How to run for your business in Lagos | The Hourglass Gallery
‘To be a man is not a day job.’ I always liked that sticker. I remember it from the buses zooming all over Lagos years ago. There were lots of stickers on those buses, like weird, mobile graffiti walls. That particular sticker stayed with me though. Probably because of the typo. Each time I read it I’d think, “It’s ‘day’s job’ not ‘day job’’. I doubt that the drivers cared. They understood their message. Living in this city just wasn’t easy.
I sort of understood too. But recently, as I ran down a Lagos main street, yelling, “Ole!” (that’s thief, if you don’t live in Lagos) — 6.2”, overweight, barreling down the street at high-speed chasing after my ex-office assistant, I understood those words in a whole different way. Not that I was thinking about it at the time. I wasn’t thinking at all. This was a primordial version of me. All action, no thoughts. Someone had taken my lunch. I wanted it back.
This guy wasn’t getting away.
Two months before, I’d employed an office assistant. He seemed reasonably smart. By the end of month one, I was starting to get worried. He wasn’t as capable as I’d imagined and he lied to a worrying degree. By month two, I could tell he was dubious. I asked him to stop work.
A week or so later, I got a message from the artist, Ola Balogun. He had received word that someone was offering his artworks for sale somewhere in Lagos. A friend of his had become suspicious when he saw the artworks and had surreptitiously taken a few pictures. Balogun recognized the artworks immediately. They belonged to the gallery. Had I given out the artworks? He sent me the image he had received. And there was my recently fired assistant surrounded by artworks from the gallery. Those artworks should have been in storage.
Balogun’s friend Ralph, an art dealer, had sent the image to him. I knew Ralph. Nice guy. I called him immediately. Yes, he’d been suspicious and taken the picture. The guy had offered five artworks including a large Ablade Glover canvas. I froze. How could he have taken a large Glover artwork out of the gallery? All the Glover artworks in the gallery were stretched. The layers of colour on Glover’s canvases meant we could never leave those artworks rolled up. He couldn’t have sauntered out of the gallery with a 60 by 60 canvas. I dashed back and did an inventory of the Glover canvases. They all seemed to be there. What was going on?
Ralph offered to call him with a proposal to buy the artworks. We could lure him out that way. I agreed. But who had he shown the artworks to that day? Ralph hesitated. I understood his awkward position. He wanted to help but he didn’t want to involve other people.
I explained to him. I had to go to the police about this. The police would be interested in knowing. The right thing would be to inform the potential buyer immediately. In any case, if it was a member of the art community, I owed it to the person to protect their interest and speak with them before going to the police.
‘Too late,’ Ralph informed me. The person had actually bought and paid for four of the artworks. They hadn’t paid for the Glover artwork yet. Still, I had to speak with this buyer before going to the police. Ralph agreed and gave me the number.
It turned out the buyer was a gallery owner. He’d been around before me. He sounded cold on the phone. We agreed to meet on Monday, though. I got there early. And there, leaning on a wall, was one of my Glovers. A 60” by 60” canvas. My office assistant had sauntered out of my gallery with this canvas? He probably could walk on water as well.
The gallery man hadn’t paid for the Glover because he was worried it might be a fake. I understood why he would worry. It was an odd Glover. I was fascinated by it the very first time I saw it. I’ve always thought that in his art, Glover tries to build order from the chaos of the African landscapes, a restructuring of sorts that keeps the energy and vitality but channels them in his own way. This piece didn’t have that order. He had explained to me at the time that this was his first artwork after months of illness. He was finding his way back and was in a dark place. That darkness comes through in the artwork. It’s Glover but darker, more tentative. I’d sold the artwork a year ago. The buyer, for reasons of logistics, hadn’t picked it up, so it was in storage — a good place to disappear from.
‘Ralph has been disloyal to me,’ the man told me immediately.
Disloyal? Is this dude alright, I wondered?’ Ralph was saving him a lot of aggravation.
‘The boy said his Dad had just died,’ he continued. ‘I was doing him a favour. There was no way I could know he stole the artworks.’ He paced around.
I agreed. Sometimes these things happen.
‘You are careless,’ he admonished. ‘How could he have taken all these artworks. He had images of some more on his camera.’
‘You can take the artworks,’ he offered. ‘Refund me whatever you want or not. It doesn’t matter. I don’t want the aggravation.’
The fair thing might be to refund half of his payment, I thought. He’d paid low figures for the artworks, obviously.
‘Maybe I should ask the boy to pick up the Glover,’ the man added. ‘I haven’t paid for that and you can collect it from him.’
‘Did you just say return the artwork to him?’ I asked.
Now I was baffled. Did we just have a conversation about theft or was I deluded?
‘Or you can take it with you, I don’t care,’ he replied. ‘I can ask him to see you about it when he shows up’.
I explained that I’d rather leave the artwork there and catch the thief whenever he came to collect it so I could get the other artworks he’d stolen. He wasn’t having any of that. He didn’t want to get involved.
Eventually, we agreed. He’d call me when the thief showed up to pick up the artwork. I’d arrive with the police but apprehend him outside. Not inside his gallery.
I went back to the gallery, got Kemi, and we went off to the police station.
I agreed with Kemi — all the police stations in Nigeria were probably designed by the same evil architect. They all seemed to have the same indeterminate, depressing colours. The same dank interior. It didn’t matter which one you walked into, and I’ve been to a few, you feel like you’re in the same police station. it could be the deepest Mushin or the richest Victoria Island. Same inside. Dank and depressing. Quite an achievement in uniformity, if you think of it a certain way.
