The art collectors’ tribe is a minority all over the world. It is even more so in these parts where the demands of mundane living and the ever harsh social conditions have turned otherwise essential and humanising activities, such as art collecting, into luxury or even truancy from reality. In Nigeria, the challenges of bread-and-butter existence imposed on both the rich and the poor has enthroned sheer survival as chief among the goals of the average person. The cultivation of aesthetic taste and the pursuit of happiness through the sublime tendencies of art’s salve thus become the esoteric pastime of a minority, a minority which apparently agrees with Gustave Flaubert when he avers that “La vie est une chose tellement hideuse que le seul moyen de la supporter, c’est de l’éviter. Et on l’évite en vivant dans l’Art, dans la recherche incessante du Vrai rendu par le Beau” (Life is such a hideous thing that the only way to live it is to avoid it. And one avoids it by living in art, in the incessant search for the truth through aesthetics).1
But we must hasten to add that the pleasure of the collectors’ minority tribe does not derive from art’s autonomous aesthetic value alone. Art is a product of social vision and is one of the anvils on which great civilisations have been forged in the history of the human race. Art is also an investment for both the artist and the art collector in the secret and sacred corridors of humanising memory and soul of humanity; it is a mirror of human civilisation, values and aspirations; it is cultural capital; it has the capacity to contribute to the creative economy and the social amelioration of mankind. The collector, thus, represents one of the arbiters between the artist and society. He/she is also a consecrative factor2 in the unique value system of art. In other words, the collector’s place in the ecology of art is central and provides ample meaning to Ben Obumselu’s assertion that the history of art is not written in history books but on bank ledgers.3 This paper, therefore, looks at Achebe’s role as an art collector driven by the Medici spirit, the name (Medici) is to be used metaphorically to describe one who, in Flaubert’s words, has lived “in the arts” and for the arts. To provide a proper grounding for the thesis of this paper, it is pertinent to ask, who/what is the Medici?
Medici as Name and Attitude
The Medici family or House of Medici as it is sometimes referred to, is synonymous with the Renaissance period, one of the most significant periods in the history of Western art. Notable for their many great achievements in the fields of art and architecture, Renaissance artists and scholars benefitted immensely from numerous art patrons who identified with the philosophical ideals of the period. Masterpieces produced during this period clearly highlight the productive relationship between art patrons and artists.
The Medici family arose from humble origins to become one of the dominant forces in Florence, regarded as the greatest centre of Renaissance art in the 15th century. The Medici family first attained wealth and political power in Florence in the 13th century through its success in commerce and banking. Backed by their wealth and political clout, the Medici dominated the artistic and cultural space in Florence for nearly 300 years. As one of the most ambitious art patrons in the history of art, majority of Florentine art during the Renaissance period were sponsored by the Medici family. In the words of Fred Kleiner:
The Medici used their tremendous wealth to wield great power and to commission art and architecture on a scale rarely seen. Scarcely a major architect, painter, sculptor, philosopher, or humanist scholar escaped the family’s notice. The Medici were Renaissance humanists in the broadest sense of the term.4
Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, the first patron of the arts in the family, supported Massachio and also commissioned Brunelleschi for the reconstruction of the Basilica of San Lorenzo, Florence in 1419. Cosimo de’ Medici sponsored the artists, Fra Angelico, Donatello (known for his bronze statue of David) as well as Michelozzo di Bartolommeo, the architect of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi (one of the Medici palaces). Sandro Boticelli is another Renaissance artist who was frequently employed by the Medici. His painting, Birth of Venus, commissioned by the Medici is one of the masterpieces of Renaissance art.
The highpoint of the Medici patronage is linked to the support of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the grandson of Cosimo de’ Medici. An accomplished poet in his own right, Lorenzo surrounded himself with a galaxy of artists and gifted men from all fields. He served as patron to Leonardo da Vinci for seven years. Michelangelo also worked off and on for the Medici during much of his career and attended an art academy set up by Lorenzo in the Medici gardens near the Piazza San Marco. Lorenzo who is believed to have been extremely fond of Michelangelo also granted him access to study the family collection of classical sculptures. In their support of the humanistic ideals of the Renaissance period, Cosimo and Lorenzo helped scholars locate and acquire ancient and medieval manuscripts. The Medici’s also sponsored projects like the library at the Monastery of San Marco as well as the production of manuscripts.5 Apart from the areas of painting and sculpture, the Medici also made worthwhile contributions in the field of architecture. This can be seen in the Uffizi Gallery, the Boboli Gardens, the Belvedere and the Medici Chapel, some of the architectural projects sponsored by the Medici. In Rome, the Medici tradition of patronising artists was equally continued by two Popes who were of the Medici bloodline. Pope Leo X commissioned works from Raphael Sanzio while Pope Clement VII commissioned Michelangelo to paint the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel.
