Art in the corridors of power
During a crisis in an episode of ‘The Fixer’, an international TV series about the fictional American President Grant, his Chief of Staff Cyrus Beene is shown in a contemplative mood in front of the painting of Alexander Hamilton. “Of all the paintings in the White House, this one is my favourite,” he says of the work, presumably his shelter from the storm. To those who might wonder if we also have havens of meditative and artistic splendour at the nation’s seat of power, fear not. The Presidential Villa is a veritable exhibition space showcasing priceless works by some of Nigeria’s greatest artists.
From meeting rooms to conference rooms, along corridors, lobbies and right into the Council Chambers, Nigerian art is everywhere on display. A painting by Kolade Oshinowo is one of the works that take pride of place in one meeting room; another from Bruce Onobrakpeya’s Dance Series can be found along a corridor in the company of works by mid-career artists including Rom Isichei. In an anteroom, water colourist Sam Ovraiti rubs shoulders with the ‘drizzle’ artist, Onyema Offoedu-Okeke. The centrepiece of the main lobby that leads to the Council Chambers is a large sculptural bronze map of Nigeria with the faces of her diverse peoples in glorious relief.
Few artworks have captured the country more vibrantly than this 1990 piece by Kenny Adamson. Then we come to the crown jewel proper. To walk into the Council Chambers is to enter the most prestigious permanent exhibition in the country. On display all around is an exciting array of works by multi-generational artists – oil and acrylic on canvas or board, wood and mixed media – including stunning plastographs by Onobrakpeya, one of Nigeria’s most influential artists.
“The Aso Rock Presidential Collection represents a truly great institutional collection, with some of Nigeria’s most creative visual talents,” says Onobrakpeya. The octogenarian artist is as proud of his works in the Presidential Villa as he is of those in the permanent collection of The Smithsonian in Washington DC, and the Papal Collection at The Vatican. Nigeria’s leading female sculptor, Ndidi Dike, whose piece, ‘Uli I’ hangs in the Council Chambers, says it is “prestigious and humbling” to have two of her works on display at The Villa, where dignitaries from around the world “could view our eclectically engaging contemporary Nigerian art.”
Kolade Oshinowo says it is only fitting that the State House Collection should be able to boast of pieces by pioneering artists like Yusuf Grillo, Ben Enwonwu and Akinola Lasekan. “There should be representation of these people’s works, even if just for historical purposes,” Oshinowo asserts. “They are artists who have made their mark, who are celebrated. Contemporary art in Nigeria is not complete without these people and their works – hanging beautifully in Aso Villa.”
Onobrakpeya, Oshinowo and Dike are among an important group of studio artists whose works contribute to the rising economic value of Nigerian visual art at auctions and galleries around the world. The three artists shared their insights into the provenance of the State House Collection, and how the pieces were acquired. It all goes back to 2002, and the key figure was the late Angela Onyeador, founder of the African Foundation for the Arts (AFA) who curated the collection with the assistance of Abraham Uyovbisere, an artist. A catalogue, ‘Aso Villa Collection Volume One’, was published to document the project, with an introduction by Boma Bromillow-Jack, then Federal Minister of Culture and Tourism.
Fifteen years on, the works are a welcome sight for State House visitors, helping to enhance the quality of the environment in a way only art can.
In addition to the original art curated by Onyeador, the hallway leading to the First Lady’s Conference Room pays its own homage to Nigeria’s rich artistic tradition. Displayed here are some of the country’s most fascinating arts and crafts, possibly ceremonial gifts presented to successive first ladies since 1999 – underscoring the role of the President’s wife in helping to boost the State House Collection. Among items on display are: Dahuwa fabric from 10th Century Zamfara Kingdom; bronzes from Benin and coral from Delta State, Igunnuko and Eyo masquerade miniatures from Lagos; as well as decorative pots from Niger State and ornate calabashes from Gombe. Close attention has been paid to the provenance of the items, such that the viewing experience is a history lesson in itself.
Onobrakpeya and Oshinowo would like to see the State House Collection continually upgraded, with parts of it open for viewing by the general public, as is the case with the White House collection. This, according to Onobrakpeya, would make for “greater appreciation of the living arts of the country.”
That may not happen for some time yet. Meanwhile, should you find yourself passing though the wonderful artistic spaces of the Presidential Villa sometime soon, pause and interact with the artworks. Then consider this: which one is your favourite?