Investment banker, Olufemi Akinsanya, has always had a passion for traditional Nigerian art, from his childhood growing up in Ibadan surrounded by ritual objects, to the time when his collecting habit started in earnest, some 30 years ago. Today, the Akinsanya collection is comprised of hundreds of classic and traditional art figures, masks, costumes and objects from almost every ethnic group in Nigeria—from the Yoruba through to the Chamba people neighbouring Cameroon.
As described in the collection website, ‘the Akinsanya collection demonstrates the continued existence of important indigenous artworks in Nigeria and also documents their changing forms’. We spent time with Femi, a Nigerian, collecting Nigerian art, to talk about his experiences to date.
It seems that what I’m doing today was inevitable. I spent my first ten years with my maternal grandmother who lived in a traditional part of Ibadan, a part of town where you still had people involved in the annual masquerade festivals. Growing up, I saw traditional drummers, I saw people play with omolangidi wooden dolls, so I had some consciousness about Nigerian art from when I was a little boy.
I grew up aware of the fact that many of these art objects were associated with traditional religious practices, which are no longer fashionable and even sometimes repudiated. I knew, being brought up as a good Christian boy, that you were not meant to like these objects. So I kept my interest to myself but I was always aware of my underlying fascination with traditional art.
Then I was fortunate to go to a secondary school where we were shown that there was no dichotomy between modern Christianity and being faithful to one's culture. This idea of independent thought removed any perceived religious shackles and gave me the freedom I needed to express my interest in traditional art objects and their aesthetic appeal.
So eventually, after leaving university, I got my first job and an income with which I could express my interest by collecting the very art I grew up with—I started collecting Nigerian art with my first pay cheque. I realised even then, that many of my friends just didn’t get the aesthetic appeal of traditional art. Many told me I was collecting rubbish, they said my collection was all junk, but they didn’t deter me and so, the journey continues.
"I had a consciousness of these objects but one that I knew I was not permitted to express."
Over time, I started reading widely—anything I could get my hands on—auction catalogues and scholarly studies. The more I read, the more my interest in these object grew. But as I read more and more, I discovered that there were some conclusions and assertions made which were slightly contrary to my own experience. For example, one source stated that only three examples of a particular Urhobo iphri figure are known and I knew this was far from the truth; I have a similar example in my own collection. I thought, give me a break! The audacity to assume that there are no great works left in Nigeria! I have travelled a lot and seen quite a bit of Nigeria, this country is way too big and too vast for it to be possible that authentic art no longer exist here.
In the literature, even though no one says so directly, there is a very strong hint that all the authentic pieces of art have been taken 'out of Africa' and that therefore, what you have remaining here are fakes, poor copies or mediocre examples. But again, through study, I could see that some of the artworks I have seen in Nigeria, some of the artworks I have collected, were faithful to published examples. In any case, over time, as I had more disposable income I bought more—I sort of went collecting crazy in the late ‘80s.
I also realised over time, that these objects depicted cultural practices of my own people and I could see that Nigeria had, I dare say, more art than any other country in Africa, except perhaps Egypt. I’m not sure there’s any other country that has a wider variety of peoples and art objects. I therefore made a conscious decision to focus on Nigeria. I am Nigerian, I live in Nigeria, I have the opportunity to collect in Nigeria. I also believe that if you focus, you have the opportunity to deepen your knowledge.
One quickly learns in collecting that there are many fake objects about. Where there is value there will be fakes, art is no exception. Starting out collecting, I wanted to avoid the pitfalls of that, I felt that I had a responsibility not to end up with a collection full of forgeries. I decided on a strategy to be more prudent, more diligent, more careful. Thus I cultivated a small club of Nigerian dealers—some of whom are actively sourcing objects for notable collectors offshore. Now, because of many years of continuing relationship and patronage, some of these dealers show me objects before they show anyone else.
I have been collecting for more than half of my life now, and still only buy objects I find attractive. I didn’t set out to prove a point (i.e. that great art still exists in Nigeria) and I’m still not about proving a point. However I realise now that I am a repository of valuable objects, objects that are no longer being created, objects that the cultures, practices and traditions that produced them, have either been repudiated or modernised.