The Medici’s were avid and prolific collectors of art. In their acquisition of works of art, Fred Kleiner observes that the Medici family “did not restrict its collecting to any specific style or artist. Medici acquisitions ranged from mythological to biblical to historical subject matter and included both paintings and sculptures.”6 He further notes:
Collectively, the art of the Medici reveals their wide and eclectic taste and sincere love of art and learning, and it makes a statement about the patrons themselves as well. Careful businessmen that they were, the Medici were not sentimental about their endowment of art and scholarship. Cosimo acknowledged that his good works were not only for the honor of God but also to construct his own legacy. Like the motivation for other great patrons throughout the ages, the desire of the Medici to promote their own fame led to the creation of many of the most cherished masterpieces in the history of Western art.7
In her patronage of the arts, the Medici family serves as a prime example of how art patrons play instrumental roles in the sustenance of art practice as well as the promotion of humanist ideals. As benefactors of artists and custodians of priceless works of art, the Medici family symbolizes the ennobling virtues of art patronage, especially its ability to turn the wheel of civilization and contribute to the perpetuation of mankind. Most of their acquisitions form the core of the collection in the Uffizi Museum in Italy. It is in the spirit of promoting artistic, scholarly and cultural excellence, epitomized by the Medici family, that one can boldly situate the antecedents of Agbogidi in the art of art collection in Africa.
Nnaemeka Alfred Achebe (Agbogidi): A Biographical Capsule
Today, Achebe remains one of the most active and responsible art collectors in Nigeria; “responsible” because not all collectors are truly committed to the art of art collecting. While some collectors are parochial in vision and perspective, others are inconsistent and perfunctory in their attitude and relate with art as status symbol. Nnaemeka Alfred Achebe, the Obi of Onitsha, is a gentleman “très comme il faut”. He is not merely an art loving monarch, but a Nigerian Medici, if Medici can be used as a metaphor for one who cultivates and promotes art, aesthetics, and the creative enterprise as canons of the human spirit and possible germs for the re-humanisation of our society. The Medici metaphor also aptly describes Achebe because he does not only buy art. He supports artists and art activities as a way of fertilizing the art field for capacity building and resource development.
Achebe’s commitment to art dates back to his visit to Biafra from the USA where he was based at the time of the civil war and to his time at Shell Petroleum where he later became Director, Corporate Affairs. His meeting with Uche Okeke and later interaction with Bruce Onobrakpeya were also important factors. As a senior management staff of Shell, His Royal Majesty helped to turn the wheel of art in Nigeria and Africa in those days, a gesture he has continued as Chairman of the Board of Diamond Bank and as Agbogidi, the Obi of Onitsha Ado n’Iduu, which Ndidi Dike celebrates in her 2011 painting, Land of the Rising Sun (Fig. 1, 579)3
The Agbogidi Collection: an Atmospheric Glimpse
As at present, Agbogidi’s collection comprises about 1000 pieces in diverse genres. Both young artists and the masters are fairly represented. It is not a mere mixed bag. The collection harbours some of the best from the stables of the represented artists. Some are the avant-garde of their era and, therefore, represent important graphic data that can guide researchers, art critics and art historians through the forest path of critical enquiry on issues in Nigerian art. But the Obi’s collection is not essentially Nigerian. Apart from being a micro reflection of many tributaries that make up modern Nigerian art, the collection also harbours representative works from different parts of the continent: Ghana, Uganda, Sudan, Tanzania, Senegal, Benin Republic, Togo, Ivory Coast, Egypt, South Africa, among others. As at today, HRM Achebe probably has the highest number of Non-Nigerian art in his collection. Apart from the West, East and South African pieces, there are others from Europe and Australia. (see Figs. 2-6, for instance) (099, 100, 289, 333, 642).
