Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon, a prince of Ake in Abeokuta, Ogun State of Nigeria, studied engineering at the University of Ibadan, Law at the University of Lagos, the Nigeria Law School, and earned his MBA from University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University).
Recently, this former marketing manager with Tractor and Equipment (a division of UACN) and one time marketing director and legal adviser to Nigerite Limited, was a subject of a feature by The Financial Times of London. The publication celebrated Shyllon who has over 7,000 artworks of sculptures, paintings, other media , as well as over 55,000 photographic shots of Nigeria’s fast disappearing cultural festivals valued in billions of Naira, collected over a period of about 40 years. In fact, FT wrote that Shyllon is among the best 100 private art collectors in the world and number 1 in Africa.
The artworks in Syllon’s collection, as Wikipedia puts it, are dated from as early as the 9th century and as late as the 21st century. They include the works of both earliest and latest Nigerian contemporary artists, such as Aina Onabolu, Akinola Lasekan, Ben Enwonwu, Okaybulu Eke, Nike Davis-Okundaye, Charles Shainumi, Okpu Eze, Clary Nelson Cole, Kolade Osinowo, David Dale, Simon Okeke, Isiaka Osunde, Abayomi Barber, Olu Amoda, El Anatsui, Ben Osawe, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Lara Ige-Jacks, Susanne Wenger, Theresa Akinwale, Uzo Egonu, Jimoh Akolo, Lamidi Fakeye, Uche Okeke, Erhabor Emopkae, Kunle Filani, Tola Wewe, Yusuf Grillo, Adeola Balogun, Olawunmi Banjo and Oresegun Olumide.
Recently, Prince Shyllon granted ADEMOLA ADEGBAMIGBE, TheNEWS Editor (and photographer, AYODELE EFUNLA) an audience in his Lagos home to speak on his collection of works of art, what fired his zeal in the endeavour, the Pan-Atlantic University art museum, the campaign to bring back artefacts carted off to Europe and America by the colonialists and others.
Congratulations on your international recognition as Africa’s number one art collector. In fact, The Financial Times of London wrote that you are among 100 art collectors in the world and no 1 in Africa. Let me start by asking you, what actually fired your interest in the collection?
To start with, I can draw very well. Indeed, many times when I go for board meetings, I find myself sketching. I did Visual Art up to some level in my secondary school but because of my flair for Mathematics and the erroneous belief then that you had to be a science student to be regarded as ingenuous or a successful person (very erroneous), I abandoned Visual Art in my secondary school days and went in for the sciences. But when I was studying at the University of Ibadan, I had cause to regularly read during the holidays at the Yabatech library, because of the closeness of my grand father’s house in Yaba to Yabatech. That is how I got attracted and developed interest in collecting artworks by relating with the array of the display of students demonstration artworks at Yabatech while a student in the university. Thus as an engineering undergraduate in the university, I ended up collecting artworks. I have been doing that for some 40 years.
Now the museum you are establishing with the Pan-Atlantic University, what fired that effort?
First of all, before I ceased being in paid employment, I didn’t put my mind very much into what I was doing, I was just enjoying my interest in buying artworks which grew into a passion and later, it became an obsession and by the time I was going to leave paid employment and engage myself in my own activities, I looked around me and saw that art was an area I could play a major role and leave a lasting legacy. I then registered a foundation, which is called Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation(OYASAF). Under OYASAF, I began my many art promotion activities. I started such activities by organizing an exhibition in August 2008, of my collection of the history of Nigerian modern art at the National Museum in Lagos. I followed it up with a joint exhibition with the Omooba Oladele Odimayo Foundation, of traditional art in our collections at the National Museum in November 2008. Thus the first exhibition organised by OYASAF of its collection, was in August 2008, of modern Nigerian art and the second was its traditional art collection . I thereafter had cause to benefit from an extensive tour of major art museums and institutions in the East Coast of the USA under the Foreign Visitors Leadership Program of the American Department of State in early 2009.