I realise, especially after documenting the collection in the book 'Making History', that I have something that is bigger than me. I am collecting pieces that are objects of history. I have acquired this obligation of custodianship and I will do my best to carry out that responsibility. It is an awesome responsibility.
"I have ended up with something bigger than me."
I would not classify the incident I will later narrate as mistake in the classical sense, because I set out not wanting to make mistakes. So, I preceded my active collecting by studying. I started with a theory that most of what I would see were either bad copies or poor examples. Some people might call this a fault, but in everything I do I try to go for the best. I’m not arrogant about it but it’s my default and therefore I set out wanting to avoid errors.
I’ve been hypersensitive to avoiding foolish mistakes so therefore, if I’ve had any doubts, I rejected the object, there’s no greed in my approach. However sometimes I may have been over-disciplined and chose too much to err on the side of caution. There have been a few objects that I’ve rejected over the years that I regret. One that still haunts me to this day is a Yoruba Eshu figure that I rejected about 30 years ago. At the time, I showed the piece to a dear friend of mine, a contemporary art dealer and collector, to get his opinion on the piece. He strongly dissuaded me from buying it saying, "how can you buy this Eshu? It’s still spiritually charged! Don’t bring it into your home". I stewed on it for about four days and thought "I’m going to buy it". But by the time I went back to the dealer, the piece had already been sold! It haunts me till this day; even though I now have many fine Eshu pieces, there’s still that one that got away. It was so beautiful, I should have never listened to him.
Then there is the Urhobo piece I keep outside, just by the entrance to my home. It came to me from one of my favourite dealers. After buying it, I did some research and found that, even though it was beautiful, it wasn’t genuine. I keep it outside to remind myself of the error. I’ll never sell it or give it away because I know it’s not correct. I’ve kept it because I don’t want it to end up in another collection.
I think first of all, I acknowledge that many objects were made and incorporated into traditional religious practices, but not all pieces were used for religious purposes; some were simply decorative and others were used in social contexts. Nevertheless, I know for a fact that these objects were made by artists; people that were practicing art as their profession. There is documented evidence that many of these artists like Olowe of Ise, Arowogun of Osi Ilorin and Lamidi Fakeye, carved religious objects, carved for kings and some even made objects for early Western visitors to take back home.
"The Igbo have a saying: 'If a god decides to make itself appear to be more important than it is, we will show it the wood from which it was carved.'"
So my surmise is very simple, many of the objects that were made for religious practices, went through a process of initiation to charge them spiritually. These objects, like masks, were made to be used once or twice and were often abandoned after use, replaced with newly carved replicas. For example, in the Niger Benue, terracotta pots are created to hold the spirits of ancestors. When a new pot is created, it is believed that the spirit from the old pot moves into the new. This is true also for the Yoruba; when a new object—a new vessel for the spirit—is created, the spirit moves from the old into the new. So I believe that spirits no longer reside in the old objects that I collect.
However considering all that, the gods are usually kind, the spirits know my intentions. My intentions in collecting these objects are genuine, I want to retain and preserve our history—the spirits have no issues with me, we’re getting on famously. And I feel no personal conflict, my personal beliefs can and do co-exist with my love for art and collecting. Finally, I’m taking good care of the objects, so why would the gods be anything but happy with me!
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!
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.
Collecting African art is especially pertinent for young people; all human beings out of necessity shall someday die, but these objects will outlive us. Therefore I have a duty to encourage younger people into this space because they represent the future, they are the ones that will in time, pass the torch on to an even younger generation.
A blessing in disguise for younger people, especially young Africans, is globalisation. Because of globalisation, this next generation is more independent in their thinking, especially diaspora Africans and Nigerians. But what many lack is awareness and exposure to these traditional art forms. As more come in contact with these objects, they will, out of a natural instinct, relate. All humans have a natural desire, for identity, to identify with one’s origin, to know who we are and what we are a part of. Traditional African art captures that history.
So I think we have a duty to expose these art forms to as many young people as possible and to let them know the cultural significance of these pieces. We must encourage as many people as are willing, to deepen their knowledge and embrace this art form. As many more people internationally become aware of this art form, I believe traditional African art will get the respect and acknowledgement that it deserves; that Africans are not a people without a past, that we in fact have rich and proud cultures.