‘Love at First Sight’ Inspired This African Art Collection

Olusanya Ojikutu, who has origins in Nigeria and education and experience in art, shares treasures of African culture and history.

Most of Ojikutu’s sculptures are at least a century old, created for performances or rituals. “They served as intermediaries between the local people and their ancestors’ spirits to make their lives better and protect them from evil forces in this world and beyond,” he said.

Among the dozens of sculptures are a metal Kota reliquary guardian figure from Gabon, a wood Bamana Chi Wara headdress from Mali and a wood-fiber Bwa plank mask from Burkina Faso.

“African art has long been seen as a monolith, but it really has many different origins,” said Mr. Ojikutu, who is also an artist. “It should be recognized as more nuanced and coming from the many countries on the continent. I try to show that expanse of art forms and visual cultures in my collection.”

Mr. Ojikutu, 50, from Nigeria, emigrated to the United States in the mid-1990s. He and his wife, Yinka, both work in technology and live with their two teenage sons in a Washington suburb.

Contemporary African Art
A Luba caryatid stool and a yellow painting on white cotton cloth by El Anatsui.Credit…Emma Howells for The New York Times

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Why is it important to have connections to the art you collect?

The connection I feel toward any piece I buy, own or display is almost always love at first sight. Typically it’s a numinous experience; the work speaks to me. I feel this instant visual attraction followed by an unconscious burst of inspiration.

Ile-Ife [Nigeria], where I went to university, is considered the ancestral home of the Yoruba and the legendary birthplace of the gods and humankind, so I have a natural connection to Yoruba history, art and culture because it’s my personal history.

I also feel a connection when I buy artists I know. Like Victor Ehikhamenor, who happens to be my friend. I bought “No Man Is an Island” [2018]. If you look closely, you see small black figures and faces embedded in the large silhouette. The paradigm he presents viewers is, “There are people within you and behind you and in front of you.” It’s all about connections.

The time span between early African art and contemporary art is wide. Do artists today appreciate traditional African art?

Certainly I believe a handful do care about, study and are somewhat influenced by African art, particularly masks. And I feel I’m following in the footsteps of artists like Gauguin, Picasso, Modigliani, Klee, Matisse and, more recently, Bacon and Basquiat, who were emotionally connected to and influenced by traditional African art.

Was there a trigger moment to your collecting?

I think there were two.

A long time ago, an artist friend, Dapo Ojoade, wanted me to look at a colorfully painted flat wood sculpture he made. So I went to his house and said, “I love it. I want it.” That was the first catalyst.

Then in 2016, I attended the auction of the art estate of Merton D. Simpson. He was the most prominent African-American dealer of African art and he was a painter himself. I thought, “I want to do what he has done.”

African Arty
“No Man Is an Island,” by Victor Ehikhamenor.Credit…Emma Howells for The New York Times
Contemporary African art
A Yoruba caryatid designed as a veranda post or support beam. The traditional crown inspired the shape of the National Museum of African- American History and Culture, designed by David Adjaye. Behind, in the hall, is “The Couple” (1982), by Merton D. Simpson.Credit…Emma Howells for The New York Times

This yellow painting is redolent of El Anatsui.

It is by El Anatsui, painted in the 1980s. The adinkra motifs are considered a precursor to his majestic tapestries.

The crown on this caryatid resembles the African-American museum on the National Mall.

The crown’s shape was the inspiration for David Adjaye’s design of the museum.

I have a profound connection to the museum because I participated in the Middle Passage exhibit. The exhibitors wanted a mix of authentic voices to re-enact the anguish and suffering of slaves crossing the Atlantic. I contributed the Yoruba voice.

How do you share your collection?

Yinka and I organize a yearly salon in a Gertrude Stein kind of way in the lower level of our house. That’s where our photo collection is — pictures by Andrew Dosunmu, Zak Ové, George Osodi, Barthélémy Toguo, J.D. ’Okhai Ojeikere — many of my paintings and Nok Terracotta, a fragile fired-clay sculpture from sometime between 500 B.C. to 200 A.D.

We invite people over to talk about art. We make sure you feel comfortable and that when you leave you see African art as beautiful and as conversation pieces that inspire thoughtful concentration to be fully appreciated.