A Conversation With Art Collector and Entrepreneur Seth Dei

Seth Dei sitting in front of 'The Wedding Party' (1992) by Kofi Setordji © Jordi Perdigó

Seth Dei sitting in front of 'The Wedding Party' (1992) by Kofi Setordji © Jordi Perdigó

A renowned Ghanaian businessman and art collector, Seth Dei is the founder the Dei Center for the Study of Contemporary African Art in Accra. He has dedicated his life to the collection and preservation of West African art, acquiring 500 paintings over the past three decades.

I spoke to Dei in June 2014 at his home in Accra , a sprawling yet unassuming structure, concealed by thick, luscious foliage. He welcomed me into his colorful living room as the afternoon heat peaked in the garden outside.

We spoke about his collection and the growing contemporary art scene in Ghana. Encouraged by the growing awareness about art availability in the country, Dei observed that local artists have begun to break away from the traditional demands of the tourist market. 

You are a longtime collector of art. How did you enter the art world?

I went to school in the US, a prep school in Massachusetts in 1961 through 1963. That’s when I became acquainted with the arts. I grew to love art there. In 1973, I went to Cornell University and got a full scholarship. With my pocket money, I started buying some prints here and there. I remember the first prints I purchased were watercolors. Then, I bought my first painting in 1963. After I finished Cornel in 1967, I went to business school, and subsequently got a job. By then, I was generating more money and I could afford to buy one or two paintings.

In 1973, I changed jobs. I got a much bigger job, which meant more cash was coming in. Naturally, I started buying more paintings and became more or less obsessed with collecting. At first I didn’t have any clear vision of what kind of collection I wanted to have. What I did decide though is that I could relate more to art by black artists, and later on, by African artists. So the collection began to take on a theme.

I came back to Ghana in 1992. From the US in 1975, I went straight to Cote D’Ivoire. I lived there for 20 years. So I was back in Africa and I began to collect mostly West African paintings, by Senegalese, Ghanaian, and Malian artists. Then in 1992, when I came back to Ghana, I decided to focus on contemporary Ghanaian art. Now, the core of the collection has become contemporary Ghanaian art. I would say that I have paintings by all the important artists in Ghana. It has become the largest private collection in Ghana.

That is why I created the foundation. I asked myself, ‘What am I going to do with these paintings?’ I didn’t want to sell them, so I created a foundation and donated the paintings to the foundation. We have a small gallery to exhibit some of the paintings from time to time so the public can see and experience them.

Our ultimate aim is to donate the collection to the National Museum, assuming the National Museum will be able to take good care of them one day. Right now, they can’t. There is very poor management, they don’t have the proper staff and conservation efforts are slim. For now, the paintings will remain with us. Maybe, long term we will build a Museum of Contemporary Art in Ghana with better management.

How would you describe the thematic or stylistic turning points in the art you have collected?

Initially, I was just buying to buy. Then around 1975, the collection became more African and finally, more Ghanaian. The collection has paintings by everybody – Europeans, Americans, Africans – but I am especially interested in the works of up and coming Ghanaian artists.  

 What would you say is the best exposure that young emerging artists have?

The best exposure is in the galleries. Every gallery has a mailing list of art lovers who are invited to see new work as it is shown. This gives the artist the opportunity to showcase his or her work in the right community of people. There is another thing that goes on in Ghana. Some of the hotels, for example the Golden Tulip, give wall space to young artists to display their paintings. It’s a kind of symbiotic relationship because it also brings clients to the hotels. It is good for the hotels, it’s good for the artist and it’s good for the clients. Visitors are exposed to local artwork, and local artists are exposed to outside clients. Because of this, a lot of our best paintings are outside of Ghana.

The economy in Ghana is such that people don’t have a lot of disposable income. Art buyers for the most part are diplomats and foreign residents. Some of the best work in Ghana can be found in the homes of those at the American Embassy or even Peace Core. Exposure remains an issue, but over the years I have observed that Ghanaian art has become more mature, more international and more competitive.

 But the problem is also that Ghanaians, because of the economic situation, are not buying art.

They are buying art more now than before. A few people like us set up galleries and hold openings and exhibitions. When we host an exhibition, we make sure to invite a large pool of people. On the opening day we may get as many as 600 people. At these gallery openings, you tend to meet the same people, the same crowd of art enthusiasts.

Is there a growing awareness in the local community about what is going on in the contemporary art world, even though people aren’t necessarily buying?

There is definitely a growing awareness in the community. But you must consider that newspapers still don’t have art critics or even art sections. There are a lot of gaps in the chain. We need more galleries and better management. The National Museum is incompetent and dysfunctional.

What about the gap between what is taught in schools and what is expected at the industry level?

The students graduating from local art schools are not equipped with what I call a “survival kit.” They leave university and are completely lost about what to do and where to go. It is very discouraging. They need somebody to hold their hand. I have talked to many art students over the years. They all struggle to find direction, especially since their families often don’t support their career path. Even the best art students are discouraged from pursuing art.

How do you decide what art to collect? 

Right now, I think I have a complete, comprehensive representation of Ghanaian art. So I will only buy art that is going to fill a gap, something I think I should have but I don’t have.  So, actually I like to go to look at old art and see if people will sell it to me to fill a gap in my collection. Right not, it’s not so much new paintings, but old ones, especially by some of the old masters.

What do you think about the transition of art from the gallery space to the streets?

I have seen that happen. Unfortunately, the impulse and demand for that comes from the public rather than from the artists.

In James Town they have an annual street festival, the Chale Wote, and it has become more and more popular and artistic. I hope we will keep it up. I think the economy also has an impact on the growth of art. When the economy was growing, we had open art auctions and more frequent exhibitions.

How are people beginning to understand art differently now?

It’s spotty. Some people with an interest in art don’t understand the historical timeline behind it. They don’t know how it used to be, but they are interested now. They can’t give you a historical perspective of what is happening. I am beginning to see more installations, and this is encouraging. Though, I take installations with a grain of salt. Some are total rubbish.

What is your dream or vision for the contemporary art scene in Ghana?

The first priority should be to build a new museum of contemporary art so the world can see what is here.