The British architect Sir David Adjaye has revealed his plans for the planned Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA) in Benin City, Nigeria. Blog readers might remember how a Yoruba post inspired his design for the new African American History Museum in Washington D.C. (as written about here). Princeton University also just announced the architect designed their new Art Museum (info).
In this article in The New York Times, Adjaye explains how the project for the planned Edo Museum of West African Art is very close to his heart.
On November 13th, the architect, the British Museum and the Nigerian authorities already had announced a $4 million archaeology project to excavate the site of the planned museum, and other parts of Benin City, to uncover ancient remains including parts of the city walls (info here). This will be the most extensive archaeological excavation ever undertaken in Benin City. In the interview, Adjaye explains how they play an integral part in this story:
I’ve been obsessed with these walls: concentric circles that interact with each other and create this kind of extraordinary pattern. From satellite images, it’s bigger than the Great Wall of China. So we want an excavation so we can make them visible. With the (museum) building, it’s a kind of re-enactment of the palace walls, with these turrets and pavilions appearing behind them, a kind of abstraction of how Benin City would have looked before — what you’d have encountered if you came precolonization. It’s trying to make a fragment of the experience in a contemporary language.
Adjaye intents the museum to be completed in five years (while the Smithsonian took nine, and the money to build it still needs to be raised (!). The building is intended to house some 300 items on loan from European museums and aims ” to house the most comprehensive display in the world of Benin Bronzes, alongside other collections”. Please note that although the museum has “West African Art” in its title all press releases only talk about its holdings of Nigerian Art (but I did spot two giant Baule statues from Ivory Coast in the front garden).
Creating a state-of-the-art conservation context for those objets will indeed take away the argument that Nigeria doesn’t have the resources to properly care for the objects it wishes to see returned. However it remains to be seen what will happen with the about 50 government owned museums across Nigeria, which are all heavily underfunded, as spelled out in this article from 2018 in Nigeria’s Guardian newspaper. Let’s not forget a Federal Government-Ford Foundation project aimed at remodelling the existing National Museum in Lagos, worth $2 million dollar was recently suspended by the foreign donor due to the inability of the government to provide N500 million counterpart funding. With the underfunding of the existing museums, it remains to be seen if the funding for the EMOWAA can be found.
The local apathy for cultural heritage indeed is a factor rarely taken into consideration in the current restitution debate. Don’t forget that between 2007 and 2019 the Nigerian government even removed history from the primary and secondary school curriculum (info). This interview with Ibironke Ashaye, who worked for the National Commission for Museum and Monuments (NCMM), is very enlightening on this subject and highly recommended to get a better view on the local agency for such projects. It is clear that building a museum can only be a first step, and I hope a long-term vision will be developed. As museum professionals know well enough, a museum has to be much more than just a fancy building.
However, it is Adjaye’s profound wish to stimulate a cultural revival in Nigeria with the help of the planned Edo Museum. “It could help spark “a renaissance of African culture,” he said, and be a space for residents to reconnect with their past and a showcase for the city’s contemporary artists.” “It has to be for the community first,” he said, “and an international site second.” Adjaye’s further elaborates on this in the NYT interview.
In their ongoing series ‘How to spend it‘, the Financial Times just interviewed Nobel Prize winning author Wole Soyinka about his African Art collection; you can find the interview here. Soyinka has been collecting art of the Yoruba for the last 60 years. Yoruba himself, the connection with some of the works in his collection is very personal, nonetheless some of his statements will feel very familiar to the Western collector as well.
There’s another piece which I generally call “old man serenity” or “old avatar with the enigmatic smile”. And what is remarkable about this piece is that from the moment I set eyes on it, I said to myself, “This has to be part of my existence.” And it goes with me everywhere, when possible.
I’ve spent time in prison in Nigeria, as a guest of the state, for my political beliefs, and been cut off from my sculptures. I’d written poems about them, so they were with me in a sense. But, of course, there’s nothing to beat the palpable presence of them, when you can actually walk from one to one. You can touch them, rearrange them, and the process of rearranging the pieces constitutes a part of the aesthetic pleasure.
Soyinka also talks about the feelings about his collection by his fellow countrymen..
