Yoruba prince, untrained artist, legal practitioner, chartered engineer, stockbroker, marketer, assets and investment director, corporate and statutory boardroom guru and art collector. Prince Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon is multi-faceted, much like his collection of art. Acknowledged to own the largest private collection—over 7,000 artworks—of classic, modern and contemporary art in Nigeria, Prince Yemisi Shyllon is “consumed by the arts.”
Hailing from Abeokuta, in Ogun State of Nigeria, Prince Yemisi Shyllon is of the Sogbulu and Ogunfayo lineage of the Laarun royal ruling house of Ake in Egbaland. Perhaps it is this historical lineage that drew Prince Yemisi to classic works of Nigerian art. Perhaps instead, it is the need to drive “psychological and physical preparation” that lead to the establishment of the Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation (OYASAF) in 2007 and the launch of Nigeria’s first privately-funded public museum, the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art (YSMA) at the Pan Atlantic University in October 2019. The launch of the museum came with a promise of 10 years of contributions into subsidising the operational funding of the museum, along with 1,000 works from Prince Yemisi Shyllon’s personal collection including ancient art from Benin, Ife and Nok artists; modern artworks by Aina Onabolu, Ben Enwonwu, Uche Okeke, Yusuf Grillo, Nike Okundaye, and Bruce Onobrakpeya; and contemporary artworks by El Anatsui, Lamidi Fakeye, Ayobola Kekere-Ekun, Victor Ekpuk, Aina Onabolu, Peju Alatise, and Victor Ehikhamenor among many others.
Who better then than Prince Yemisi Shyllon to guide us through the evolving art market in Nigeria? We speak to him about his collection, his views on how visitor perceptions can be changed regarding historical works, and his hopes for the future of art in Nigeria in this Collector Spotlight.
I am an untrained artist. As a child, I was consumed by virtual art and was often found drawing sketches. A relative ended up with a career in the visual arts through his early association with me when we were kids. But I eventually went into engineering. During my university years, while studying in the library of Yaba Tech, Lagos, I stumbled upon and became enthralled by artworks exhibited by students majoring in art. I would often forget myself in those exhibitions. That is how my nascent interest in art was reactivated and I began to collect small works of art, mostly made up of contemporary sculptures. When I started collecting art as an undergraduate at the University of Ibadan in the mid-1970s, visual art had virtually little monetary value in Nigeria. You could buy a piece of Nigerian very top, good and modern art, for 20,000 Naira only. Today, that same piece would sell for millions of naira.
As time went on, I diversified into traditional art, contemporary art, and then photography—documenting Nigeria's many cultural festivals. In 2007, I set up the Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation (OYASAF), a non-profit organisation established to promote the appreciation and study of Nigerian art, artists and culture.
My initial interest in art grew to become a passion but it is now a glorious obsession. In the process of building my collection and equally managing my foundation (OYASAF), has helped PhD scholars from different parts of the world, to study and relate with Nigerian art, artists, and art institutions. Those students also had access to my library and travelled around with me extensively, to gather primary and secondary data for their PhDs. Curators of museums have visited my collection and I have delivered speeches and lectures at top universities around the world. My foundation also hosts an artists residency program, through which Victor Ekpuk and some twenty other local and international artists have benefited.
The foundation has covered and documented many of our clearly disappearing cultural festivals all over Nigeria and the Benue Republic. There is nothing evil or demonic about our cultural masquerades. Every human spiritual belief is open to abuse, thus our people, government officials and leaders should not stigmatise our culture on the basis of this very minute interpretation of our culture. I am devoting my life to promoting the value of our cultural social integration, across the many cultures of our people, promoting the music, art, dance, dress, economic systems, literature, and indigenous guiding philosophies in the culture of hundreds of ethnic groups, that make up Nigeria. My goal is devoted to promoting everything that is African. Our culture is not inferior to those of others in the world.
"My initial interest in art grew to become a passion but it is now a glorious obsession."
We have been largely indoctrinated against the values of our indigenous cultures. We have been made to believe that our culture is demonic and thus should be jettisoned for those of others. We have been made to believe that our culture is of low esteem when compared to other cultures. We have been made to equate culture solely with religion. The average Black African sees culture from the prism of religion and religion only.
