddle with African ancient art, even long before colonialism. It is now over 500 years since the European voyages around the world began, and these brought back goods and information from other continents. Among these goods were exotic works of African art, which then were referred to as ‘artificial curiosities.’

He goes down memory lane through the 12th to 15th century dynamics of African civilization as evidenced in the beauty of artefacts that are still highly revered till date. He therefore asks: So, what is the interest of the white man in African artworks? 

Perhaps, on behalf of the author and editors, Obuesi discloses that the book is about “a collection of not only the thoughts of the author on the nagging issue of the interest of the white man in Top African art but also a massive resource catalogue of rare and priceless works of African traditions from the belly of black Africa.”

Having left behind as much as over 6, 000 works, it probably calls for curiosity to also ask: who exactly was Chief Okorie? Ogbonna stated that he was the spiritual head of Ogbegbua, Umuchita-Umudomi Village, Onicha in present day Ebonyi State and was a passionate lover art.
He disclosed how his father changed his collections by bringing objects from other cultures and hiding such works, “because the culture of his people does not permit bringing images of other cultures into the community”. The foreign works, he said, “were hidden in Abakaliki, and not until the 1980s that he started bringing them out.”

He may not share the traditional belief of his father, but Ogbonna, an auto-dealer who claimed that he showed interest in art at a very young age, however, shares the passion of his late father. “At 11, I was already a regular sight in the company of my father at high profile traditional ceremonies and gatherings of titled men.” In fact, he heeds to some crucial warnings about preservation of the art legacy: “My father told me not to take the works to Europe or America because he believed that the West would distort facts about the works. He also warned me that the works should not be sold, and that they provide life messages.”

Preserving the rare works must have been a huge task, as suggested by the aging status of some of the works, particularly the ones in wood, to which he agreed, saying, “It’s a big task.” For the bronze works, “experts from Benin have been brought in to maintain the bronze colours.”

Listed as resource persons in the proposed documentation project are “Prof. Chiemezie Okorie of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, who was helpful and instrumental to the production of this book, whose love for African art is phenomenal, and management of Ajumeze Museum of Noetic Art Ltd GTE (AMONA) for their support”.

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