Saturday, December 24, 2016

Art Connoisseurs, Patrons, and the Sammy Olagbaju legacy

In Nigeria art patronage is still a developing culture. A number of factors of course go to inform the flowering of this culture or the lack of it for that matter. Thus in history of art, art patronage refers to the support and encouragement that was provided to people in the arts such as painters, sculptors, musicians, etc, by kings, popes and wealthy individuals in society. But art appreciation generally is still in its infancy in our clime as it were.

Sammy Olagbaju in a gallery

Yes, a struggling economy and underdevelopment are key factors that may dictate the downward pace and direction of art patronage, yet there have been, and still exists a few dedicated indigenous patrons of the arts that are worthy of celebration. And interestingly they are not necessarily among the wealthiest in our society.

Refined, humble, amiable, and human, etc. are the qualities that describe the person and character of one the finest art patrons Nigeria has produced. I first came in close contact with Mr. Sammy Olagbaju, a renowned Nigerian stockbroker, I think in 1999, when he agreed instantly - having never heard of me before, to be my special guest of honour at my solo exhibition which took place at the DIDI Museum in Victoria Island, Lagos. Uncle Sam, I dare say stands out as a shining example for many unique reasons.

On this very first meeting, he regretted that he was not going to be in town for the opening of my show, but instead humbly requested to be allowed to have a private viewing before travelling, a request of course I gladly worked on. I arranged an exclusive viewing for him with the gallery’s permission before the opening. He asked how he could leave a message nearby for me since he was travelling almost immediately, and I gave him my elder brother’s contact as he (my brother) worked somewhere very close to his then office in Victoria island.

There are sterling human qualities, and collective norms that generally birth lofty societal ethos, and engender civilisations; they are in the Arts, Architecture, Writing/Literature, etc. Driving these factors of course calls for ‘patronage’ and encouragement (of intellectual products). For example, one of the defining characteristics of Florentine society throughout the centuries is known to be a deep-rooted system of patronage networks.

Some of the great minds of the period such as Michelangelo and Galileo for instance greatly benefitted from this system – gaining high patronage from celebrated patrons such as Cosimo de’ Medici and Marchese del Monte. These creative minds were further enabled in their highly successful lifelong careers as sculptor/painter, and mathematician, scientist, inventor respectively, and the rest of them by an organised society which placed a high premium on intellectual property and creativity.

The affable Nigerian gentleman connoisseur right from the very first impression lived up to his classical performance as a – friend of the arts and artists, collector of note, a visionary leader, and indeed an ‘art scholar’.

A couple of days after my meeting with Mr. Sammy Olagbaju I called him to acknowledge receipt of the message he dropped for me, and he responded with much warmth - telling me: “Yes, indeed I was privileged to speak with your brother who works with KLM and sent the message to him; I will be back in a fortnight and, congratulations on your forthcoming exhibition…” He had left a message for me through my brother using a delivery man, and he sounded as if I was doing him a favour. Now, this is not because it is me, but this is just the way Mr. Sammy Olagbaju treated everybody and every artist for that matter – like real human beings. His type of humility, I find very rare.

Mr. Olagbaju made you feel totally different – a feeling of self-worth; you felt important. In one of those meetings with colleagues, chatting and ruminating about the dearth of befitting homes for the (visual) arts, I lamented the sorry state of the National Arts Theatre in Lagos, including its immediate surroundings, and the near non-existence of public galleries or museums of modern (Nigerian) art in the country. Then Uncle Sam consoled me by saying he had plans in the pipeline.

It was after a number of years I learnt that the affable lover of art and distinguished patron had a perfect strategy to set up a gallery that will permanently be home to some 1,500 artworks. The gallery estimated to cost about 3 - 4 million dollars will contain works in his private collections and more, starting from his earliest collections made from far back as 1967.

A pioneering leader and founding member of the Visual Arts Society of Nigeria (VASON), Sammy Olagbaju was an art scholar - having visited many artists’ studios home and abroad, gone to see works in many galleries locally and internationally, studied the life of many artists and acquainting himself thoroughly with art history. About personal artistic style, Sammy Olagbaju illustrated by explaining that you can only cut a signature for yourself by “plodding and plodding” for a good length of time, and consistently on your way until originality finds you out.

'Tales by moonlight', watercolour by Morgan Nwanguma
- Olagbaju's private collection

And here there is no pun intended, but a good friend of mine on learning of Olagbaju’s attitude in dealing with artists had quipped, “This guy must be a white man then...” And that for me speaks volumes of the nature and ‘simplicity’ of this prominent Nigerian art collector; it is also a measure of his exposure and orientation. But even at that ...; just imagine, I still have one of those notes he scribbled and signed as he left a cheque for me after a transaction some years ago. The gentleman impressed me that much.

It is definitely not in our character - for you to purchase an ‘expensive’ piece of merchandise (artwork) and say thank you to the seller; rather we expect it must always be the other way round. But Mr. Olagbaju will pay for your artwork with his hard earned money and gleefully thank you for selling to him. That is the kind of value placement he had for you and the talent and skills you possess.

Like the Medici family in Italy, Sammy Olagbaju and his ilks take great interest in the (rebirth of) arts and learning. The Nigerian society will yet flourish as was the case in Renaissance Europe, when prominent wealthy people and indeed the state, patronise intellectual products and treasure their creators.

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