25 Sep RIP Sammy Olagbaju

Thank You Notes.

I met Uncle Sammy years ago when I set up my gallery. He’d come in, pick up an artwork or two and say to me ‘I’ll send you a cheque soon.’

And in no time someone would show up with an envelope. There’d be a cheque in the envelope. But here’s the thing; there’d also be a handwritten note attached to the cheque saying something like. ‘Dear Dozie, The cheque for the painting is enclosed in the envelope. Thank you for your patience.’ Or the note might tell me how much he liked the artwork and thank me for letting him have it.

No one else thanked me for waiting a week to get a cheque (Except his son, Ladele).

It always struck me as incredibly thoughtful. He was the one paying me. He didn’t have to say thank you. He didn’t have to thank me for waiting a short while. Someone else might have thought I ought to be grateful I was getting a cheque at all. Yet he thanked me. Every single time, he’d write the note saying thank you. For waiting a short while, for sharing the artwork.

It seemed, on some level, like something from another time. But it wasn’t. It was timeless – a certain elegance that meant he had to care about my time and my feelings; that meant he had to treat everyone with consideration and kindness. In a time when abrasiveness and insensitivity had taken hold like a vengeful weed, it was an education in a different, more elegant way.

It went beyond elegance though. There was a humanness about him. An expansiveness of heart that meant he was always willing to share. I suspect most of the artists practising in Lagos would have met him at some point or the other. He’d probably have encouraged their art in any way he could. I suspect that having one of the biggest art collections in the country wouldn’t have been the thing that made him proud. It had to have been helping the growth of art, by encouraging every artist and art dealer that came his way; by encouraging as many art programmes as he could; by nurturing and growing ideas like VASON to help organise Nigerian visual arts.

It’s easy to see the edifice that is Nigerian art today – not quite finished but certainly looking the business. Uncle Sammy, I think, was a key part of the foundation. He bought the art when most people weren’t sure they should. He encouraged. He cajoled. He supported.

I liked him a lot. A whole lot. When I was a young art dealer. He’d lay his box of call cards on the table and go through them one-by-one, patiently looking for people he might introduce me to who would be interested in collecting art. When I struggled with organising a history of Nigerian art exhibition that required a lot of old artworks, he’d lend the artworks from his collection, as well as his time and advice.

He’d share these stories about his life and about collecting art; about the joy of dealing with a mercurial Ben Enwonwu, about walking into an art exhibition by the Oshogbo artists at the Marina in the early seventies and somehow having to be an MC there, about having to go to the countryside in England some weekends to visit an English artist he admired. He’d tell these stories in his charming, elegant way, with a smile, a twinkle in his eyes. Like a man who enjoyed life – who sucked life  in like a deep breath, but who also knew to exhale his warmth, compassion and love back to the world.

A couple of months ago I spoke with him. He’d just come back to Nigeria. He was getting better he said but couldn’t talk for too long at a time. Still he wanted to know what I was doing. I mentioned that I was having trouble getting a landlord to lease his property to myself and a partner for a project. He offered to help. He’d find someone who knew the man and sort it out. He sent a text shortly after to offer some advice about the project. He always wanted to help, to guide all the people he cared about – a whole tribe of us, I imagine – in his elegant way.

When I become involved in art I always thought that anyone who collected art had to simply look at the world differently. Not like a rat race or a grimy battle for survival; but with more compassion, more romance, more humanity. They just had to be nicer, better human beings if they were interested in collecting art. Sometimes I was right. Sometimes, unfortunately, I was horribly wrong. But every time, I saw or spoke with Uncle Sammy, I understood why I still held on hopelessly to that notion. He was a prime example of that elegant, gracious being I imagined.

I think I might start to write Thank You notes now – as much as I can, just to remind myself about graciousness. I bet if I’d told him this, he’d smile and tease ‘Don’t be silly, Dozie, you’ll go broke soon enough if you spend all you time writing Thank You notes.’ Then he’d ask how I was doing and how he could help. Always. How he could help. With a smile; with infinite, remarkable grace. Always.

Goodbye, Uncle Sammy. And Thank you. Thank you for your notes, your time, your kindness, your lessons. Thank you.

Dozie Igweze