Two pieces I particularly loved were stolen. These were a monkey, with an unbelievable phallus, and the other a female caryatid, which I used to place on either side of the front door, like gods of the house. People would pass through the field of force, as I used to call it, and I think some Christian fundamentalists stole these pieces and destroyed them. This was many years ago. They were very sizeable pieces and there is no trace of them. I think some people were just sufficiently offended by those pieces as to steal them and destroy them. When I was at the university of Ife in Nigeria, it was under siege by some Muslim and Christian fundamentalists. They despised representations of African spirituality and these sculptures vanished.
Not unimportant to read such sad recollections in the light of the ongoing nuance-lacking debates about restitution of African’s cultural heritage.
One of the rising stars of the online African art community is Adenike Cosgrove, who’s website ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA has quickly become one of the most inspiring online resources for a frequent fix of interesting African art related stories and content. As Cosgrove has been featuring more and more interviews on her site, while herself discretely staying out of the limelight, I thought it would be interesting to change the roles for once and interview the interviewer..
BC: Dear Adenike, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. To start, could you tell us something about yourself?
I’m a Nigerian, born in Tokyo, raised in Hong Kong and Lagos, and currently residing in London! I’ve been fortunate enough to have travelled extensively – I’ve seen many wonderful cultures, and as such have been exposed to art, history and people from over the world. Despite this though, I’ve always been drawn back to Nigeria. I’ve always wanted to know more about my history and the Yoruba culture of my parents.
About five years ago, during a trip back to Nigeria, my Dad took me to an art village in Abuja – you know, the type that’s full of art for tourists. Not knowing much about classic African art at the time, I bought what I thought were a pair of antique Benin bronze leopard aquamaniles. At about $600 each, they weren’t cheap and the vendor told me they were ‘special’ and that I was the first person he’d shown them to because ‘I look like someone that appreciates art’. Convinced at the time I had purchased authentic gems, I smuggled them in my suitcase and snuck them out of Nigeria.
Boy was I wrong! Back in London, I wanted to learn all I could about the pieces. I’m fortunate to have access to the British Library here, I started reading. I visited the British Museum and entered the Africa section for the first time. I compared my leopards to those at museums, in auction catalogues, and in books and very soon realised that what I’d bought were in fact fakes!
This revelation led to the idea for ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA, a resource that collectors can use to better understand the distinguishing features of different classic African pieces, in the hope that they might avoid acquiring fakes themselves.
BC: I remember ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA in its early days was mainly about selecting a specific object type and highlighting its distinguishing features. I think your bullet-point style is a clever and efficient way to list these, especially in the online world, where people’s attention span is much shorter. From its start, the website was very well designed, simple and clean, and easily brownsable. How did you create it?
As mentioned, I spent every spare moment reading books on classic African art to increase my knowledge. I soon realised that I had amassed a wealth of information that didn’t seem to be easily accessible online. I wanted to create a platform where I could share the information gathered in a browsable, accessible, and easily digestible format. I wanted the platform to cater to established collectors looking to learn more about the pieces in their collections, but I also wanted it to capture the interest of a new, younger audience. And thus, ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA was born.
But to be honest, ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA wouldn’t be here if not for my husband, Jonathan Cosgrove. He’s an awesome web developer that tends to focus on minimalist designs. When I told him about what I wanted to create, he had the foresight to know that the website should focus on the visuals, that the art should take centre stage while allowing a concise way to display the information related to each piece – hence the bullet point lists of ‘Distinguishing Features’. He also knew that having a mobile version of the site would be important, so that those in the field, wanting to learn about pieces that they saw at museums and at art shows could use the platform on the go.
BC: While focussing on the ‘distinguishing features’ page in its early days, ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA quickly expanded its content and you started addressing and exploring other topics as well. How did this happen?
In doing the research, speaking with collectors at fairs, and visiting a number of different galleries, I very quickly realised that ‘learning’ is about more than just reading books. It’s about learning from the experience of others and visiting museums and fairs to see and handle as much art as possible.
So we decided to start educating collectors about what it means to collect African art by interviewing collectors at different stages of the collecting journey, through a magazine style format. We did this also because there has been so much talk lately about the ‘dying African art market’ and that there are no new collectors in the field. The interviews we’ve done has shown this not to be true. Yes, young collectors may not be spending tens of thousands of Pounds, Dollars or Euros on art but the field has a role to play in nurturing these future collectors and getting them excited about the wealth of art available at all price ranges.