By the time I came back from this extensively educating trip, I had already made up my mind about what I was going to do with the artworks of OYASAF. I decided to look for a well managed institution that can sustain my legacy. It is one thing to build a place to house your works but it is another thing to have its management sustained because sustaining a museum is a very expensive and engaging venture which requires knowledgeable and determined commitment by those who will outlive you. Such therefore, should preferably be a registered, well managed, committed and on-going private institution. So, I looked around me and ended up identifying Pan-Atlantic University as an institution that was already engaged and shared in the value of what I was doing with art. They were already engaged with artists in exhibiting them in numerous exhibitions and have a sizeable collection of well managed artworks of their own.. .
What I was thus offering to partner with them to do was thus, nothing new to them. Before pitching with Pan-Atlantic University, I had looked around our public universities in Nigeria. I was not very convinced about the sustenance of my legacy if I partnered with any of them. Hence my prime reasons for the choice of Pan Atlantic University is their apparent shared value with me, in promoting Nigeria’s art and culture, their commitment and of course, they appear to be my best hope for sustaining my legacy in art for generations yet unborn for the good of my country, the world and humanity in general.
(cuts in) I thought OAU, Ife is strong in Arts…..
I will not go into any detailed personalisation but I will only say that public institutions in Nigeria did not appeal to me for the sustenance of my legacy. I don’t want a situation where I would selflessly grant out artworks for public good, which are worth about N4bn, at today’s market value only for the works to be privately converted or end up not properly managed and conserved. One stands the real risk of an institution handling the works, only for the works to end up in private collections or in the end, for the works to be sold out, in complete negation and defeat of my legacy intentions. These are the issues I was worried about . At the end of my search, I was able to identify Pan-Atlantic University as an institution that I could rely on to achieve my goal in selflessness and I thus entered into an agreement with them to build the Museum edifice, stock it and subsidise its operation and maintenance for 15 years. The original agreement was to donate some bulk money towards the building of the Museum and then subsidise its operations for a total of about N600 million in total. But after my donation of the initial commitment under the agreement, the university could not raise the money towards the completion of the Museum building. Of course, I guess if such money was sought from Nigerians towards building churches , mosques and organising parties, it would probably have not suffered the same fate. Apart from donating to such afore mentioned courses, we Nigerians are generally not known for selflessly giving. Some people have claimed that Nigerians are good at receiving and taking, as against selflessly giving. The university went around seeking for help and after being unable to raise funds towards the completion of the Museum building, I am now committed to releasing part of the sustenance subsidy funds under the agreement, towards completing the construction of the Museum structure. I hope by 2019 we should be able to complete it and the outstanding balance for the sustenance subsidy commitment, will be spread over 15 years.
The amount of money you have committed to this project is big, are some agencies abroad assisting one way or the other?
Why should we expect that multinational agencies would be interested in donating towards this cause, when we ourselves are not doing anything substantial? No. No. No. That issue does not arise. We Africans should not expect other people to help us to take care of our father’s backyard that we intend to eventually inherit. If you are looking forward to inheriting a place, you should spend your money to take care of it and not stay aloof, unconcerned and waiting, while the house is getting run completely down. Anyway, what has happened is that, I have had to sell some of my long held investments with a view to funding this private initiative, for public good. Some of my long accumulated investments are being sold to complete it. I believe very much in what I am doing and I hope that generations yet unborn will remember me for my selflessness and philanthropy. Given that while am alive and kicking , many local private individuals and international organisations are appreciating OYASAF, is enough impetus to continue . So I can see that what OYASAF is doing is very commendable and the world appreciates it. I am therefore further emboldened and encouraged to do what am doing.
How do you feel that foreigners recognise you but we don’t hear anything like that here?
