Question: Tell me about your younger days, Dr. Anueyiagu. What kind of education did you have? How did it help you cultivate an interest in art and heritage?

Answer: I was born in the bustling ancient city of Kano, in Northern Nigeria. My early formative years witnessed the most amazing picturesque exposition to ancient northern art and architecture, laced with interesting experiences of ancient Igbo cultural life, art and folklore, occasioned by my periodic visits to my ancestral home of Awka, in Eastern Nigeria.

The city of Kano left an indelible mark in my life and until today, has remained the centerpiece of my reflections of a conglomerate of diverse cultures, peoples, ideas and ways of live. My childhood experiences in Kano have elicited my interest in writing a book that will show that, until the politicians and their military collaborators polluted the system, all peoples of diverse cultures, religion and values lived peacefully in total harmony in Kano.

Conversations with Okey Anueyiagu

Dr. Okey Anueyiagu

With the advent of the devastating civil war in 1966, my family was forced to relocate to the East. I attended the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, an institution steeped very deeply in creative art and culture. Although I did not study art, the overwhelming presence of art giants, both painters and sculptors; teachers and budding students within the campuses and around the cities of Enugu, Awka, Calabar and in other localities, captured my imagination. These explosive art movements arrested my interest. From Obiora Udechukwu, EI Anatsui, Chike Aniakor, Uche Okeke to Tayo Adenaike, Nsikak Essien, Ifedioramma Dike, Chris Echeta, Bona Ezeudu, Obiora Anidi, Olu Oguibe and others, I found great company in the personal relationships shared with some and intimate admiration for their works in their many exhibitions around the Eastern part of Nigeria in the 1970s.

For my post graduate studies, I lived and studied in New York City, an environment of expansive and intensive art and culture. During this period, I visited many museums and attended art exhibitions in the city. I became an active member of The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and had the opportunity of viewing works of great artists like Picasso, Monet, Jackson Pollock, Paul Cezanne, Andy Warhol, Joan Miro, Willem de kooning, Salvador Dali, Marc Chagall, Jean-Michel Basquiat and many more. Without any doubt, these early experiences and exposures helped enormously in cultivating my interest in art and cultural heritage.

Question: How old were you when you started collecting art? What was your aesthetic taste like at the onset and how has it developed over the years?

Answer: I was pretty young when I started collecting art. Maybe as early as four years or so. I was, at a very early age, fascinated with horses and race cars. Kano had many horses, and my late father’s friend, the late Emir of Kano had loads of horses mostly decorated with beautifully woven colours of materials made of various motifs and His Highness allowed me to play with his horses. I loved the colours and the local patterns on the horses and the motifs on the ancient walls of the city. I always went to the Emir’s Palace to admire the horses and the painted art on the walls. Following my interests, my father had acquired some horses which we decorated in those beautiful colours and rode them on the farms outside Kano in Azare and Jamari. Kano also had race tracks and in addition to the miniature figurines of horses, I also collected miniature race cars of various shapes and colours. I thought those were really cool and adventurous collections.

Aesthetically, I have always been fascinated by futuristic art that is embedded in the past as a vehicle for the modern times. I like it when an artist is using the past and old history to point to the future. That is awesome and has guided my quest for art collection.

Question: What are the factors that helped to sustain your interest in art? Where do you locate those factors and have they continued to be part of your life?

Answer: My interest in art grew in my undergraduate years as I became very friendly with the prolific and the enigmatic painter, Nsikak Essien. We had many common interests, including our interest in classic rock music. I found a unifying force between the dark heavy rock music of the early 1970s and art. We listened to Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Black Sabbath, Queen, Deep Purple, Cream and others. The culture of rock music and the outrageous dressings of the musicians, coupled with the poetic nuances of the lyrics, in my opinion, had major similarities to creative and abstractive art. This was also the same case with the Igbo, the Efik and Ibibio masquerades and musicology, although, at that time, to a lesser extent, nothing to compare to the influences rock music had on my direction and appreciation of art.

Nsikak Essien was the factor and rock music was the motivator that sustained my interest in art. Nsikak and I were drawn to the eroticism of colours flowing from the hippie culture of the 1960s prevalent in the flower age and era as exemplified by legendary rock groups like the Doors and the Grateful Dead. He experimented with ideas and colours reminiscent with the culture of the times. We both romanticized this moment and movement and were hugely influenced. These factors have remained indelible in me and have continued to be an integral part of my art life.

Question: How do you describe your aesthetic taste now? Are there any kinds of work that specially appeal to you? Do you collect works on their merit or are there extra-artistic factors that usually influence your decision on what to collect?

