Two months ago, YET ANOTHER PLACE, an exhibition by Richardson Ovbiebo was shown at Omenka Gallery for three weeks. The exhibition drew influences from the artist’s experiences, memories, history, and the gradual emergence of social dynamics in our society. It also brought into focus the ever evolving changes in the artist’s environment and the various ways which these happenings influence his work.
Behind the exhibition was a curator, Hakeem Adedeji, who worked with the artist for over two years to achieve this presentation. For most people familiar with names in the Lagos art scene, Mr. Adedeji is a known patron and supporter of artists. He has been collecting art works since the mid 80s. He is the Executive Director of Hydrocarbon Advisors, sole sponsor of YET ANOTHER PLACE. To many followers of happenings in the industry, it was surprising to see him work on a different side of the system as a curator. To understand this shift and his reasons for working with the artist, The Sole Adventurer met with him for an interview. In between, he shares with us his love for art and the need for art managers in Nigeria. Interview by Bukola Oye
TSA: What motivated Hydrocarbon’s commitment to sponsor Richardson Ovbiebo’s Yet Another Place?
Mr. Adedeji: There are two important factors, me as an individual, the person who runs Hydrocarbon and the economic part from the Hydrocarbon angle. As an individual, I am an art patron, and I use that selectively. I have collected fairly for almost thirty years, but most importantly, I have gone deep into the heart of the industry and activities happening there. I happen to have a close relationship with most of the artists. I knew some of the big artists now when they freshly graduated and started their practice. My relationship with them goes as far as knowing their family and visiting their studios. I am more than just an average collector.
TSA: Going by how involved you are with the activities in the sector, have you sponsored any exhibition before now?
Mr. Adedeji: Yes, I have. I started sponsoring art events as far back as 1995 when I newly came back to Nigeria. There were two notable ones in 1995. I remember the exhibition of Abiodun Juba who I must say is one of the most talented artists I have ever met. He is an ex-Yaba student, but moved to Ibadan and for reasons best known to him didn’t pursue art as a profession. Another notable one was in 2001 when I sponsored the exhibition of Francis Denedo. I also usually support in areas of material purchases and creative development.
TSA: From the aspect of someone who runs Hydrocarbon, what does this mean for the company?
Mr. Adedeji: For Hydrocarbon, we take this involvement as a CSR role and we also want to be identified with the arts. I believe that Hydrocarbon just has to be in connection with the arts, and as a director – I wouldn’t like to use the word drag – I was able to bring the company into it. I will also be the first to admit and be honest, it also helps our image as a company. It is an image booster to be seen as someone who supports the art.
TSA: Why? Is it because art is seen as elitist?
Mr. Adedeji: Art isn’t elitist. Although there is an imbalance to this. Art came from traditional societies. If we go into their shrines, places of worship and homes, we would see art there. This was where art started from and it wasn’t an elitist thing then. Elitism in art is more of a recent development, it is how some people have decided to brand art. This is also the problem with us here, because art is portrayed as something elitist, it keeps people away. It is a big disadvantage as it limits the audience and keeps away some real lovers of art.
TSA: What was your experience working with the artist and curating the show? How long did you work together?
Mr. Adedeji: We were at it for over two years but I have known him and connected with him for 5 years now. I have been collecting his works since then. So when he proposed the idea of the new exhibition to me, I didn’t have a problem with it. He was in charge of the creative process but I did give some criticism at different stages of the work and gave necessary guidance to help realize his ideas. I looked out for the connecting elements in the works and provided the drive to keep it all together and focus on his story. If there was anything I kept hammering on throughout our work together, it was the presentation of his ideas and finished work. I emphasized on the value presentation will add to his great ideas. I also managed the process of showing the works at Omenka Gallery. In all, it was a joint effort on both sides.
TSA: How were you able to achieve the different feel and look of the exhibition space?
Mr. Adedeji: We worked on the space and gave it a different feel from the Omenka we all know. We designed the space a little, from lighting to display, and repainting the wall. Presentation was important and that has always been emphasised since 2013 when we started the project. Clarity and a clean environment were also important to help with the aesthetics.
TSA: What do you think of the social commentary in his work? Did you motivate any of them or tweak the direction of the subjects?
Mr. Adedeji: First of all, I never seek to influence the subjects of any artists’ work. The moment we start tampering with that, we no longer see the original creativity of the artist. The creativity and the ideas that went into Yet Another Place was solely his. I only infused other interpretations of his subjects into his head, other possibilities of his chosen subjects. But it was subtle. Another issue we worked on together was dissolving ambiguous subjects into simpler expressions so they are not lost. All of these we did without diluting his art. And we got good feedbacks in this area from people who saw the exhibition.
TSA: From this experience of working with Richardson Ovbiebo and your understanding of the local terrain, don’t you think artists should generally have managers or curators working with them personally for consistent guidance?
Mr. Adedeji: Well that is a lacking role here. In more developed countries, or let’s say in places with more developed art market, there are usually people, either managers or curators who work with the artists before his or her work gets to the gallery. We don’t really have such people here, and that is why I was happy to work with him beyond the financial aspects. On the financial end Hydrocarbon also helped with advisory services. This part I am more willing to take credit for than the creative end.
TSA: In what way did Hydrocarbon give this financial advisory support?
Mr. Adedeji: We did from the conceptual stage to the end. We discussed and planned for materials, most of which are expensive. We helped him analyze the cost of the time he spent creating those works. This is something a lot of artists don’t do. We covered the expense on the exhibition itself, which included the hall used, catalogues, refreshments, etc. We took care of all these things to give him the right frame of mind to work. This arrangement was not flawless, but it was the model we worked with for the two year period to limit risk on his part.
TSA: What do you think about the lack of support from private sector companies in the arts?
Mr. Adedeji: I think they are not doing much and more companies can still get in to support artists and their creative processes. They should be more involved beyond helping them to print catalogues or other little beneficial things at the tail end of the whole process. That is only a small fraction of the cost involved. There is a lot they can do. However, I see a gap in presentation and representation. Artists cannot be the one approaching corporate firms, they are not trained to do it. Most artists do not understand the language of the corporate world, and are mostly shunned out when they reach out to them. Trained professionals have to stand in between. A good example is someone like Azu Nwagbogu of LagosPhoto, he understands the language of the corporate sector. Corporate heads need to be challenged to see such partnership or sponsorship as something beyond charity as CSR is often treated. They need to see the arts as something highly beneficial to their brand, they need to see a bigger connection. All of these are dependent on who communicates the artist’s ideas and that is where a trained middleman who understand both ends comes in. Funding, let me break it down, money is very important to the creativity of artists and the growth of the art sector. Whether we like it or not, art is a business. It is the only reason why there is a Christie’s or Sotheby’s in business for 200 – 300 years. If this is not resolved, the issue of copying each other will continue to happen. Artists will not be able to step away and experiment or search within to create challenging works.
TSA: You have an impressive collection, when did you start buying art? It also seems like you have interest in photography?
Mr. Adedeji: I started collecting art in 1986, specifically photos and prints of Matisse. I am a professional photographer. I was trained by Don Barber. Some years back, I exhibited some of my photography works at Terra Kulture. I started my real painting collection in the early 90s.
TSA: After this exhibition, what is next for Hydrocarbon or is Richardson Ovbiebo the only beneficiary?
Mr. Adedeji: No! I have done this as an individual for a long time and Hydrocarbon has sponsored a few exhibitions in the past. We will keep doing this. Our aim is to ensure that we regularly channel our resources into necessary areas that will develop the artist.