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I never thought visual arts would be my career – Rahman Akar

What sparked your interest with visual arts in Nigeria?  My interest in art was long before I came to Nigeria.  I am an engineer but…

What sparked your interest with visual arts in Nigeria? 

My interest in art was long before I came to Nigeria.  I am an engineer but have always been in the art circle. When I came in 1989 from Sierra Leone, but art has always been something I have liked. It started with me collecting, then I bought some machines for framing as I thought there were no proper framing done in Nigeria at the time. Then I thought, I could frame my works because it’s always difficult carrying them abroad to frame and bringing them back and also frame for some friends. From going to different exhibitions, I began making some friends as I was new in town and getting to know other art lovers. We weren’t many then in the 80s unlike now. This led to us doing some outdoor salons (exhibition) in Apapa, where could show like a over a hundred works and sell most of it in two days. My desire for a local business started then. That’s how Signature Gallery came about.
Why the name Signature?
Signature, because it’s like DNA. Your signature is personal. Sometimes, unfortunately for a lot of people, the name is an important factor. They don’t look at a piece of art to judge it. The signature they’re looking for makes them pay better attention, which I think is sad anyway because it shouldn’t be. Your signature is your own marking which is what you leave behind as your legacy, your marking. It sums it all up.
Have you tried your hands on any art form?
Oh yes, I’ve always done that. I’ve always been interested in art but you know, we do a lot of things to please parents. We tell our children to do certain things, like me, maybe I enticed my son to go into Civil Engineering. When he was growing up, I would tell him, “dad any building you construct, point it out to me so that I don’t leave there or buy it.” And he would say, “Dad, you’re very cruel.” (Laughter) I have exhibited my works once as gimmick, part of another show, many years ago. People who bought my works were those who didn’t know me personally. But those who did, simply refused to buy my works. They probably didn’t take me seriously. But I still dabble. I work with lines and space. I don’t have the patience for drawing. I can go for a beat, that hum that goes up or down, that thing that breaks, that’s what triggers me. It’s like when things go a certain way and then become unpredictable. It just comes out like a shock. That gives me some kick.
Who is your favourite Nigerian artist?
It varies and depends. Art in general and artists are changing face. This is a big country with lots of talents. I have the tendency of changing my liking as time goes by, I’m not very static. Even in some of the works I do, I have artists who tell me they love what I do and want to copy and I buy their works. If they’re doing it and doing it well, I want to encourage them. They appreciate what I do and want to express it in their own way, I don’t have a problem. The one thing I would like artists to understand is that money or fame isn’t something to live on because the way you go might be the same way you come down, if you start abusing what you have and not taking your art seriously but banking on the name you have made. You can’t say that because you’ve been recognized that you can produce any kind of work and people will buy it. After while you would start becoming boring. The only thing you can do is raise the bar, keep or raise your standards and raise the money. Even when you’re older, produce less but with the tag of top notch quality works. 
Which artist’s works having you collected the most? 
I have a guy called Wale Lagunju a graduate of Ife. I have Demola Ogunaiju. I have between 90 to 100 works of each of them. I have a lot of Duke Asidere. Somebody I think Nigeria hasn’t woken up to but the outside world has seen a lot of is Uche Uzoka. I collect his works. These are people I don’t know where to stop with collecting their works. We have one of our guys at Signature, Denis Osakwe, who does wonderful works. Each work is good in every merit. I also like Tony Nsofor. I’m not so much into art that looks like a camera can do it. There are things that you can do in landscape and put your style into it unless art because craft and of you perfect like what a camera can do, then it loses its flavour. 
Do you groom artists at Signature?
Yes we do so all the time. Artists come over and we see certain things in them and you address their strengths and weaknesses and work on them. Some of them don’t like to make reference to the fact that we contributed to making them. I don’t like tying people down with contracts and all that. But I’ve had to do so recently even though I there’s more to mankind than a piece of paper. A handshake should be enough.
Why have you stayed in Nigeria this long?
My wife was born here. When we got married we were in Sierra Leone and left just before the war. Had it not been for her, I may not have been here. Now it’s my first home because I have done more years here than in any other countries combined. 
Do you feel a certain kind of attachment to the works you collect?
Yes I do. They sometimes feel like my babies. That’s what artists say about works they produce. Bit there are certain pieces that once I decide to let go, it’s not so easy, sometimes I look at pictures of some works that have gone through our gallery and I say, “Did I actually sell that?” when I look at some of them, I wish I could claim them back and I would if I could get them back. I also collect not just own a gallery. I never thought it in the life of me that I would make a career out of it. 
You recently had an auction. Why the need for it?
I did it because I find most except now that Sotheby’s has come up with an interesting auction where they actually pick people from all over Africa. They’re not just after the names. I find that everybody is scrambling over the names so that it can fetch better money. I find that really boring. For me if it’s not a good work of art, I don’t care who did it and I really can do without ugly art.
Are you sometimes overwhelmed by the number of art works you have around you?
Oh yes. A lot! The problem as well, is like no matter how hard the times are, if I see a piece I go out of my way to acquire it. It’s really scary. I have lot so stuff and I look at them and say, “but how could I have said no?” Sometimes, I just can’t say no.
What’s the most expensive art you’ve collected?
That’s a difficult one. I can’t remember now. But I think I’ll pass on this one.
What would you say about the changes on the visual art landscape in Nigeria from when you started?
It has progressed big time. I am really happy. Maybe because it has become more challenging. The problem we were facing was that a lot of schools wanted everybody to abide by the rules of the school. No self expression. I think that is changing in recent times and more and more people are beginning to express themselves and break away from the norm. there’s more awareness and global exposure. There’s more sense of I’m going to do and I’m going to give it my best and be different. 

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