A hardcover book, which offers a well-curated visual feast of artworks owned by the Lagos-based art collector Yinka Fisher, was recently launched at a virtual event hosted by the Spanish Embassy in Abuja. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
Isn’t it gratifying that – even in these dire times – so much enthusiasm swirls around a book on art collection? A breathtakingly packaged hardcover, the 272-page book, titled For Art’s Sake and subtitled A Selection from the Yinka Fisher Collection, offers delightful glimpses of one man’s nearly five decades of an art-collecting odyssey. Besides its laidback and reader-friendly font size, which is complemented by engaging illustrations, the book’s interest-piquing credentials are further burnished by an assemblage of contributions from the Ahmadu Bello University’s fine arts professor Jerry Buhari and Sotheby’s head of Modern and Contemporary African Art Hannah O’ Leary as well as those of a leading collector and expert on Ben Enwonwu’s works Neil Coventry, the National Gallery of Art’s former acting director-general Simon Ikpakronyi and Rele Gallery’s founder Adenrele Sonariwo.
Also significant was the fact that the book’s virtual launch, hosted by the Spanish Embassy in Abuja, held during the World Book and Copyright Day celebrations on Friday, April 23. Hence, its coordinating editor, Jess Castellote, in a recent interview, alluded to the age-long Spanish tradition that commemorates the day with book gifts to male friends and roses to females. “Though it’s a global thing, it’s very popular among the Spaniards,” he explained, adding the fact that the Spanish Embassy, which over the years has cherished this tradition, always focused on books whose contents revolved around Nigeria.
Back to the book For Art’s Sake, which Castellote co-edited with Akinyemi Adetunji and Lanre Fisher. It is a product of a well-thought-out pet project of the Foundation for Contemporary and Modern Visual Arts, which is sometimes referred to as FCMVA. The foundation, which the collector Yinka Fisher co-founded with Castellote, had conceptualised a documentary series, titled Hidden Treasures, which focuses on the lives and works of various Nigerian artists and collectors. “We realised that it would be good to have something on the collectors and the collections that are hidden in the houses, offices and stores of people,” Castellote said.
Since its inception in 2014, the FCMVA had, according to Castellote who is also the director of the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art, been focused on documenting and giving greater visibility to Nigerian art. Hence the publication of its latest title is only the conclusion of what the Spanish-born art historian called “one block of a much larger project.”
For the reader, the book’s pages hold a promise of delightful hopscotch through a minefield of information on the contemporary Nigerian art scene. Not in the least pedantic in their presentation, its chapters breeze through historical landmark periods and events, offering useful insights into the evolution of art in the country within the last 60 to 70 years. At the virtual event, whose attendance roll-call was more qualitative than quantitative, guests had the singular privilege of being regaled with a special preview of this enchanting world. Talking about the event, which kicked off at about 6 pm with introductory remarks by Castellote, it featured a pithy review of the book by the debonair Lagos-based legal practitioner and art collector Femi Lijadu, who lauded the “thought-provoking and wide-ranging book”, adding that it “is bound to challenge assumptions and stimulate new ideas about how crucial art and culture are.”
But its real climax was the collector’s engaging narrative about the book’s publication timeline and his passion for promoting and preserving Nigerian modern and contemporary art. On his impressive collection, which houses over 500 artworks, Fisher disclosed that this was not something he had planned for. “It never crossed my mind that I would end up having over 500 pieces of art, and still counting,” he writes in the book’s preface. “I often wonder when it will stop! The eyes of a collector would always see an artwork that speaks to him, and he would acquire it. This is a fact of life and I have resigned myself to that.”
It can, therefore, be inferred from this that he did not set out to collect artworks as an investment. Nor did he consider them as such until things changed in recent times to influence the value of Nigerian art.
Of course, there is also the fact that his passion for collecting art was constantly weaned on the diet of what he gleaned from books and magazines on art appreciation and collection as well as from his experiences at exhibitions, gallery visits and interaction with other collectors.
Still on his collection, Fisher describes artworks in the watercolour medium as his “first love” and among these artworks were depictions of all forms of human activities and landscapes. He was also drawn to works produced in the oil medium and relished the realistic paintings produced by artists from the Yaba College of Technology, the surrealistic works of the Abayomi Barber school. “In later years,” he continues, “I began to see beauty in works of other mediums. Subsequently, sculptures started to appeal to me. I saw life in wood and strength in bronze. I, thereafter, plunged myself into the acquisition of sculptures, so much so that a friend recently walked into my sitting room and asked what I was doing with all these ‘ere’ (idols).”
Then, there was his fervent acquisition of works by the legendary Ben Enwonwu, most of which were works on paper. “I acknowledge BE as a versatile artist in most mediums, but I personally find something special in these works, especially in watercolour.”
To cull over 250 works from the massive collection, Fisher had worked so hard with the editors during the lockdown to identify works that not only represent the variety, but also the breadth of his collection.
According to Castellote, a structure for the book was agreed upon after many deliberations. “We didn’t do it chronologically, alphabetically, we did it by media. So, there is a chapter dedicated to works on paper, another to paintings, another one to sculptures, another one to installations and, because of the importance of [Ben] Enwonwu in his collection, we dedicated a whole chapter to works of them.”
Of course, works had to be fitted into the designated chapters for the agreed-upon categories. Selections had to be made where Fisher had many works by a particular artist. In cases where he has just an artwork or two by an artist, the works were selected if they were deemed important by the editor.
Thus, the book grants the readers access to representations of works by over 100 artists not only from Nigeria but also from across Africa. Brief remarks by the Spanish Ambassador Marcelino Cabanas Ansorena expresses his embassy’s delight “to be a part of the development of Nigerian art and culture.”
Meanwhile, Fisher hoped that “by the publication of the book” he had unearthed “some hidden treasures” his collection “contributed to provenance.”