What star piece are you still looking for?
I set out deliberately, as much as feasible, to have a comprehensive and all-encompassing representation of Nigerian traditional art. I pursue everything; I have pipes, figures, masks and pottery. If through studying, I realise I have a gap, I’ll try to fill that gap with at least two examples of that piece. For example I don’t have a body mask yet, someday I would like one but only if I find a beautiful one. I don’t have an Owo osanmasinmi figure, I’m not convinced by the examples I’ve been shown. Maybe someday I may land a windfall and buy one from Sotheby’s!
What advice do you have for collectors starting out in African art?
I don’t believe in reinventing the wheel, my advice is predicated on the path I followed and it appears to have worked for me. Like all great pursuits, you need to dirty your hands, start first with scholarship, read widely. In all great art forms, when we talk about value, be it commercial or artistic value, there is no escaping the fact of expert endorsements. This is even more important in African art. You have to first understand the traditional use, context and form of these pieces.
Now obviously, there are things you learn over time, there are some things that only experience can teach you. You can read all the theory, but seeing an object in books is very different from seeing it in person. For example, many genuine lovers of African Art may never have seen or handled a real Mumuye figure, and formed their interest in that object form only from seen digital images. Don’t get me wrong, digital photography has been an important form of representing this art and that’s why in ‘Making History’, the author, Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie acknowledges Kelechi Amadi-Obi for his wonderful photography; the book wouldn’t be the same without the images. I have seen thousands of images but nothing compares to seeing the objects themselves. Towards the end of 2015, I had the opportunity as part of a tour group to view the Ethnologisches Museum African art collection in Berlin. Even though I’d seen images of objects from the collection in books, actually seeing the pieces in the museum was the highlight of my trip to Berlin. The tour was wonderfully curated by Paola Ivanov and Jonathan Fine and it truly was a privilege and an honour seeing what is in my opinion, the best collection of Benin bronzes outside of the British Museum—nothing compares.
Don’t be a hero, don’t look for something that no one has seen before. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Collectors should try to avoid copies, fakes and mediocre examples. If you really are serious and passionate about collecting African art, get genuine pieces, buy the best you can afford. If it is not good enough for the rest of world, it should not be good enough for you.
An unfortunate reality is that many Nigerian people and cultures no longer embrace the practices that produced these works. Overtime, inevitably, they will perish, many of these objects will be lost. But I’m convinced that many genuine objects still exist today in Africa. I encourage people to collect as many as possible. As we collect, we should go through a process of authentication and refinement, as some of the objects collected will be of high quality and others may not be.