Answer: My aesthetic taste for art is described within the ample creative ambit and space of modern African art. The historical development of modern art, in my opinion encompasses many diverse strands, mediating and unraveling in divergent juxtapositions. I am particularly attracted to paintings of acrylic and pastel media. I have extensively collected works that evoke explosive kinetic contents and compositions of colours. I have collected some sculptures and works of other selected media.

I collect works according to their personal merit and on how they appeal to my taste and personal idea of what good art is and the significance of such art to me and my environment. I have never speculated on the futuristic financial value of any of my collection, as a basis for the purchase, although in the back of my mind, I know that any good work, will make for a good investment in its value in the future. If I do not like a particular work or its maker, I will not purchase it regardless of its potential value presently or in the future.

I am vastly inspired in my art collection by African schematic renderings which have been prominently referred to as Cubism, a style of work believed to have been developed by Braque and Picasso. This style of painting was largely defined by pictorial language whose geometrical approach to form and shape was inspired by Cezanne and by archaic or primitive art. The origin of these styles, many believe, is African.

My interest in abstractions and surrealistic forms of art, intertwine in the sense that they give me the satisfaction of seeing clear dissociation of line and colour, and the unique contrast of various forms, images and shapes, making for exciting forms of pictorial harmony. These variables influence my decision of what to collect or not.

Question: Could your love for cubism and its African roots be the reason that attracted you to Onyema’s works, because looking at his works, I see a certain level of fragmentation that is usually well orchestrated in terms of formal and tonal architecture of the works. Could that be the reason for your interest?

Answer: Yes, you know that Onyema was not a trained artist. He studied Architecture and I think he may have studied Art in informal ways, in secondary school and elementary school, so his paintings were determined by forms and structures, the elements which can be found in cubism and many traditional forms of artistic expressions. I think that is what attracted me to his works. Once I saw that, I got very, very attracted to him.

Question: Do you see the role of the critic as being complementary to that of the artist, the way the role of the art collector also is? If yes, how have you enjoyed playing this highly complementary humanising role in the art field over the years?

Answer: I have never played this role, as I believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. However, for those whose professional duty it is to critique works of art and the artists, there is always an element of bias and personal prejudice, as no one can claim impartiality in the judgment of any art form, be it drama, film or painting.

Conversations with Okey Anueyiagu

However, objective criticism sometimes can complement and spur the artist to improve and adapt to new ideas and perspectives that may have been pointed out by the art critic.

Question:  I believe that the role of the art collector is as complimentary as that of the critic. Without both, the business of art and the creative process will lack vitality. What do you think?

Answer: Definitely, I agree. They both have different functions. The art critique is more of an academic exercise in trying to illustrate why one thinks that an object is not good or not bad; it’s more of a compelling motive than that of the collector. A collector is collecting because he/she likes the art or he/she is collecting for other reasons. Maybe the artist is well known to the world and I am collecting because I think I will make money from it in the future. But for me, like yousaid, they are both complimentary and they both can spur an artist to do better work and pay attention to his vocation.

Question: Somebody said the art critic is a legless man who teaches running, someone who may not able to do something but knows how it could be done well…

Answer: Like I said before, you have to be careful with criticism because there is almost always an element of bias, not necessarily bias to destroy the artist but bias because this is how I feel this thing should be. Bias sometimes can be good and sometimes it can be detrimental.

Question: Tell me about your collection? How rich is it? How many pieces of art do you have today and what do you consider the most precious or important aspects of it? If there are high points of your collection, what do you consider the low points, if any? Apart from collecting art, have you supported art and the creative enterprise in other ways? If so, could you tell me a bit about these contributions and how they have impacted the growth of art in these parts?

Answer: My collection is very rich and widely extensive. From my early NsikakEssien, EI Anatsui, Bona Ezeudu, TayoAdenaike, Bruce Onobrakpeya to my not too recent and recent Ndidi Dike, Tola Wewe, Olu Ajayi, Sam Ovraiti, Tony Enebeli, Glover, Ekwenchi, Onyema Offoedu-Okeke, I have been able to find a balance between various forms, patterns and artistic compositions that our continent has offered.

I have also collected works of, and shown deep interest in the works of, Muraina Oyelami, Peju Alatise, Wosene Worke Kosrot, Rom Isichie, Abdel Basit EL Khatim, Chris Afuba, Yusuf Grillo, Kainebi Osahenye, Dele Jegede, Joe Musa, Anthea Epelle, Chris Ofili, Yinka Shonibare and others.

