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.