This one had wires running kamikaze all over the decaying wall and the usual ironic ‘The police is your friend’ poster.
I told the desk officer my problem. She asked me how much the stolen artworks might be worth.
I told her.
She smirked, ‘Oga!’
I knew that look. Like, you have to be having me on, right?
I repeated the figure. She shrugged, like, if you’ve decided to live in your fantasy world, suit yourself.
She assigned me an officer — a robust, gregarious lady. I explained to the officer what had happened. We agreed we’d return in a few hours.
In all of this, my phone had gone dead.
An hour later, a guy from the other gallery dashed in.
‘We’ve been trying to reach you,’ he said breathlessly. ‘That man has come to collect the Glover artwork.’
I dashed out with Kemi. She was calling the police officer as we headed out. We picked her up headed to the gallery, hoping we weren’t too late. He was already standing outside with the Glover artwork when we got there. As I parked, he took one look at the car, realized it was mine, flung the artwork at the car and bolted. I jumped out and gave chase. If I’d played the scene back in my head prior to this, I wouldn’t have taken the undignified choice of giving chase. But I hadn’t, so I did the instinctive thing.
The word ‘Ole’ brings people to life. Especially if they’re young and unemployed. Unfortunately for the runner, there were a good number of young, unemployed people about that day. They tackled him in no time. A crowd of area boys surrounded him. He claimed he had done nothing wrong and didn’t know what on earth I was talking about. He was spinning a good tale until the Police officer caught up with us. She wasn’t pleased. She had attempted to run after him as well — for a short while at least. She was far too robust for this sort of exertion. The area boys wanted to be compensated for catching the guy. A dispute broke out about who had actually caught him, and who had held on to him properly. One guy tugged at me to explain that he’d lost his slippers in the running and needed to get a replacement. Utter chaos.
We marched on to my car — me, out of breath, the police officer peeved and out of breath as well, the area boys in a state of frenzy, the captured assistant, stony-faced. From nowhere, a new area boy rushed in and smashed a piece of building block on the assistant’s head. Thankfully, the block was soft and crumbled, but it had done some damage. I could see blood. The area boy was looking for something stronger. I started to yell for him to stop. The police officer was yelling as well.
‘But na thief na.’ The area boy looked confused and a little hurt by our anger.
We eventually made it back to my vehicle. One of the boys from the gallery walked over to me.
‘You’re lucky with the artwork,’ he informed me. ‘We had waited for you then gave him the artwork to leave with.’
‘You what?’ I asked, incredulous.
It turned out they had tried to reach me, couldn’t, tried to keep him for a while, and then decided to let him leave with the artwork. He had gone outside, found a vehicle but couldn’t fit the artwork in. He was looking for another vehicle when we got there.
What would have happened if we had walked in 10 minutes late and the guy had gone off with the artwork? I wasn’t sure. But somehow, I thought we may have had an even more memorable day than the one we just had. Clearly, they would have been in trouble. They knew the artwork was stolen. They had given it back to the thief. That would have been very suspicious behavior to the police. I may have simply assumed that I left an artwork there and if it wasn’t there anymore, I could help myself to the equivalent in other artworks as replacement.
Thankfully, it didn’t come to that.
My office assistant was kind enough to disclose the whereabouts of nine other artworks. In two months of work, he’d made off with fourteen artworks. How did he do it? I wanted to know.
He’d come in really early in the morning, he explained, at about 5 am, four hours before resumption. Unusual, but not unheard of in Lagos where people live home early to avoid traffic. The guard would open the gallery and then go back to sleep, and he basically had the gallery to himself and an empty street. How did he start? A dodgy antique dealer had put him up to it, told him what names to look out for.
Kemi and I had to go to the Police station for a few days to sort things out. I don’t really like the police. Yet, I liked the police people I dealt with. Complicated. They were nice enough human beings up close, yet, yet… sigh… I could still see the police in them. I’d look at the poster on the wall ‘Bail is free,’ and shake my head. The police.
Their generator packed up one evening while I was there. They were in darkness that night. They didn’t have funds to fix the generator. The fan in the main office had packed up. The table in the main office was propped up by old car batteries. How could that be?
If we can donate so heartily to our churches, we should consider donating to fix police stations. After all, the police work for us, sort of. Yes, the government should do that from our taxes. But if they don’t or won’t, maybe we should. If the police stations look like rat holes, should we be surprised by what happens there?
I mentioned this to my friend Wendy, one evening after leaving the station.
She glowered at me. ‘The police?’
It sounded like ‘that Satan cult?’
‘Don’t even say that,’ she declared. ‘Those people are wicked.’
A while back, a taxi driver Wendy and her flat-mate used occasionally turned out to be a robber. The police found their numbers on the man’s phone and paid them a visit. Her flat mate got hauled to the station. One of the officers had lasciviously run his tongue all over the girl’s face while questioning her — slobbering tongue all over the poor girl’s face. That, I had to agree, was gross.
Everyone has a police horror story. But still. We ought to do something, each of us. Not really for the police, but, in the long run, for ourselves.
Wendy just glowered at me.
I have to be more careful with security. I come from an era when no one cared about artworks. Whenever I said I was an art dealer, the standard question was, ‘what else do you do?’ People are a bit more interested in art these days — in good and bad ways.
And I don’t see those bus signs anymore. The buses these days are far too tame. No more graffiti. No more statements to the world. We should bring back bus signs. I get it now about that sticker: ‘To be a man is not a day job’. Typo and all. There should be another one: ‘To be a businessman is not a day job.’ It’s mad in this city. As they say these days, ‘the hustle is real.’
Originally published at www.hourglassgallery.com on August 10, 2017.