Saturday 14 September 2019

Frank Okonta: art patron, gallery administrator with landmark events

Chief Frank Okonta (left), Ambassador of South Africa to Senegal, Thembisele Majola Embalo; Nigerian Ambassador, Azuka Cecelia Emejulu; and Dr Kweku Tandoh of NGA, Abuja... at Dak'art 2008, in Dakar.

History of art appreciation in Nigeria is incomplete without mentioning the contribution of Chief Frank Okonta (1939-2019). Okonta was an art collector who also shared his collection and experience in the passion and business of art appreciation.

Okonta died on Tuesday, September 3, 2019 from what some sources disclosed as "protracted illness over the years." From Nkem Gallery, Victoria Island, Lagos, Okonta, a retired civil servant, shared his collection with the public as well as promoted artists. His passion and experience in art appreciation did not go unnoticed when a crucial part of Nigeria's art history unfolded 11 years ago.

On August 27, 2008, what was recorded as visual culture landmark, Art Expo Nigeria, opened in Lagos. An initiative of the National Gallery of Art (NGA), Abuja, in conjunction with Okonta-led Art Galleries Association of Nigeria (AGAN), Art Expo Nigeria held at National Museum, Onikan, Lagos for four days, displaying over 700 art pieces by artists within and outside Nigeria. Art Expo Nigeria was later changed to Art Expo Lagos after two editions.

Apart from the significance of Art Expo Nigeria, the emergence of AGAN and the contribution of Okonta were equally amazing. There was barely five months difference between the founding of AGAN and the debut edition of Art Expo Nigeria. Early in 2008, NGA, under its then new Director-General, Joe Musa had hinted of its plan to organise Nigeria's first Art expo in Lagos. Given the reality that art fairs or art expo events don't exist without galleries, the NGA couId not organise such large gathering alone. Yes, NGA had many galleries under its management, spread across Nigeria, but the commercial and private-driven scope of the event made it more open to non-governmental input. The  challenge of the government agency, then, was not for lack of art galleries in Nigeria, but non-existence of a professional body of art promoters and managers.

On Thursday, March 13, 2008, inside Aina Onabolu Hall, National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos, NGA held a gathering of stakeholders. The gathering, which had art galleries owners, including Okonta and artists in attendance disclosed that an attempt to form a professional body was already in place. Okonta was coordinating the said group. Few weeks later, AGAN was formed with Okonta chosen as it's first president.

When AGAN and NGA debuted with Art Expo Nigeria at National Museum, Onikan, Okonta made a profound historic statement.
"The Art Expo is holding in this part of the world for the first time," he told a gathering of guests that included the expatriates community and other visitors. "Art Expo Nigeria is an opportunity for all those who love art to come and see the richness of Nigeria's robust visual arts culture. In this show, over 750 art works will be on display and much like ArtExpo New York which is the world's largest fine and popular art fair, it is hoped that the Nigerian version will ultimately become the biggest art show in Africa. The intention is to create an art market place that will offer the general public an opportunity to see original paintings and sculpture, and works on paper. Whether you're a seasoned collector, interested in adding to the allure of your home's interior design, or simply an art enthusiast interested in viewing the latest trends in the visual arts, ArtExpo Nigeria will have something for everyone."

 Earlier, in July of the same year, Okonta had represented AGAN at Dak'art biennale, in Dakar, Senegal. The Nigerian contingent of exhibited artists at the 2008 edition of the global Africa bienniale was led by NGA. As part of the 'Off' space, the Nigeria stand themed 'Naija, An Exhibition of Contemporary Nigerian Art', featured works of Jacob Jari, Jerry Buhari, Kaltume Gana, Funmi Abiodun, Chizoba Pilaku, Ike Francis, and Ufuoma Evuarrche, Uchenna Mbefele, Chris Obadan, Helen Uhunnuagbo, Uwa Usen, Frank Enahoro, and Umah Udosen.

As a gallery owner, Okonta's efforts in promoting artists have been acknowledged by those who benefited from his large heart. For example, Olu Ajayi recalled his experience over two decades ago when he and another colleague, Alex Shyngle were upset with the manner in which Okonta's staff handled issue relating to their paintings. Almost hopeless that nothing was going to be done until Okonta intervened, Ajayi explained. "Chief Okonta stormed out of his office with his tall frame, quickly invited us in and immediately handed us our cash," Ajayi said in a tribute few days after the patron's death.

 Ajayi, a former Chairman, Society of Nigerian Artists, (SNA), Lagos Capter, also noted the regular moral supports that artists enjoyed from Okonta. "Chief Okonta would honour invites to any art exhibition, regardless of the artist's status, just like those who have gone before him - Sammy Olagbaju and  Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi."

While Ajayi agreed on mourning the death, he said "Chief Okonta lived and enjoyed life, but illness put an end to it all. He has returned to where it all began , may he be welcomed with a White coat and rest in the Lord .Amen."

Born, Francis Chukwuma Okonta, he worked in Federal Ministry of Information under many ministers such as Prince Tony Momoh, Chief Alex Akinyele Uche Chukwumerije before retiring as Deputy Director.
 -Tajudeen Sowole.

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