We’ve also started writing about museum exhibitions and art fairs which we feel present opportunities for collectors to learn more about African art. In addition, we’re also profiling contemporary artists that are influenced by the art of Africa. Finally, we have now also created a platform that collectors can use to manage their collections online.
BC: I’m delighted to see what an ambitious venture ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA has quickly become. As I know from personal experience managing such an active website is a very time-consuming endavour; is it your fulltime occupation ?
In one of the recent interviews we published on ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA, I spoke with Dr. Polly Nooter Roberts, consulting curator of African art at LACMA. She said something that resonated with me, “whatever you do in life requires hard work and passion, that we have a commitment to pick something we’re most in love with”.
Even though, at this point in time, I have a full-time job in the cybersecurity industry, ever since that day in the market in Abuja, I’ve fallen in love with African art. So much in love that I don’t mind working two jobs, much to the chagrin of my husband! But in all seriousness he sees the pure joy on my face when I see an amazing piece of African art. I’ve never felt anything like this before and I want to share this feeling with more people globally.
BC: While ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA happens online only for now, do you think you will ever organize events in the real world as well ?
We started online because that seems now to be where people start in their discovery of African art. For too long, galleries have relied only on foot traffic but that model alone is not sustainable, or at least not enough to attract the next generation of African art collectors. We need to be where they are… we need to be online.
That being said, I like the idea of a multi-channel experience: web, social, mobile, and physical interactions. I would love for one day to be in a position to curate guided tours of museums, galleries, libraries, and private collections. To have collectors collaborate with curators, dealers, academics, and enthusiasts on all things African art. Who knows, you may see an ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA sponsored event soon.
BC: While Paris and Brussels are now the central hubs for the African art market, London (where you are based) once was an important epicenter as well – unfortunately not so much anymore. Do you have any explanations why this is so and do you think it will change again in the future ?
Having a quick glimpse into our website analytics, figures show a significant interest from the United States, followed closely by the UK. France and Belgium do appear but they are not at the top which may or may not suggest a potential for change in the market, if not now then sometime in the future. Nigeria falls within the top five, which contrary to some perceptions, suggests interest in the origin country of many of these amazing pieces of art. This could be a change in the existing market or evidence of a new market.
In addition, because of globalisation, people are more willing to make the effort to travel to the sources of quality African art pieces. As for potential changes in the future, nothing is static, time inevitably leads to change. Who knows where the new epicenter might be.
BC: As a Nigerian, how do you feel about questions of repatriation ?
This is a tough one. On the one hand African art is African! Africans should be able to appreciate the art of their ancestors. They should be able to have easy access to that art. If should be within reach of the next generation of artists that expand the definition of African art while maintaining a link to the past.
However these are antiques. These are delicate materials that must be appropriately maintained. An example, last year I went to visit the National Museum in Lagos and on display were two Benin Ivory tusks. Beautiful things! But they were left exposed! No glass case, no temperature control, no equipment to ensure that a consistent atmosphere is maintained and preserved all year round – through the very humid rainy season and the dry Harmattan season. And as we know from the interview with restorer Anne-Catherine Kenis, the worst thing for ivory is humidity. The tucks were left exposed for anyone to touch or damage. That is my concern about returning pieces back to countries without the infrastructure to maintain them. Having spoken to our Nigerian museum guide, he was aware that the condition of the museum was less than adequate but explained lack of funding as the main reason. He himself was not receiving a salary for the tour but did it purely out of his love for the art and its history.
But then again, if a piece has been illegally acquired from an institution in Africa then buyer beware! Africans are waking up to the value of their history.
BC: To finish, which 3 books would you recommend to someone who wants to learn about African art, and why ?
Another tough question Bruno because I think it depends on what type of art someone’s interested in – Africa’s huge and its art so so diverse, from the classic and naturalistic, to the raw and rough. What I can speak to are the books that I’ve enjoyed or learned the most from. I really enjoy books that not only have pretty pictures but also descriptions and context about the pieces within their pages. I especially like books that include the ethnic names of objects.
