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Art house and the harvest of deaths

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Okwui Enwezor

2019 has really been a tough one for the arts community. From Bisi Silva to Okwui Enwezor, Pius Adesanmi to Eddie Ugbomah and Prof. Molara Ogundipe, Dr. Stella Oyedepo to David Dale, Jide Ogungbade to Frank Okonta and Idowu Nubi, the number of artists who have passed on in the year, no doubt, is alarming, making many to wonder whether 2019 is not 1997 in retrospect. Worst hit by these deaths is the tribe of ‘major’ art collectors, which grossly diminished with Okonta’s death.

The history of art appreciation in Nigeria is incomplete without a mention of Okonta (1939-2019). He was an art collector who had a strong passion for art appreciation.

From his Nkem Gallery, Victoria Island, Lagos, Okonta, a retired civil servant, shared his collection with the public as well as promoted artists. His passion and experience in art appreciation did not go unnoticed when a crucial part of Nigeria’s art history unfolded 11 years ago.

On August 27, 2008, what was recorded as visual culture landmark, Art Expo Nigeria — An initiative of the National Gallery of Art (NGA), Abuja, in conjunction with Okonta-led Art Galleries Association of Nigeria (AGAN) — opened in Lagos.

The expo, which held at National Museum, Onikan, Lagos, for four days, had over 700 art pieces on display by artists from home and abroad. The expo was later renamed Art Expo Lagos after two editions.

Apart from the expo’s emergence and that of AGAN Okonta’s contributions to the bubbling art space were equally amazing. There was barely five months difference between the founding of AGAN and the expo’s debut edition.

Early in 2008, NGA, under its then-new Director-General, Joe Musa had hinted of its plan to organise Nigeria’s first art expo in Lagos. Given the reality that art fairs or art expo events don’t exist without galleries, the NGA could not organise such large gathering alone. Yes, NGA had many galleries under its management, spread across Nigeria, but the commercial and private-driven scope of the event made it more open to non-governmental input.

The challenge of the government agency, then, was not for lack of art galleries in Nigeria, but the non-existence of a professional body of art promoters and managers.

On Thursday, March 13, 2008, inside Aina Onabolu Hall, National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos, NGA hosted a gathering of stakeholders that galleries owners and artists. At the meeting, it was gathered that a move to have a professional body was already in place. Okonta was coordinating the said group. A few weeks later, AGAN was formed with Okonta, chosen as its first president.

When Art Expo Nigeria debuted, Okonta made a profound statement: “Art Expo Nigeria is an opportunity for all those who love art to come and see the richness of Nigeria’s robust visual arts culture. In this show, over 750 artworks will be on display and much like Art Expo New York which is the world’s largest fine and popular art fair, it is hoped that the Nigerian version will ultimately become the biggest art show in Africa. The intention is to create an art market place that will offer the general public an opportunity to see original paintings and sculpture and works on paper. Whether you’re a seasoned collector, interested in adding to the allure of your home’s interior design, or simply an art enthusiast interested in viewing the latest trends in the visual arts, ArtExpo Nigeria will have something for everyone.”

Earlier, in July of the same year, Okonta had represented AGAN at Dak’art Biennale, in Dakar, Senegal. The Nigerian contingent was led by NGA. As part of the Off section, the Nigeria stand themed ‘Naija, An Exhibition of Contemporary Nigerian Art’, featured works of Jacob Jari, Jerry Buhari, Kaltume Gana, Funmi Abiodun, Chizoba Pilaku, Ike Francis, Ufuoma Evuarrche, Uchenna Mbefele, Chris Obadan, Helen Uhunnuagbo, Uwa Usen, Frank Enahoro, and Umah Udosen.

As a gallery owner, those who benefited from his large heart have acknowledged Okonta’s efforts in promoting artists. For example, Olu Ajayi recalled his experience over two decades ago when he and another colleague, Alex Shyngle, were upset with the manner in which Okonta’s staff handled issues relating to their paintings.

Almost hopeless that nothing was going to be done, “Okonta intervened,” Ajayi explained. “Chief Okonta stormed out of his office, quickly invited us in and immediately handed us our cash,” Ajayi said.

Ajayi, a past chairman, Society of Nigerian Artists, (SNA), Lagos chapter, also noted the regular moral supports that artists enjoyed from Okonta. “Chief Okonta would honour invites to any art show regardless of the artist’s status, just like those who have gone before him — Sammy Olagbaju and Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi.”

While Ajayi agreed on mourning the death, he said, “Okonta lived and enjoyed life, but illness put an end to it all. He has returned to where it all began, may he be welcomed with a Whitecoat and rest in the Lord.”

Born Francis Chukwuma Okonta, he worked in Federal Ministry of Information under many ministers such as Prince Tony Momoh, Chief Alex Akinyele, Uche Chukwumerije before retiring as Deputy Director.

In the same vein, the National Gallery of Art (NGA) has extolled the virtues of the late veteran artist, David Dale, who passed on recently in Lagos.

Describing him as a colossus, the Acting Director-General, Dr. Simon O. Ikpakronyi, noted that the late artist has left a void that would be very difficult to fill in the visual art sub-sector, where he was a major player for more than four decades.

“He would be greatly missed by the arts community. Our prayers go to the immediate family especially his daughter, Mrs. Patience Ejeba for succour and strength at a time like this.

“NGA also condoles with Nigerian artists for this irreparable loss,” he stated.

Widely regarded as a legend of the visual arts, and arguably, one of the most prolific African artists of the century, as a result of his enormous contributions to the Nigerian, and even global art community, DHD, as he was widely known, was born in Lagos, in 1947, to a Scottish expatriate Produce Inspector father and Nigerian mother of Itsekiri/Ijaw extraction in the Niger Delta region.

He studied Fine Art and Art History at the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria in 1971, specialising in Illustration and Graphic Design. In his almost five decades of artistic practice, he consistently worked in 23 different media including, charcoal, oil, beads, glass beadworks, watercoluor, gouache, and stained-glass media. Others are, etching, epoxy, lino (block print) and gilded engraved block, mosaic, fresco, silkscreen (serigraphy) and painting.

He was the graphic consultant to the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC ’77) art exhibition.

The same year, he resumed at the University of Lagos as a lecturer. His works have featured in exhibitions globally (including U.S., U.K., Canada, former USSR, Germany, Spain, France, Holland, Sweden, Brazil, Japan, Australia, New Zealand) and acquired by notable collectors including Sammy Olagbaju and Chief Rashid Gbadamosi (both late), Dr. Mike Adenuga and Omooba Yemisi Shyllon and a list of others.

In 2013, he suffered a stroke, which led to a plethora of other health complications. A notable cause of this is the poisoning of his system from fumes of Araldite, a primary material of his artistic productions. Even while his health deteriorated, he continued to produce works up until his death.

Some of his rare works in the national collection of NGA include Sunshine in the Province, Zaria, Cry of three Spirits, Dubar and King Tortoise.

Dale was one of the artists invited in 1998 to catalogue members the Zaria Art Society from which the book, Goooonoemo: The Zaria Art Society, A New Consciousness, emerged.

He held 58 solo and group exhibitions within and outside Nigeria with his works in public and private collections.

According to Jahman Anikulapo, programme chair of the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA), “these dead artists will be celebrated at the forthcoming Lagos Book and Art Festival.”


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