A man of highly elastic (but not pedestrian) aesthetic taste, HRM Achebe collects work of varied form, content and meaning. He understands that art is a seamless and fleeting phenomenon. He knows that both art and artists are capricious entities. They are like the masquerade, the best view of which cannot be got from one angle. The masquerade is perpetually in motion and to fully appreciate its performance and value, the spectator should also move with it. In other words, HRM Achebe captures the universal and multi-versal tendencies of art in his rich and eclectic collection. This quality is further complemented by the multi-paradigmatic character of the works at the level of style, technique, and iconography. There is no fixation with realism, stylisation, abstraction, or conceptualism. For the Obi, all are valid and relevant. But there is no doubt that the humanist monarch values symbolism and meaning. He seems to agree with Chinua Achebe that art should be relevant to its time and environment and that art for art’s sake is simply “deodorized dog shit.” 8
A quick look through the list of works in this collection easily reveals their instrumentalist essences. This quality is vividly typified in Uzo Egonu’s Peace Offering, Ato Arinze’s surrealist drawing, Ndidi Dike’s The Wall Gecko’s Playground, Uche Okeke’s pen and ink drawings, Wiz Kudowor’s Clan Gathering, Henry Mujunga’s Things Fall Apart series, the folkloric compositions of Twins Seven Seven, Rufus Ogundele, Muraina Oyelami, Jimoh Buraimoh, Kofi Dawson, among many others. Beyond the aforementioned works, instrumentalism is a key factor in this collection. And why not, especially in light of the working condition of African artists and the harsh realities of their environment? Not unnaturally, most artists in these parts address mundane and existential issues. This reality is reflected in many of the works here. Politics is engaged as in the works of Chijioke Onuora (Okoloto Africa Gboo Gboo, (Fig. 7) (415) and Bob Nosa Uwagbue (The Selfless General, Fig. 8) (300). Religion also informs the themes of some of the works, just as the celebration of culture is the central concern of the artist in Fig. 9 (60). In other works, dance, as an expression of culture, is at the centre of the themes.
Judging from the number and quality of works in this collection, there is no doubt that the proposed Chimedie Museum is starting on a good footing and that it is well equipped to take its place among heritage institutions in Africa, as a repository of masterpieces by living and dead masters as well as possible names of tomorrow. In a country where heritage preservation and tourism have been neglected by bread-and-butter governments, Chimedie has a lot to offer to artists and cultural actors in Nigeria and Africa. It is, therefore, a timely and heartening totem of hope on the rather famished road to art development in these parts.
Achebe and the Medici Spirit: a Conclusion
Like the Medici, Achebe’s name has become synonymous with art patronage and promotion in Nigeria and other parts of Africa. His passion for art, artists and aesthetic enjoyment is concretised in his vast and ever growing collection, the proposed Chimedie Museum, Onitsha and his commitment to supporting art and cultural projects. Aware of the fact that there can be no art without artists, he has also given grants and donations to artists in professional and personal needs as a way of ensuring that their practice continues. A man of many means, he understands the truism that the history of art is not written in history books but on bank ledgers. His sustained art patronage in these parts, therefore, continues to oil and turn both the wheel of art and that of historiography, the way the efforts of the Medici did in Italy some centuries before now.
Perhaps, his greatest contribution to art in Africa will be the Chimedie
Museum which promises to be one of the most dynamic and ambitious private museums in Africa when completed. According to Igwe Achebe, the architectural design of the museum has been done by Architect Theo Lawson, the creator and director of the popular Freedom Park in Lagos Island. The architect was inspired by a combination of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, USA, and The Lightbox, the community museum in Woking, Surrey, U.K. As Achebe has said in the Mission Statement of the museum, “We were led to that hybrid concept by the belief that both institutions jointly represented our dream of a museum that would satisfy local needs whilst upholding international standards.”9 The museum will thus chart a future in which African art achieves greater visibility, appreciation, relevance and sustainability and become a key development resource for the continent and its creative people, contributing to human development and community transformation.
Clearly, the above are not the dreams of capitalists and neo-colonialists whose whims and caprices have held Africa captive since so-called independence. They represent the aspirations of a humanist, one who looks beyond the looking glass to see the true essence of humanity and existence and to appreciate that beyond wealth and the heroic materialism that define our consciousness in Africa, there is need to build bridges that bring us to the precincts of tomorrow, channels that broker conversations
between generations. Not only does Achebe recognize that art is a virile instrument in this regard; he is using it most effectively in the classic Medici spirit.
Notes and References
- Gustave Flaubert, Lettres à Mademoiselle Leroyer de Chantepie, 18 Janvier 1862). See also Gustave Flaubert, Correspondances : édition établie, présentée et annotée par Jean Bruneau. Paris : Gallimard, 1973.
- Ben Obumselu, “Opening Remarks”, Visual Orchestra’96, Russian Cultural Centre, Ikoyi, 1996.
- This is also the title of a poem by Nnamdi Azikiwe which was adapted as Biafra national anthem during the civil war in Nigeria.
- Fred Kleiner, Gardner’s Art through the Ages: A Concise Global History, second edition, Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2006, 229.
- See “Medici Family: Origins and History.” Accessed from www.themedicifamily.com
- Fred Kleiner, Gardner’s Art through the Ages: A Concise Global History, second edition, 240.
- ibid, 240-241.
- Chinua Achebe, Morning Yet on Creation Day. Michigan: Heinemann Educational, 1975. Page 19.
- Chimedie Museum: A Personal Statement by His Majesty, Nnaemeka Achebe, CFR, mni, Obi of Onitsha. Onitsha, April, 2017