I am personally really interested in Yoruba art. ‘Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art’ by Rowland Abiodun is a great resource that covers the art, language, and history of the Yoruba culture. It’s helping me brush up on my Yoruba too!
Another great and very detailed book is ‘Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley’ by Marla C. Berns, Richard Fardon, and Sidney Littlefield Kasfir. This really is the bible of art from Central and East Nigeria. Reading this book opened my eyes to the beauty of masks and figures from the Mumuye, the Chamba, and the Jukun. Because of this book, I’ve also become more interested in exploring art from Cameroon.
Books that I’d like to get my hands on are the volumes written by Leo Frobenius, ‘Und Afrika Sprach’, a four-volume account of his expedition to Nigeria in 1910–1912. The illustrations in the book are incredible and I imagine the content gives a glimpse into the early perceptions of Nigerian art discovered by Frobenius during his travels. Only thing is I’d have to brush up on my German first!
There are also many great online resources that people can turn to. ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA (naturally), your blog, Tribal Index and Artkhade for insight into the auction results of various objects, and Facebook. The groups of collectors sharing information about pieces in their collections is so insightful. I love the willingness to share in this field.
And as the saying goes, ‘sharing is caring’ – dear Adenike many thanks for this interview and keep up the good work!
Last week Artnet, one of the most important and widely read websites about the art market, interviewed this years honorary president of Parcours des Mondes about his passion for African art. The interview took place ahead of Frieze New York, which was showing tribal art for the first time (with Galerie Meyer, Entwistle and Donald Ellis participating). At the same time as TEFAF NY (with the presence of Jacques Germain, Tambaran Gallery and Galerie Meyer), the Almine Rech Imaginary Ancestorsexhibition, and coinciding with the preview of Christie’s African art sale TIMELESS, there definitely was a momentum going on in New York city, which elicited the interest of Artnet. You can read the full interview here. An excerpt:
How does the tribal art market compare to the contemporary art market in terms of price points?
I think the record for an African tribal art work at auction is $12 million—that is the pinnacle. You can still get masterpieces depending on the type of object. And there are incredible objects that can be bought for under $100,000. Recently, Christie’s in Paris sold a really iconic Dogon mask with a figure on top that was in all the important museum shows for $2,5 million. It’s a chunk of change, but if you compare it to contemporary artists where we don’t even know if they’re going to be around in 20 years, then it’s not that much. So relatively speaking, the high end is in the low millions—maybe between $1-6 million—whilst in the modern and contemporary market, an edition by Koons can cost more.
I couldn’t have said it better. And that’s why we are so proud of our upcoming sale, bringing together a selective group of top notch African art – below two teaser installation views of the preview. As you can see, African art does get its rightful place at Christie’s (amidst works of Brancusi, Braque and Basquiat).
The last issue of Apollo Magazine features a nice article about the relevance of ethnographic museums in the 21st century, you can read it here. Its conclusion:
The periodic revival of the repatriation debate reminds us that ethnographic collections stand in for histories of colonial exploitation, even if the objects were in fact fairly obtained, and sometimes willingly presented by local people interested in the representation of their cultures in metropolitan exhibitions. Certainly, ethnography was associated with the business of empire, both in practice and in theory. But it was also, from the start, distinguished by genuine efforts to document and celebrate cultures beyond Europe – efforts that are often considered important by the people concerned today. Ethnography collections need to be living collections, representative of cultural diversity in the present, as well as of traditions which suffered upheaval, the confrontation of empire, at the time of the museums’ formation. Renewed museums have the capacity to represent not only world cultures, but also the interconnectedness of the world, starting with the puzzling and sometimes problematic stories of how their collections reached Europe. Conceived ambitiously rather than apologetically, museums of ethnography and world culture now have more to offer than ever before.
ps perhaps the most successful of all ethnographic museum remains the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, with ca. 1,3 million yearly visitors even more popular than New York’s iconic Guggenheim Museum (source) ! Not bad for a museum that was only founded ten years ago..
