Femi Coker is the Manager of Orisun Art Gallery, Abuja. In this interview, the culture advocate and visual artist discusses some misconceptions about art, including who can own artworks. He also talks about why art galleries cannot be threatened by the blockchain technology that has redefined the consumption and production of art worldwide.
ORisun Art Gallery is one of the leading galleries in Abuja. What makes the gallery unique?
The gallery grew out of the personal collections of a passionate art collector and consumer over a period of three decades. He meticulously collected all art forms from all over Africa, but especially from Nigeria. There are very few and truly dedicated individuals who wish to collect resources that promote and showcase our entire cultural history and heritage over decades and sometimes centuries. The gallery offers exclusive works of art by great masters of Nigerian art and I can say that we have eight departments. Each section is so unique that we cover practically every art form, from the usual paintings on canvas, mixed media, oil, acrylic on canvas, to installations, digital art and various as well as sculptural pieces in brass, bronze, wood, iron, stone. These reflect a deep cultural awareness of who we are as a people. A people of class, sophistication.
We are not just a gallery industry company, we are also a cultural hub because we care about education, information, enlightenment and awareness raising about our identity, the significant value of our culture and also the need to preserve its heritage for future generations still unborn will have a deep understanding and awareness of who we are as a people.
What does it take to be an art collector?
It takes interest and curiosity to understand the importance of acquiring artifacts, works of art that reflect who we are as a people. It’s not just the beauty or craftsmanship, not even the aesthetics, but the inner and outer value of such possessions. Art is also an asset because if you buy a work of art today, the value will increase especially if the artist dies because they will no longer produce. In Europe and North America, a work of art could be used as collateral to secure a loan or receive financing from the bank. Art serves not only for the beauty, joy or pleasure of owning such creative pieces, but also for value. It is considered an asset for people who run art galleries, they know the value of buying a piece of art and keeping it for some time.
There are cases where a collector is attached to a piece that despite the money being offered, they don’t want to let go
Cuts in… this does not only apply to collectors; it also applies to artists. Some artists don’t want to sell their work because a work of art reflects the soul of the artist. So most people don’t like giving away or getting rid of something they have an emotional attachment to. Many things go into the process of making a work of art apart from the pain, sweat and blood that goes into the process. The experience of the artists that goes into a piece cannot be quantified in monetary terms, but due to economic and social needs some of these assets need to be traded. Everything that goes into the process is such that you cannot normally or habitually attach any value to a work of art.
Was there a time when you, as gallery director, found it difficult to part with a work of art despite the quantity on offer?
There are certain works that you do not want to sell, no matter how much is offered for them, as some of them may become heirlooms. Which brings us to the subject of museums. We had museums in houses, shrines, palaces all over Africa and some of these objects in the museums had to do with our consciousness as human beings. How our parents and ancestors interpreted circumstances, how they were able to overcome challenges and create institutions. All of these objects have been appropriated in museums across Europe. It’s very unfortunate. There’s a new awareness now, you see younger people are interested in expressing themselves through digital art and that’s the way to go now. Everything is going digital, there is a new awareness where African art is more encouraged through this unique expression and interpretation.
If museums were highly valued, aren’t you worried about the inadequate museums in Abuja, for example?
There is a major challenge in policy design and implementation in the arts and culture space. You don’t let anyone else define and influence your narratives, it’s a very sad thing if you don’t promote your narratives as a people. When you go abroad, the first place you might want to visit is their museums because they summarize their entire life as a people. Then the next place is the library. For example, when someone visits Nigeria, the first port of call should be our museum. If the government does not see the need to revive and revitalize this most important resource of preserving and promoting our heritage as a people, then we have a problem. Museums in Nigeria need to be adequately funded. How do you teach young people about the past, their present and design the future? A museum is not just a house or a building, it is a place where our history as a people is preserved and preserved. If people don’t know their story well and don’t want to pass it on to unborn generations, then there is a huge void that needs to be filled.
It is a great challenge for the government to allocate sufficient funds not only to museums but also to cultural studies and research so that people are more interested in acquiring knowledge and passing on this knowledge.
You referred to digital art earlier. Do you think galleries are threatened by the blockchain technology that has transformed art?
Change is constant and unless someone is willing to be flexible and adapt to change, they become irrelevant. The trend influences and indeed influences every layer of life. If artificial intelligence is essential to science and technology, why won’t it be essential to art? There’s enough space where I don’t feel threatened. With the conventional gallery space, people will still come to select their art pieces, but I always feel that current trends have an impact on what product has emerged from a creative expression. I strongly believe that digital art appeals to younger people, but those who are the usual collectors, the old breed, don’t feel bothered by it. These objects carry memories and time that will take a long evolutionary period to produce. I’m not saying there isn’t that much that goes into digital art, I’m saying that so much experience goes into a masterpiece. If someone has been in the industry for six decades and is still consistent, you can imagine the pieces they make.
What do you think Nigerians can do to get the most out of art galleries?
The challenge with art galleries is the lack of knowledge about the purpose and meaning of art. Most people have the gross misconception that art appeals to those who are cultured, have a high net income, and are affluent. Art is an integral part of our lives and an indispensable part of who we are as a people. Each work of art is affordable depending on the taste and income of the one who wants to acquire it. Art is therapeutic, when you walk into a space like this there is so much colour, creativity and a variety of art forms and you become inspired. You will also be reassured. You also get a spiritual or emotional connection. Most people don’t realize that buying a piece of art isn’t just to add aesthetics or beauty to their space, but that it has great intrinsic value.
Many people think that art is expensive and not for poor people. This is a gross misconception because the truth is that even the street performers are being patronized. People need to understand that beauty and creativity are part of who we are and have a huge impact on our lives and relationships. Art influences and inspires many people.