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INTERVIEW OF DR. OKEY ANUEYIAGU ON MODERN ART BY PROF. CHUU KRYDZ IKWUEMESI

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.

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 studentswithin the campuses and around the cities of Enugu, Awka, Calabar and in other localities, captured my imagination. Theseexplosive art movements arrested my interest.

From ObioraUdechukwu, EIAnatsui, ChikeAniakor, UcheOkeke to TayoAdenaike, 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 wooven 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 isembedded 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 musicologies, 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 Brague 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:

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 absolute impartiality in the judgment of any art form, be it drama, film or painting.

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:

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 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,MurainaOyelami, Peju Alatise, Wosene Worke Kosrot, Rom Isichie, Abdel Basit EL Khatim, Chris Afuba, Yusuf Grillo, Kainebi Osahene, 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, scattered all over the world, number in 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 commendationin 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:

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:

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:

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 supercede or surpass 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, those 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 those 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 almostto a pinpoint accuracy,who is behind the design. I also love to cook.

Apart from these object 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.

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