When people think about the repatriation of art and artifacts, they often imagine it to be about big contentious items, things that were probably looted during colonial times — the Benin Bronzes for instance, or ceremonial items that belonged to the Igbo people in southern Nigeria.
But repatriation is first and foremost about returning items of significance to their homes. In the small arts community we have in Nigeria, private ownership is crucial: private collections serve as quasi museums, and collectors are custodians that can ensure art will remain here in the long term.
What I strive for, what I really want to see happen, is for Nigerians to fall in love again with Nigeria through its art. I believe that once that appreciation and understanding of the culture is regained, we will have a lot to protect and fight for, and also more to invest in developing ourselves. Once emotional or even psychological value is attached to something, what follows is financial value, and then we start to see things flourish.
In 2014 I was approached by a dealer in London who didn’t know what to do with a collection that had been presented to him. He knew about my interest in elevating my country’s art both globally and within the country itself, and I was immediately intrigued by his proposition. There was a significant private collection of Nigerian art, belonging to a German expatriate who had worked in Nigeria in the 1970s and ’80s, and who had brought the art back with him to Europe.
His children knew how much Nigeria had meant to their father, so they had decided not to auction the pieces individually. And he really must have loved Nigeria because he had purchased 45 pieces of art during his time there — 30 years later, they were still in excellent condition.
My first job was to find the right collector. Nigerian art has come ahead in leaps and bounds, but even six years ago there was just a handful of collectors who believed that art was worth spending significant amounts of money on, let alone buying so many pieces at one time. I can confidently say that, at the time, a sale of Nigerian art of this magnitude had never happened before on a private level. No private collector had had the opportunity to access and purchase a sizable collection from the West to bring back home.