My major collection is that of Onyema Offoedu-Okeke, whose work in my collection that are scattered all over the world, number in the excess of 200 paintings. Upon sighting some of his early works in the mid-1990s, I saw a pattern that pointed him in the direction of artistic greatness. His work, in a very progressive way, defies the codes and narratives that define traditional art in regimentary manners. I was drawn to Onyema’s art because of the interpretative paraphrases that it employs in making his works relevant to our lives and environment. Crucially, Onyema has enormous natural gift and talent that prod him to try virtually anything, no matter how outrageous. He paints a landscape filled with wild colourful flowers and birds, or a marketplace that drizzles acrylic paints on canvas with human and other hidden images and forms playing mirage like and magical visual tricks on the viewer, offering varying interpretations and meanings.

My large and extensive collection of Onyema, prompted me to write a 260 page book titled “Contemporary African Art. My Private Collection of Onyema Offoedu-Okeke”. This book, published in 2011 by Brown Brommel Publishers, is in many libraries and museums around the world, and has received many accolades and commendations as a literary, academic and pictorial well researched work on African art.

The high point of my art collection was in 2003 when I took six Nigerian artists to London and, in collaboration with Barclays Private Bank, hosted one of the most successful art exhibitions of contemporary African art in the world. This exhibition was attended by prominent art lovers, politicians, captains of the banking world, art critics, princes and princesses and the who is who in the art world. The artists and their works received high commendation in the British mainstream media, and some of the proceeds of the exhibition were used for the betterment of some charities in Nigeria. This was a very high point for me.

I have had a few low points, most significant being, generally, the unfortunate negative and myopic attitude of some artists and patrons who assume that their God-given talent and or their wealth is a ticket to the financial and status mountains of the art world.

Question: Can you explain this point a bit, are you saying that art as a humanizing experience is not to be primarily and highly monetized?

Answer: Well, it will be wrong for me to say that. I mean, if you are a Doctor, you’ll have an inclination to treat people even if you make money or not, but that’s not the case. Doctors earn salary, some earn more salary than teachers and an artist is entitled to be rewarded for his talents. But at the same time, I think we should have a humanist approach to talents that are given by God and at the same time regard them as things that are sacred and combine the attitude of making money and the attitude of letting the world experience and see and your talents. There could be a contradiction to what I said but it’s just a fact.

Question: Recently we had an argument somewhere in the university at the opening of an exhibition and I said the role of art is not primarily to put food on the table but that the artist has to have a passion to create,  and the Vice-Chancellor took on that and said “Who told you the role of art is not to put food on the table? What about my friend El Anatsui who bought my ticket the other day to South Africa? If he didn’t have money, would he be able to buy it? What of Picasso?” Well, but the point is, El Anatsui  for instance, if he was creating to make money from the beginning, I think he would have stopped at some point when things were difficult, because he did not start making money from the first day. The money came because he was able to persevere through the tough times.

Answer: You and I share the same point of view. If you paint because you want to make money I believe you would never be successful. Picasso, when he was painting and when in his early days he didn’t make any money, at a point he was living with friends, but the passion he had for painting created the affluence that he enjoyed in his old days and even after he died.

Question: And which means money can make and mar the artist.

Answer: Yea. Money can make or mar the artist. To illustrate some more, I have come in contact with so many Nigerian painters and sculptors, and I believe that a lot of them have the passion and some of them are in a hurry to make money. Not that I blame them; it could be the circumstance they find themselves in. Look at the country now, if you don’t have money you will not have energy. Some of the things we took for granted while growing up in the 50’s and 60’s are not to be taken for granted now.People are “hustlers”, and so, if you believe that you can just sit down and let your talents carry you beyond a certain point, you may just get into trouble. So these artists are over exterting themselves just to survive and in the process, I think they miss the essence of what their calling is.

Question:  What do you think about the value of art? At times, when I contemplate the game of football philosophically, I wonder why people are so moved by a simple round leather. The same way, many wonder what is in a piece of canvas or wood that should make people pay so much for art. When you look at a work of art, what do you see that moves you? What endears you to it, to the empathetic point where you want to acquire, to own and to cherish?

Answer: Philosophically, the analogy is apt and appropriate. The passion, the affection, and the fanaticism are inclined by desires of joy, exhilaration, and self-fulfillment in the object and action.

I cannot place a value on art. The value is latently intrinsic and can only be determined by extraneous factors that sometimes may be beyond comprehension. Practically, the media over the many decades, with the help of critics, have come to place values on works of art, through the promotion of the artists. Some art that may appear meaningless, without much value, to some, may become extensively sought after by value hunters, simply because some critic in the New York Times recognized the painter as great.