I think in answering your question, one should consult our history of recognising meritorious contributions in Nigeria. From history, we do not easily give recognitions on merit. Look at Professor Wole Soyinka for instance, it took WS to get the Nobel Prize before my country recognised him and of course you know what he did, he threw away our national award. It appears that my country is such that our value system is different. What we value in my country is different from that of others. I will give you another example. A friend of mine called me yesterday to say that he wants to give artworks to some very important Nigerians. I said don’t waste your money, they may not very much appreciate it. I don’t blame the average Nigerian, for not appreciating artworks, because of our poor exposure to visual art, until recently. Where they do they would probably not place the kind of value which the outside world places on artworks. And of course no thanks to the seeming inversion of our values, the inverted value in religiosity in my country that tends to look at artworks as demonic and evil. This is in contrast with the situation of churches in Europe and America, which, from history were the major patrons of early Artists and which have used art to promote Christianity in their adornment of churches. Hence, churches were the major patrons of Michael Angelo , Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Paul Ruben, Van Ike(Jan van Eyck), Giovanni, etc.
If you visit the Vatican, you will see the collection of the Roman catholic church predating many of our pentecostal churches that are propagating wrong evaluations and perceptions about artworks to their followers and our society. You will be surprised on making such a visit. Please also visit the museum of ancient artworks in Brussels Central in Belgium in Europe to see artworks dating back in history. Go go to many museums in the advanced world and you will see what the western world have spent money, time and energy, over centuries, to put together, towards showcasing their culture, the essence of their society and their tradition to the world. My country is throwing away its tradition, culture and everything about its unique identity and throwing away the baby of our culture with its bath water without separating the baby of our culture from the bath water.
Apart from what you have told us about what your foundation has done so far, I want you to tell us more about your interventions
Let me start by saying that in 2008, we did an exhibition of the history of Nigerian modern art in our collection and then we followed it up by introducing an Omoba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Arts Foundation, OYASAF fellowship program by which OYASAF has hosted about 16 scholars from different counties of the world that have come to Nigeria to gather from our library, collection and others, the primary and secondary data on Nigerian art and culture for their PhD thesis on Nigerian art. 10 of them have successfully obtained their PhD, using the data that OYASAF facilitated for them in Nigeria. Secondly, we have also hosted art residencies, including that of Professor Lavergne of Western Michigan University in America, and our world renowned American -Nigerian artist, Victor Ekpuk. We have hosted and sponsored art workshops for children, arising from my experience on art visits around the world, where I have seen young children of ages 6,7,8,9 and 10 years being art tutored by similar organizations and OYASAF has also sponsored workshops for schools in Ife( Oyo) and in Uyo( Akwa Ibom) States . I have heard teachers of art in some places in Nigeria, lamenting that they are not adequately funded with materials to teach art in schools and have, as a result, been motivated in organizing art workshops for children in secondary schools.
OYASAF has from 2011, sponsored four workshop with the University of Lagos, in which about 1000 Nigerians, made up of artists and non artists have benefitted . In one of the them, the wife of the then Counsul General of the American Embassy facilitated the print making part of the workshop. We have hosted residencies for new graduates of Nigerian universities and polytechnics and OYASAF has also started an international art residency program in which we have hosted a Kenyan international artist. I have written a book in conjunction with Dr. Pogoson of the University of Ibadan on conversation with Lamidi Fakeye. It is a 200- page book. I have also written another book on the Yoruba traditional art in the OYASAF collection. We have organized academic seminars in discussing critical issues relating to Nigerian art and culture.
We have invited the egg heads in Nigerian universities to lead the discussions in these seminars and have published monograms of the seminars. I have endowed a professorial chair, the only Professorial chair in visual art in Nigeria at the University of Portharcourt We have an online international journal (tojah-online.org , which is a peer review journal, domiciled in the Faculty of Humanities, University of Port Harcourt, Port Harcourt, Nigeria). The journal has in its team, about 20 top scholars, including professors, from different universities of the world –namely, UK, South Africa, Germany, Nigeria and America, in which two major issues of the journal, has been published.
OYASAF regularly hosts a large number of top local and foreign government officials, visitors of foreign embassies to Nigeria, tourists to Nigeria, resident expatriates and Nigerian art stake holders. In doing this, we are exposing our art collection and culture to the world. We have encouraging comments from such visitors of our collection, at either Lagos and/or Abeokuta. Generally, OYASAF does not sell the artworks in its collection but only selflessly preserves Nigerian art and culture for the benefit of generations yet unborn of the world.
