By Damali and Nii B. Andrews.
Many years ago, at least one of us became wired to sleep with an eye open and to reach for the phone after the first ring!
But on that pre dawn Monday morning, the caller’s name portended trouble and sure enough, the terse news was devastating; our BIG Brother, Nii Allotey Odunton now belonged to the ages.
It was in the early 80s in New York City that he earned the appellation – BIG Brother; the suave, urbane, taciturn, upwardly mobile professional with the drop dead Armani suits accessorised with deep navy socks that had Rasta colors of Red, Gold and Green at the rim.
When he sat in at high powered meetings, he judiciously placed his legs and feet so that the colors peeked at discreetly just below his cuffed trousers.
It was obvious where his allegiance lay; as part of the first generation that came of age in a sovereign, independent and free Ghana; his pan African credentials and sensibilities were never in doubt and he strove to be the best at what he did.
Nii Allotey became the defacto untiring patron of Damali’s fashion troupe – a high spirited but poised and disciplined multinational group of young ladies who pioneered the showcasing of African fashion – textiles, clothing, jewelry and natural hair styles in New York City.
What was then a striking novelty has now gone mainstream.
His abiding love for African clothing and style was unsurpassed; a true denizen of the multiple textured organic fabrics with their variegated patterns that have yielded the sensuous draped design cuts of authentic and avant-garde African women’s style.
And he simply adored the male robes particularly the hip modern flowing silhouettes initiated by Jimi King that were a must have for the purveyors of elegance, the rakes and cognoscenti; even the finer elements of the classic batakari were also well within his purview.
It was in his 15th floor apartment overlooking the East River with its classic mid century furniture that we were introduced to and able to begin honing our perspective on an aesthetic elan that put contemporary African art (CAA) firmly in the center – thus establishing an uncompromising devotion and attention to African artistic talent as it continues to evolve and update itself for modern life on the continent and in the diaspora.
The thick leather strips of the Wassily arm chairs, the wood and glass table by Noguchi and Eileen Grey chrome and glass side tables, bokhara rugs, Bolgatanga leather pouffes and white lilies in clear pear shaped glass vases all gave his apartment tremendous mojo when paired with walls featuring the large striking CAA paintings; the Ablade Glover town and market scapes; the rampaging horsemen of Ato Delaquis; Amon Kotei’s market queens and domestic matriarchs; Baule tapestry with beige backgrounds and striking animated deep chocolate masked figures.
Also present were slender, elongated over one foot high brass figures from the Sahel which clearly had inspired Alberto Giacometti; Fon betises to chuckle over; Asante gold weights and the visual jazz of kente and bogolan cloths either highlighted on the walls or strategically strewn on the back or arm rest of the huge off white leather modernist sofa.
The always perfectly polished parquet floors together with the spectacular and tasteful collection of CAA made the apartment a poignant lesson in the glorious aesthetic reach of the African genius.
And when as often happened BEAUTY FULL people gathered there to enjoy Nii Allotey’s always impecabble hospitality – with Mory Kante, or Fela or Hugh Masekela or Lady Smith Black Mambozo playing cooly on the solid sound system; we were inspired to strive harder towards the new Africa – a place that will regain its rightful pre eminent place in the world.
We listened in awe to his occasional quiet and confident short explanations on the extent of our continent’s mineral wealth and particularly the riches that abound in its seabed and beyond.
It was therefore not at all surprising that he rose to become the Secretary General of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a position he held with distinction for two terms that encompassed eight years.
The fact that the ISA Museum is named after him is a solid testimonial to his professional excellence.
In a quiet, unobtrusive but determined way, he was one of the early and most committed patrons of CAA in all its myriad forms of excellence; fashion and hair design, painting, sculpture, textiles and music; through his perspective he influenced cultural history by supporting and preserving the work of many artists; he also inspired younger people like us to start collecting CAA.
The current worldwide surge in artistic and commercial interest for CAA is a resounding testament to the aesthetic sophistication and resilience of otherwise unsung and largely unknown pioneering indigenous African patrons such as Nii Allotey Odunton who nurtured and supported the genre with their own resources until it gained international traction.
For this we owe him an eternal debt of gratitude and will never forget him.
It is our fervent prayer that his gentle soul will find favor at the Throne of Grace as we offer our condolences to his family.
Rest in Peace our dear BIG Brother.