What moves me and elicits my interest in a work of art is, first, the strength and vision of the artist and, second, his or her character, disposition and views of the world we live in, through his or her eyes and brush.

Question: Do you then agree with Chinua Achebe who says that “Art for art’s sake is nothing but a deodorized piece of dog shit”? In other words, for him, for the work of art to be meaningful, it has to have some connections to the rhythms of the prevalent issues of its time.

Answer: I mean, that is a most apt statement I have heard coming from Chinua Achebe, and I agree with him. If you paint and you paint because you think I want to paint a house or a landscape and you do not have a meaning or a reason for painting it, then you have lost the essence of what you are doing. Let me go further to a point where I may be sounding a bit futuristic; you have to have political intent, maybe social-economic intent in your formation of an idea, it doesn’t have to be a radical idea, but you’re just not going to sit up and begin to paint a conflict situation without thinking of the ramification of the situation. I want to paint about the suffering in Biafra, children who are malnourished by kwashiorkor, you have to think in your mind, “Why am I painting those things? Am I agitated by the fact that there is injustice and oppression in the land and killings?” So, it is for an artist, musician, painter, sculptor, given the natural gift to be the conscious of the society, to be the ones to say to the society “things are wrong” because the gift they have are very natural gifts, sometimes, very eccentric gifts from God, so they speak the truth all the time. Artists are really pure and they are like children, innocently pure. So, I see a correlation between being a painter and being an activist, and being a painter and painting with a motive to explain to the world why we shouldn’t do certain things or why, you know it shouldn’t matter whether they are right or wrong. But they have to have some vehicle of intent, of purpose, driving them. So I agree with Chinua Achebe there, to just sit up and paint something and they ask you why did you paint this and you say I think it’s beautiful, it doesn’t make any sense to me.

Question: Art appreciates in value over time. How do you perceive this unique potential of art? At a fundamental level, if you resell something, it should lose some value. But it is not the case with art. Why does art have this unique value when it comes to its economic significance?

Answer: The appreciative value of art both in economic and aesthetic terms is an indisputable fact. Fundamentally, art is uniquely different from other objects due to its originality in form and content. An art object cannot be essentially reproduced as a replacement of the original, whereas a car, for instance, can be duplicated in its original form, shape and content. Art has no replacement and, therefore, retains and surpasses its unique value when it comes to its economic significance. For these reasons, an art object will continue to appreciate in value over a long period of time.

Question: Beyond personal enjoyment, what do you hope to do with your collection in the long run? When you decide to retire, how will your collection be preserved and looked after for the benefit of your family, the society and posterity? Do your children appreciate art as you do?

Answer: I intend to keep most of my collection in my private family estate. Others I intend to lend to museums and other institutions for display for public viewing and education. At this present time, I am in discussion with Mayor Kasim Reed, the Mayor of The City of Atlanta, USA, who is a good friend, to lend some of my works to the city for display in some prominent locations in the City. One of the locations is the new and magnificient Maynard Jackson International Airport, the busiest airport in the world. It will be a thing of joy and pride to display my collection of beautiful African art for millions of travellers from around the world to appreciate.

When I retire, or you must mean when I am no more, I will keep my works in my Family Trust and my Foundation. My wife and children all have tremendous love and appreciation for art. Whenever we are in a big city, one of our first visits would be to the museums and art centres. I am hopeful that they will be able to preserve my collections and that they will do much more than I have been able to do for the benefit of mankind, the society and posterity at large.

Question: Most times, business people have a terrible attitude to art. They see it as luxury. You talked about your exposure to the Emir of Kano, your father’s friend and other people. Are they the things that made you interested in art? You have a sustained and strong interest in art.  I know you will, for instance, go anywhere to see an exhibition. What really drives you beyond some of the things you have explained here? The money you spend on art, why not spend it on estates or other ventures?

Answer: If something really fascinates you, you spend money on it without worrying. If you like football, you buy tickets to go watch a team play, but you if you don’t like disco, you will not spend money to go listen to it. I like art. It fascinates me. That’s why I spend money to buy what I like and what I think people will come into my home and see and ask questions, and some of them are things that will help explain my culture, my heritage, tell people who have never been to my village that this mask is from Awka, Enugu or Umuahia. And it symbolizes the strength of our people. I think art for me is very good for explanation of whom I am and where I come from.