We have host school children who visit us to interact with and enjoy our life-size bronze, stone and metal garden and or treasured animals. Such hosting includes children from crèches and primary schools, who visit to play in our life- size bronze, stone and metal sculptured garden. We have a place here, for small children. The advantage of the visitation of visual art students of the universities and polytechnics to our collection, is that before such visits, many of them are only usually involved in the production of artwork, without having the opportunity to appreciate the great use and decorative value of their works in collections such as ours. Many of them express delightful surprise at seeing the decorative and pleasurable use of their here. In addition, we have documented some major fast disappearing cultural festivals across Nigeria. The documentation of those festivals can be found in our over 55,000 photographic shots of Nigeria’s fast disappearing cultural festivals. We have lent out our artworks to local and international exhibitions including the New York Museum of African Art for exhibitions spanning three and half years in five cities of the USA and Canada.
As to Nigeria’s fast disappearing cultural festivals, when I was growing up in Lagos in the 60s and early 70s, the igunuko masquerade could easily be found in Yaba, Lagos, especially during Christmas and Easter holidays. They have since disappeared from lagos scene during such periods. You cannot see Gelede masquerades in Lagos? Its gone. But these are festivals that need to be documented for posterity because they are gradually disappearing from around us. I fear that in some 30 years time, many such material symbols of the Nigerian culture would have disappeared even from our villages because of increasing globalization, increasing rural urbanization and “civilization” and of course no thanks to pentecostalism that is destroying our culture, out of the interplay between negative propaganda against our culture for selfish reasons and ignorance. The Pentecostal churches preach against our culture and if care is not taken, in some few years to come, it would be difficult to differentiate us culturally from the black Chinese, since we would not have significant cultural identity separating us from them. It is our culture that makes us different from the American, Chinese, Briton or others. Look at the way you are dressed, look at the way I am dressed. I am dressed as a Nigerian. My dress typifies our cultural identity and our cultural festivals represent the way of life of our forefathers, which have been passed on from generations to generations as a result of their interactions with man, nature and the environment. Hence in the interaction with their environment, themselves and nature, they ended up forming , customs, traditions and ways of behavior that have been passed on, through learning, from generations to generations.
Why should anyone now tell me that such traditions and customs are evil? In relating with our culture, it is only best that we should separate the baby from the bath water. We should carry out such separation in the same way that other races have done, over time. There used to be the practice of exorcism in the western man’s culture, they had witches in their culture, but they lynched them. Now that they have refined it, some of us wrongly assume that they have always had a refined culture as compared to ours. Why don’t we give our people the assistance to refine our culture, instead of condemning it, preaching against it and throwing it away? What I have been doing in the past eight years is to document our fast disappearing traditional festivals which represent the culture and identity of our people. We hope to, over time, publish the images gathered so far, in books, but right now, we are only lending them out, for local and international exhibitions.
Given your passion for art, has the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture approached you for advice or have you given them a blue print on how to preserve our cultural heritage?
I do Not have any comment about that.
There is an on- going international controversy. The controversy is old. The British carted away many artefacts from Benin when they deposed Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi in 1897 ( there is a movie on that, Invasion 1897). Have you in any way been part of this crusade to bring these artefacts back to Nigeria?
I cannot claim to be personally involved in this crusade. I have an uncle who is a professor of intellectual property who has been championing the cause on this issue, around the world and has intellectually contributed significantly in international organizations, universities and governments. He is the one best suited and qualified to answer this question.
Be that as it may, on the Benin cultural objects that some recently claimed to have returned to this country, it appears that nobody deemed it fit to carry out an age analysis of those works, with a view to ascertaining the authenticity of the claim as to the truthfulness of whether those returned works are genuinely as old as are claimed. No. Was there any effort made to that effect? No. Hence one is not sure that efforts were made to date those works claimed to be old Benin works, with a view to making sure that they are really our old works being returned. My first reaction to the return of our pillaged art works is that the ones we have here in our custody; are they being adequately taken good care of ? Not really. We appear not to be taking adequate care of them but here we are, clamoring for the return of those other works under adequate and effective conservation and preservation.
