Interview: Sandra Obiago

Imagination Industries

The power of the creative sector to lift economies, boost morale and promote tourism has proven phenomenal all over the world. Sandra Obiago, the Lagos-based powerhouse behind a wealth of initiatives is on a mission to draw on Nigeria’s cultural gold mine .

Words Diane Lemieux • Portrait Adolphus Opara

Seated in a comfortable armchair in her living room, development activist, documentary filmmaker and art collector, Sandra Obiago doesn’t have time to sip her tea. She is too engrossed in explaining her vision – how investment in the arts can contribute to the development of both the Nigerian economy and the nation’s identity.

‘You can build beautiful places for people to live, but urban renewal is incomplete if you don’t have content. Content is the bookshops, art galleries, good restaurants, cinemas and theatres – everything that attracts people to come and spend money.’ Sandra points out that these are the things that generate jobs, stimulate the economy and improve the quality of life in any city. And every one of these businesses is based on creative and artistic talent.

Sandra spent 14 years running a not-for profit organisation making documentary films for development goals such as health and community activism. That initiative was called Communication for Change. The last major film project she produced was a five-part documentary series on seventeen Nigerian artists called Red Hot. The films showed the vibrancy, creativity and range of world-class talent in Nigeria. The importance and value of the work of these individual artists got Sandra thinking.

‘Euronews has this daily programme that highlights artistic events around the world: what’s happening in Paris, Moscow and Madrid. Why don’t they show what’s happening in Lagos?

Every weekend there are so many amazing events. OK, Nigeria isn’t a top tourist destination, but our art is world class.’

How then, could she support the development of the Nigerian art scene? Sandra was doing a two-year leadership fellowship through the Aspen Institute, a US-based organisation that fosters values-based leadership and the ideals that define a good society. For her fellowship project, she organised a dinner for 35 important art collectors in Nigeria. The goal of the dinner was to begin a dialogue among collectors in order to explore the ways in which the collecting of art and the showcasing of artists can be used strategically in the development of the country.

With a wave of her hand she indicates her own collection of contemporary Nigerian art: the sculptures and paintings in her living room are only a portion of the impressive collection that she and her husband, Joe Obiago, have assembled through their shared passion for art.

‘My goal was to reflect on how we can move Nigeria from an extractive industry focus towards the creatively based knowledge industries. Whether it is design, literature, visual and performing arts, all of these fields – that Nigeria is rich in – create wealth, generate employment and improve the quality of life in the country.’

This dinner was followed the next day by an art show in the Obiago home. The exhibition showcased the oldest art collective of Nigerian artists, Universal Studio. The show was a huge success: within three days around 85% of the works had been sold.

‘To me this showed the power that a collector has. You can have artists creating wonderful art, but if you don’t have the collector to buy it, and if the collector doesn’t showcase the work, and reference it properly and invest in documenting it, then the art gets forgotten in a stuffy room somewhere.’ Collectors, she explains, understand the art space as well as curators and academics. When they open their homes or collections to the general public and other art lovers, they contextualise and promote art; they give it a proper platform for people to discover and appreciate the work.

These two events were the beginning of what Sandra calls the Collector’s Series: each event is designed to showcase an individual’s own collection, or promote an artist they believe in or a project they have invested in, allowing him or her to describe their passion and unique take on Nigerian art.

Sandra Obiago now channels her impressive energy and multiple talents through her new company, Art Spectrum. Through this series she promotes Nigerian art and encourages investment in the creative sector. However, her goal is not just to stimulate economic development.

‘Art gives us hope; it helps us to appreciate our own identity. Beyond providing employment and creating wealth, it also creates an understanding within a society of their significance in the world.’

Already, interest in Nigerian art forms is increasing overseas. For example, in the last few years Bonham’s has become interested in African art. Though they have a major focus on South Africa, their latest catalogue consists of around 70% Nigerian art. However, Sandra is clear that the support of the arts must come from within Nigeria. It is, she says, mind-boggling to think that a musical on Fela – arguably the biggest icon of the Nigerian creative space that ever lived – was masterminded by a North American. There are several examples like this award-winning show where Nigerians have been unable to promote their own indigenous achievements.

‘There are many paths that lead to development and it is up to us to be known as a centre of creation rather than the centre of bad news’, says Sandra. ‘It isn’t what we are as a people.’

Sandra is in the middle of organising the latest event in her Collector’s Series, the exhibition of Billy Omabegho’s sculptures. It is hard work – she has had multiple phone calls in the last hour. They are having trouble getting the works of art out of customs at the airport. She turns the phone to silent with impatience as she rushes to continue her story.
‘I’ll give you an example. We had an event in January 2012 to present Olufemi Akinsanya’s unbelievably spectacular collection of ancient Nigerian art. He has museum quality pieces but up until our event it was virtually unknown outside a very small circle of people in Lagos.’

The event was both a presentation of his collection as well as the official launch of the book, Making History, written by Prof Ogbechie, an internationally respected art expert. This beautiful book catalogues the unique pieces in Mr Akinsanya’s collection.
This Collector’s Series event was important for Nigerians because many people in this country tend to look at indigenous art as being fetish – as still having some sort of religious connotation; they are uncomfortable with that. But in the western world they are treasured in museums. For the first time, Nigerians could appreciate the international value this form of art has and its importance in Nigeria’s history. Neither Africans nor the western art community are aware of the fact that important collections exist in African hands – indigenous collectors have been marginalised on the global art scene.

‘There is this concept that there is no good traditional ancient art left in Africa. And here is this collector who is only one of a small group of collectors in Nigeria who has a significant collection that has value worldwide.’

The Collector’s series event galvanised Nigerian collectors to recognise their vital role as keepers of Nigerian artistic and cultural expression nationally and internationally. As with every event in the Collector’s Series, her hope is that by highlighting works of art, more people, both at home and abroad, will understand the value of Nigerian art. It is a first step in reclaiming Nigeria’s cultural heritage and will hopefully lead to the development of this country as a centre of innovation and creative inspiration.

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