Question: You earlier mentioned that you were interested in a museum project but you are saying you will donate your works in the long run to museums and other bodies of trust and also keep some as part of your personal foundation. Do you hope to build a museum? I notice that a number of collectors are doing so?

Answer: This has been my number one interest, to build a museum, an art center, probably in the East, somewhere in Awka. I mean I dream and live it, but I don’t think the time is right. This is what I would love to do, to build a Museum of Contemporary African Art, where people will not only come and look at art, but where people come and seat and conduct research. A museum that would include a research centre where professionals can come from all over the world to undertake studies and cultural exchanges, learn things about my locality and be able to view some of the things that we have been able to preserve and conserve over a long period of time. Because if you go to Awka now, most of the artworks, things of interest from the past are being discarded because no one is bringing them under an umbrella where people can come and look at them.

Question: We try to do something with the Anambra Book and Creativity Festival in Awka for the past four years; the last one we had was the fourth edition; people come together and you have an event for one week: exhibitions, lectures, workshops, etc. But the turnout has been poor and it tells us that everything is not right; people do not appreciate works of art and creativity. The reading culture has also ebbed.

Answer: It is a shame and I will tell you I blame the government in a way because most National Museums in the world are essentially put together by Government bodies then private enterprises, businesses take over. Look at our National Museum of History in Lagos, it is overtaken by dust. I went there a few years ago and I was embarrassed. They didn’t even have air conditioner and you can’t preserve art work in an environment of harsh weather. They will deteriorate in substance and quality. When you go in there, the whole place is a mess and nobody even goes there. The environment is overtaken by weed and it’s terrible. Then private business people in Nigeria should also come up with private museums. They are the ones to broker our story to the world, not as a money making venture, but as a cultural conservation process where we can use our money to create institutions where our children can come and learn about their past and be proud of their heritage and the future.

Question: But people have said that museums here are a dead end, as they are poorly perceived. But from what you are saying, do you think there is a future for museums in this part of the world considering your own interest and what Igwe Nnaemeka Achebe the Obi of Onitsha is doing? Prince Yemisi Shyllon is also building a museum at the Pan-Atlantic University in Lagos. Do you think that such ventures would boost the prospects of museums in these parts in the near future?

Answer: I think that the private sector has a major role to play in leading the conservation of our culture. Government can also do something. But I don’t think they care, or have an interest in what is happening. So it is the private sector that will drive us, like the Obi of Onitsha, whom I regard so highly. He is interested and not doing so to make money out of it, but because he believes that he, being a custodian of our culture, has a major role to play in conserving that culture, propagating it and in letting our people know that this is where we have to invest in in the future. I think many more can follow. Our traditional rulers don’t even know what it means to conserve our culture, but we have to teach our children about the past so that they can see that they can look forward to a bright future.

Question: Apart from art, what else have you loved so passionately?

Answer: Apart from art, I have fascination and love for mechanical objects. I love cars, but not in the aesthetic and showoff form. I have owned a few Ferraris and have always wanted to open the awesome and monstrous engines and play around with the intricate parts. I also started collecting watches from childhood. Then, from the fake inferior movements, to now, the more complicated tourbillon timepieces. Sometimes I begin to think that my collection of wrist watches supersedes or surpasses my art collection. I think that, in my other life, I must have been a watch repairer or a horologist.

As a little kid I fell in love with aircraft. My father in the very early 1960s had built what was then considered one of the most luxurious hotels in Kano. The hotel had a small extension at the airport, which at that time, was referred to as the Kano Aerodrome. It was an unceasing family ritual to visit the hotel’s restaurant at the Aerodrome every Sunday afternoon after church. For me, these visits had very little to do with food and dining, but much to do with watching the one or two aircraft land and take off. I dreamt of and cherished these experiences.

I am convinced that this childhood experience got me interested in designs, and taught me about the elegance of machinery and the splendor of engineering ingenuity. From that point, I thought that there was something elegiac about aeroplanes; something that pointed at the purely aesthetic value and its extraordinary feat as a strong prima facie test for good art and design.

To this day, I am fascinated with watching a plane take off and land. To me it depicts the beginning of a journey and the arrival, the end – just like birth and death.

My love for architecture and furniture is so passionate that I have devoted tremendous time, travels and interests, to the point that by a mere first glance at a masterpiece architectural drawing and design, or a piece of furniture, I could tell almost to a pinpoint accuracy, who is behind the design. I also love to cook.

Apart from these objects of desire, my primary love and passion is my family and God. I believe that for the world to thrive, we MUST LOVE GOD and LOVE PEOPLE.