My recommended solution to this problem is either of the two two alternatives. The first alternative is that, those works that are out there should be acknowledged as not belonging to those people holding them in hostage but to us. In other words, we should separate the two titles to the works into legal title and possessory title. Now let my country go and discuss with some of the countries having possession of our works unlawfully and let them acknowledge that the legal title to those works belongs to my country. This way, they can continue to have the possessory title to those works in furtherance of propagating, researching and promoting the culture of my people and under this arrangement, they can continue to keep the works in good condition, on our behalf. But under this agreement, they must annually pay royalty to our country for being allowed the equitable title to the works while Nigeria retains the legal title to them subject to some say fixed years of negotiated reviews
I am not one of those clamoring for the works to be returned. My position is that we should go and discuss with them, let them acknowledge our ownership of the legal title to the works and let them pay us an annual fee that recognizes our legal title, but let them continue to hold and care for the works and do what they want to do with it but any time we want them for use, we would give them enough notice to have those works borrowed by us, for our use . A good example of the source of the controversy that you refer to, occurred In 1977 during Festac 77when Britain refused to lend our Ivory Idia head to us, for that event. A pre- existing agreement under this my suggested alternative, would have avoided this controversy. We should begin work towards arranging this kind of agreement
We must appreciate that those countries holding back to our artworks, have created extensive industries benefiting from those artworks. On the other here, we unfortunately regard those works, as demonic which should not so valued for some reasons. Even here for instance, some have expressed the fear that the works we hold here are being worshipped by me! I usually laugh in reaction.
My second alternative solution to this problem is that, instead of us clamoring for the return of those works, let us ask the United Nations to create a world museum in which the works that have been stolen and other works volunteered by different countries can be put in a world museum. In doing this, any of our works say, being held by the British, should be taken to the world museum and let those industries that are thriving in the use of the works continue to enjoy them along with others in the world Museum. Hence the world generally would own and enjoy the works in the world museum.
Such a world museum would operate under the same principles and practice as other world bodies like, the world health organization. So the world museum would hold all works in trust for the whole world. Holders of stolen works would relinquish possession of the works and move them to the world museum. All scholars, artists, leaders, tourists, etc would visit the world museum to enjoy the works.
When I read the Financial Times story I was happy. The name of one Moroccan was mentioned and another organisation in South Africa. Are you in any way in contact with them to do something for Africa?
To the best of my knowledge and at the risk of being immodest, I am the first black African to do what I am doing. I am not in contact with any of the two you mentioned, but I am aware of such development. I know that the ones in South Africa and Morocco are established by non black Africans. Hence I appear to be the first black African to be establishing a museum selflessly, for the benefit of the world. I am doing what I am doing because, I don’t want my life time labour in collecting art to be lost and I don’t want to transfer the burden of managing my works of art to my children. When you arrange for your children to inherit works of art and you preclude them from selling the works, you are effectively transferring the big burden of managing the works to them. Your children have their own lives to live, they have their own path to follow in life, so why transfer such burden to them? Why must I give them the cross of my own passion and obsession to carry for me?
So the reason why I am establishing the museum in partnership with Pan-Atlantic University, is to have a place where I can have experts to help keep my legacy alive without my children being burdened and to allow school children, visitors, scholars, curators and Artists to continue to interact with the works far more than the way they currently do. When the Museum is in a place, where the works would be adequately taken care of, then I can be rest assured that my labour will not be lost. Many people have their such labour go to waste because they collect and never prepare for what would happen to the works after they die. Hence the reason for the museum is to have not only a place where my country can be proud of but to establish the first sitting exhibition space of Nigerian modern art in the Yemisi Shyllon Museum, PAU. Again, such an institutionalized arrangement is much better placed to attract grants, international funding, organize cultural exchanges with the collection and better able to use the work to promote research and other academic engagements with the use of my works granted to the Museum. In Nigeria, have many galleries, but such a museum does not exist. This is probably because Nigerians would prefer to spend their money on extensive shopping, holiday visits to similar edifices outside our shores and hosting big parties. I on the other hand, would rather deprive myself of these but prefer promoting our culture which is the essence of our identity as a people.