Tempus fugit; last month marked my 1st year anniversary as the European director of the African and Oceanic Department at Christie’s. It’s been one hell of ride so far! The above picture sums up the year nicely. To ‘celebrate’ I thought of doing an ‘ask me anything’. The format is quite simple. There is no format. Just mail me whatever question you have and I’ll post the answers on here 🙂 Please allow me some time to answer as I have some busy days ahead. Thanks, Bruno
The best movie I’ve seen this year, “Embrace of The Serpent” tells about the ravages of colonialism in the Colombian Amazon through the story of two explorers. Filmed in black-and-white, the film centers on Karamakate, an Amazonian shaman and the last survivor of his people, and the two scientists who, over the course of 40 years, build a friendship with him. The film was inspired by the real-life journals of two explorers (Theodor Koch-Grünberg and Richard Evans Schultes) who traveled through the Colombian Amazon during the last century in search of the sacred and difficult-to-find psychedelic Yakruna plant. It’s a different continent than the one this blog is about, but still succeeds in giving a glimpse of how it must have been in the early days of colonialism in remote areas like the Amazon. For a great interview with its director Ciro Guerro, click here.
ps another movie on my to-see list is “Tanna”, the first feature film shot entirely in Vanuatu, taking place in the South Pacific island of its title. It was written in close collaboration with the Yakel, performed predominantly by its members, and supposedly tells a great love story from their recent past.
I’m surely not the only collector who long ago started with postage stamps. So whenever I get mail, I still pay attention to the stamp. The above example with a nice Fang figure graced Lucas Ratton’s invitation for Parcours des Mondes. Kudos to him for coming up with this great idea. Last year, Ratton already had made a Kota stamp – which was also very clever, see below.
The above ‘wall of masks’ was on view in Paris last week at Maison Valentino’s spring 2016 show – spectacular as it may be, these masks unfortunately are all fake, but maybe not so unfortunate since they were all painted black anyhow. The Valentino fashion show received a lot of negative comments because of its embarrassing cultural appropriation and stereotype ideas of African fashion. The African-inspired collection (the continent of Africa is a pretty big and diverse place to seek inspiration from as a whole btw) included raffia, feathers, studding, bone necklaces and bracelets, Kente cloth and much embroidery, fringing and embellishment whilst the show was soundtracked to the beat of the bongo drum. Valentino’s show notes said the “primitive…spiritual, yet regal” collection was inspired by “wild, tribal Africa“, and that it was a “journey to the beginning of time and the essential of primitive nature“. Add in handbags affixed with miniature masks (see below) and safari prints and you’re crossing the line between appreciation and appropriation. Valentino, as the show notes indicate, wanted to represent Africa “as vibrant, as throbbing, as imperfect purity“. Very cringeworthy if you ask me, especially since it is 2015. Read more about the controversy here, and about others misuses of African designs by the fashion industry here.
Sad tidings from Paris. Last week the famed bookstore Librairie Fischbacher closed its doors after having sold art books for more than 100 years. The closure will leave a big hole in the St-Germain des Près quarter. For such a bookstore to close it doors, smack in the middle in one of Europe’s busiest art districts, makes one afraid about the future of specialized book stores.. in Paris only one selling African art books is left: Librairie Mazarine – as for Belgium only Vasco & Co. Books on the Sablon remains.
Much more than a bookstore, places like this are important meeting spots for the African art community. I always joke that Vasco is like a kind of neutral zone, the Switzerland of the Sablon. How many chance meetings and conversations would already have taken place there?
Internet of course is mainly to blame for the decline in bookstores. In 2015, books are just one click away and conveniently delivered at your doorstep. Web stores such as Amazon nonetheless have a disadvantage, as they only have recent publications for sale. Once you start looking for older, out-of-print books, these sites are not very helpful. If you are interested in something particular as African art, real-life independent book stores still have the largest, unrivaled inventory of specialized books. People often complain that many of the old books are expensive (perhaps regretting not having bought them when they came out), but at least they are available and you can freely come browse them to decide if you want to purchase them. There’s a big difference between browsing books in an online store, or browsing the shelves in the actual world..
Speciality booksellers being close to extinction, expanding online and converting to a web-based business model is keeping the last ones alive, but the closure of Fischbacher tells us we’re close to reaching the tipping point. The commerce of selling books is obviously going through a lot of changes, and the only way to respond to them is to go online too. A clever initiative of Vasco & Co. is their frequently send newsletter which brings you up to date of new arrivals and old stock now made available online – do subscribe if you haven’t already. And support your local bookstores – or we’ll only realize how important they are when they are all gone..