Aaron Kohn, Director of the Museum of African Design (MOAD) in Johannesburg, South Africa and Director of Auriti Art Advisory, in conversation with art collector, Sammy Olagbaju, retired banker and stockbroker from Nigeria. Olagbaju plans to build a private museum in Lagos to house his 1,500-strong collection of Modern and contemporary art. He is also the founder of the Sammy Olagbaju Art Foundation and the Sammy Olagbaju Charitable Foundation.
Aaron Kohn: You’ve been collecting for a long time, but the gallery and fair scene in Nigeria is very young and still catching up. Were your collecting interests ahead of the trend? What should we expect to see in Lagos and Abuja by 2020?
Sammy Olagbaju: My collecting habit was not entirely inspired by galleries. When I began collecting, in 1967, there were a number of privately owned galleries and art centres in Lagos. The Goethe-Institut, the Italian Institute, the French Cultural Centre and the Russian Institute all sponsored exhibitions and encouraged Nigerian artists. I attended as many of the exhibitions as I could. I patronised many artists, thus forging relationships with a lot of them. I was interested in their work and circumstances and I got to know and appreciate their skills as reflected in their work. Most had attended art colleges and polytechnics – self-taught artists were few.
My earliest inspiration for appreciating artistic works were the stained glass windows in the chancel, the brass lectern and the oak wood pulpit at my grandfather's Church in Abeokuta, south western Nigeria. These were the familiar sights of my youth that forced me into a state of ‘holy contemplation’ in Church. In a sense, my collecting habits preceded the appearance of galleries and art fairs in Lagos. The next five years should witness a further increase in the number of galleries and a resuscitation of art fairs and events organised by gallery owners and art sponsors.
What are your thoughts on the popularity of African artists at fairs and auctions overseas? Has it changed what you are interested in buying?
The market for African, nay, Nigerian art, is expanding and its prevalence at art fairs is noticeable. However the works don’t fetch the best prices at auction. This may be because some of the works on auction are relatively new and made by living artists. I go to auctions to support the galleries and because I enjoy the chase. I go through the auction catalogue and attend the preview, and then bid on works that are of interest, can fill a gap or will complement another work in my collection.
A lot has changed in Nigeria since you began collecting in 1967. You’re quoted in The Economist as calling your passion for collecting a “philanthropic act”. With all of the money circulating Africa’s big cities, like Lagos, will patronising the arts grow as a priority or aspiration for the growing rich and middle class? Do you think having a museum will inspire others?
My foundation, the Sammy Olagbaju Art Foundation, (SOAF), is for the benefit of the arts, its practitioners and stakeholders. It exists to foster and increase interest in art from Nigeria and many aspects of the the Foundation's operations are philanthropic. We sponsor artists for overseas workshops and collaborations with other artists – experiences that have proved beneficial and interesting.
It is said that when any man thinks he has enough wealth but wants to raise his social status, he should acquire works of art. The collecting bug has caught several such men and the proliferation of exhibitions makes Lagos stand out among the cities of West Africa – there’s an opening every week here! The number of ‘latter day’ collectors is growing too, and this is evident in the growth of attendance at auctions held by three or four main galleries. In addition, seminars, lectures and art functions are held to bring artists, art lovers, stakeholders and administrators together.
As for the ‘growing rich and middle class,’ the red carpet is rolled out to welcome them. The Sammy Olagbaju Art Museum, (SOAM) is planned for the purpose of providing a permanent home for the Sammy Olagbaju Collection. In 2012, The Sammy Olagbaju Charitable Foundation sponsored the publication of Contemporary Nigerian Art in Lagos Private Collections:New Trees in an Old Forest. This book was the first of its kind, a much needed documentation and an important reference book. It highlights and focuses attention on collectors who, very kindly, made some of their collection available to us.
Now that we have afforded our collectors a platform on which to show these hitherto locked up treasures, we may expect that many more collectors will summon the courage and stump up the money to establish museums. One of the aims of the Visual Arts Society of Nigeria (VASON), which I co-founded in 2006 and of which I am chairman, is to afford an opportunity for collectors to endow VASON with several of their works. VASON is expected to build a suitable museum to house these works, but as yet has not been able to provide a worthy institution.
In your collection, and proposed museum, are there guiding principles: such as only Nigerian art, contemporary, or African art? Are these decisions strategic, or personal preferences?
The core of the collection comprising SOAM will be Nigerian art. My collection holds a number of modern and contemporary works by various artists from various countries; but Nigerian art deserves a platform and increased exposure. Presently, I’m not concerned with the notion of African art. One of the aims of SOAM is to showcase and preserve Nigerian art for all who have an interest in art – from scholars, to artists and the general public. We wish to pay homage to our a artists.
The collection incorporates an extraordinary variety of styles, forms and inspiration. By arranging the work of, say four hundred artists, by themes delivers an amazing and unexpected visual effect. I believe the development of art in each African country is intellectually honest. The categorisation of so-called ‘African Art’ fails to pay due regard to the individual contribution of the artists, their local and world views, and the circumstances which have produced each particular art form.
Nurturing artistic production in each country will enrich the world of art beyond our imagination. Artists and promoters of art mustn’t seek easy solutions by simply adopting motifs, symbols and styles to classify their art as ‘African.’ Of course, art is universal.
As a former stockbroker, how would you summarise the opportunity for buyers of African art today?
Although I no longer appear on the floor of the Stock Exchange, I am still the Chairman of the Board of Fellows of the Chartered Institute of Stockbrokers. Having been a merchant banker, I am also an Honorary Senior Member of the Chartered Institute of Bankers. From this vantage point, I can advise prospective collectors who have a fine eye for artistic detail and a bargain, that the rising value of Nigerian art can be profitable and interesting, and is certainly a worthy form of investment.
Maybe soon, banks will accept art works as collateral on loans granted for buying more art. If the present trend of upward price swings at auction are any indication, art will become a commodity, and an investment which, even though it pays no dividend or interest, may still yield substantial capital gains for medium-term investors (subject to several caveats).