‘No sane government will leave our museums the way they are and expect tourists’
Nigeria’s cavalier attitude towards its artistic and cultural heritage and its contemporary art in official government circles has long become legendary. While many may have given up on government, a new collector on the block, Mr. Frank Momoh, is bringing a new impetus to the otherwise urbane business of art collection. He strongly believes government and all stakeholders must live up to their responsibilities in promoting Nigeria’s rich art, old and modern. He is not satisfied being a mere collector of African art, of which he already has a huge collection. But he is bringing a radical approach that would see artists, curators, collectors and government live up to their defined roles in preserving, conserving and promoting the country’s artistic heritage.
At a recent encounter in his Lekki office that teems with works from various artists from all over Africa, Momoh laments, “Most people don’t know, without dilution, how deep contemporary African art is. Sometimes, I look at it and wonder why foreigners like Bonhams and the rest promote African contemporary art, promote the likes Ben Enwonwu and others, promote them heavily and we are here behaving as if we don’t even know what or who they are. Do you know what it is to see Nigerian artists participating in a show outside this country – the likes of Fidelis Odogwu and the rest of them? It’s important. Now, I’ve been invited to the private viewing of the collection of Queen Elizabeth II (who just turned 90), which has Enwonwu’s pieces. Bonhams is coming to Lagos for a reception before their auction later in May.
“This is where education comes in. People need information about these things. Education is as a result of availability of information. People need to know”.
For Momoh, critical information on Nigerian art is lacking. But there is also the issue of lack of platforms for artists to expose their works and far fewer experts to give the art needed leverage. And he notes, “That work (pointing) is by Pedro from Senegal. I will not get that work from a second party or third party. Either I get it from Pedro directly or I get it from a gallery. Pedro will not pack his works and give them to someone who does not have a structure, who is not a curator, who is not a gallery owner to sell. By the time you do that you are actually reducing the value of what art stands for. But it‘s changing gradually with people like Arthouse coming on board and always doing auctions, Sandra Mbanefo (of Temple Muse), Terra Kulture, Mama Nike Ekundaye; it’s fantastic! These people have created platforms where artists now exhibit their works; so, it’s changing. The value and acceptance is improving and increasing daily. You now find younger people like me investing in art, appreciating art and going for exhibitions. So, I think there is an upward review in terms of progress and acceptance of contemporary and modern art.
“That is on one side. The other factor is platform. In Europe, you have more than four dozens of private galleries, foundations and government galleries, where you can go and pay a token to see art. You do not appreciate what you don’t see; these works are not out there. It is not enough for me to collect works and boast about the quantity I have when they are stacked under my staircase. They need to be displayed for people to come, look at them and ask questions for their educational value.
“Government needs to respect the role of art in our lives. Our museums are shadows of themselves. No sane tourist will go to our museums; no sane government will leave museums like that. It is the house where you preserve our heritage. Just like I prepare my home, always making sure that my home is comfortable for me to live in, so also must the museums be made comfortable for these pieces to live in. For every piece you take, you’re taking a part of the soul of the artist. So, you need to respect that. The Ministry of Culture needs to go back and review its roles and responsibility – what we call ‘job description;’ they need to understand why we have the Ministry of Culture. It is supposed to regulate, watch over, conserve and preserve what we have so that generations yet unborn will come and see what had gone before”.
Momoh lamented that the lack of befitting museums and galleries naturally denied trainee artists appropriate role models to learn from. It is why he intends to set up a dedicated gallery. According to him, “I give you a classical example. Art students today are being taught the rudiments of art; they teach them about Yusuf Grillo, Ablade Glover, Ben Enwonwu – the question is, can they relate what they hear with what they see? The answer is, no; the only place they can find the works will be where, only on google! But they should be able to get up, visit a gallery and museums and see these images physically and relate with them. That is the reason I’m putting everything I have into preserving art, into encouraging the preservation of our art and culture. That is why I have said I’m going to set up a private gallery, not for the sale of art, but for viewing only on appointment. So that students can book appointment and come and see. Listen, I don’t have everything, but what I have I will bring out. I’m not going to stack my works under the staircase and brag out there that I have 2,000 works or 3,000 works; they must be displayed for people to see and appreciate and understand how far we’ve come.
“So, the artists have a role to play, the galleries have a role to play and the collectors also have roles to play. And there must be regulation of our art; I’m talking about every movement of every piece – I’m talking about the historical pieces now – must be recorded and traced. We must understand their movement”.
The era when art and artists were looked down upon are over, says the president Frot Group, and charges fellow businessmen and women to see investing in art as a serious business, arguing that art is big business, especially with the various auctions being held in the country, as art could now be converted to raw cash in a latter day when the need arises.
“It’s possible, but is it easy to convert art to cash? That is the question. So, it’s possible. If I tell Odogwu or any artist that I want to sell this piece, it’s no problem. He will send the image to his date base and I will sell it. But the only difference is that the ease, the opportunity is bigger over there (abroad) than here. You can go to auction houses where you can sell your works as a collector and make more money. It’s the value that may matter. If you want to sell an Enwonwu, do you know how many calls you will get? So, we need more structures – museums, theatres and so on – to support the growth of all forms of art”.
MOMOH’s FROT Foundation has conceived an Artist Connect, as a platform to nurture young artists and thereby bridge the gap between the older artists and the next generation. As he puts, “I have a different agenda for being an art enthusiast. I see myself as a patron of the arts. FROT Foundation has Artist Connect, with over 200 young artists all over the country. We have planned an exhibition for them on October 1, and I had Oliver Enwonwu mentor them so we could bring them out and start nurturing these young artists to replace these guys who are getting old. Honestly, we need to do something to encourage our young talents to take up this vocation so we don’t have a gap.
“I’m not one to blame others. I have said the artist, the government, the collectors and curators alike have roles to play. What is wrong with, say Fidelis Odogwu having exhibition and pushes young artists to join him so he can expose them; it makes for recall. What is wrong if Pa Kolade Oshinowo is having an exhibition and he gets some young artists to join him? When I hear such young names again in future, I will immediately remember. They would have been exposed. I believe in grassroots, I believe in development. A dog must be a puppy first; that beautiful dog we all admire was once a puppy. It doesn’t cost anything; all it takes is the need for sustainability. If you don’t carry the young ones along there would be a gap, a huge gap between the Grillos, the Enwonwus, the Onobrakpeyas and the next generation. We don’t want that gap; the only way we can prevent that gap is for established artists to always support initiatives and moves that encourage young artists”.
Also of concern to Momoh is lack of due recognition for Nigerian artists, particularly at home. He singled out Enwonwu as the equivalent of Africa’s Picasso, noting, “For me, Ben Enwonwu – and I can say it anywhere any time – is our Picasso. He is the only black man Queen Elizabeth II sat for to have her painted; he is an OBE. He was a first class artist. What else do you want? What pedigree do you want? The only organization I know that carries Enwonwu like gold is Bonhams; they recognise that Enwonwu needs to be given his due respect. Arthouse is doing its best. Enwonwu’s works are in Buckingham Palace. The queen is one his biggest fans. You don’t need a bigger resume than that. So, what is our government doing about our big names in the arts – the likes of Grillo, Onobrakpeya, Lesekan? What are we doing about them? We hear about Sun Man of the Year, Guardian Man of the Year, Vanguard Man of the Year. Who has sat down before now to think about honouring our visual artists – the dead and the living? None!
“I want our artists to be respected; I want them to command the same value that their counterparts command overseas. By the time we start recognizing them, their works will attract bigger value”.
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