When you find people in administrative positions of power in black Africa—those responsible for managing our cultural heritage—perceiving museums, as ‘houses of juju’, is it then any wonder that our public museums are not being properly funded and managed? The average Nigerian will not exhibit our works of art and ethnographic or archaeological objects in his home. They will naturally not go near any old or new cultural Egungun costumes around them.
I was very pleased when the Pan-Atlantic University took interest in my proposal to establish my museum on their grounds. However, there was an interesting experience before the agreement was reached to launch the museum when some members of staff of the university were being taken around on familiarisation. A professor of the university was heard exclaiming that, “we are bringing evil spirits into the campus”. This shows us the extent to which we are myopic about art and museums in Nigeria, no matter the level of our exposure and education. We must, therefore, continue to educate the leaders of our Continent to see the values in our culture and to realise that culture is our unique identity as a people. Any society that does not glorify its culture, is like a tree without its roots, it will eventually die.
I have travelled to India, to see what the Maharajas have done to glorify and dignify their culture. I have travelled to China and Japan where Buddhism thrives. I have visited some Arabian countries where the Muslim religion does not prevent them from investing in their culture. A UAE museum in Dubai showcases what life before Dubai became an ultra-modern city. In Black Africa, we do not celebrate our indigenous cultures but denigrate and demean them. We fear, disregard, and distance ourselves away from our indigenous cultures. We ignore our indigenous cultures. We smear our indigenous cultures with the colouration of being religiously evil.
In my homes in Lagos and Abeokuta, we have video recorded “Egungun festivals” playing on loop for guests to watch and enjoy. They are forced to watch the videos while they sit, awaiting my arrival. They are forced to view, think, and ask questions about our culture. I have given lectures at universities in Nigeria, for which, during one of such lectures—on cultural development and tourism in Nigeria—I was asked by a pastor if, I was calling for more shrines to be built for Esu, Sango, and Obatala. I asked, "what is Esu?" He replied, "It is the devil." I had to educate him that he was interpreting the Bible outside the confines of Yoruba culture, mythology, and language. In Yoruba mythology, we do not have an extra human form for the devil. Evil and good resides within all humans, as equally stated in the book of Isaiah, chapter 45 verse 7 of the King James Version of the Bible, where it states that “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” My forefathers regarded Esu as a trickster and, as the messenger of Olodumare (God), to execute God’s judgments. Yet, some equate Esu with the devil, when in reality, every one of us has good and evil within us. Rev Ajayi Crowther, in his wrong interpretation of the Yoruba Esu to the English Bible, created this long-lasting and now endemic misrepresentation in our lexicon, literature, language, and understanding of Esu in Yoruba mythology.
I am worried. I am worried about the demand for the return of African art to their places of origin without our people’s preparations—psychologically, technically, provision of necessary facilities, scientific and infrastructural preparations. How many of those clamouring for these works to be returned home have African art in their homes? We were recently visited in our home here in Lagos, by a delegation of engineers from Abeokuta. They had visited the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art before visiting us. I asked about how many of them had previously visited any of our National Museums in Nigeria. None had! I asked why and they stated that "those works are full of juju". These are the same elites who are clamouring for the return back to Nigeria, of our well catered for, cultural objects in European and American homes and museums. Do we have the existing capacity to treat these works well? We must first prepare ourselves physiologically and reorientate our people to give our artworks and cultural objects the respect they deserve. As it stands, our public museums are operating in isolation of our general public.
"I want to leave with a legacy. I want to have contributed towards Nigerians and Africans knowing what they are. I hope this museum can serve as a catalyst for art in Nigeria and in the Continent."
The global art market appears to be within the grips of a mafia. An American Art History professor, once told me, "Yemisi, don't waste your time collecting African cultural objects. Concentrate on modern and contemporary art. The Western mafia will not allow an African to take away the value of African cultural art from them."
In general, works of art were taken away, both by force and through taking advantage of the docility and civility of our forebears. Many of our precious cultural artworks were taken away. Those currently holding our works, outside our shores, have since heavily invested and expended so many resources and much energy in building solid brands out of them, marketing and promoting them, and generating huge employment opportunities around these indigenous and historical cultural African works of art.
So, they cannot easily be expected to tolerate a Nigerian, claiming to have some works of art which are probably of similar quality to those being propagated as major 'finds', existing in Western Museums and homes. Western dealers thus tend to relegate the collection of traditional art held by Africans and preferably promote and propagate those that have Western provenance. For example, if anyone in Africa were to claim to have an Olowe of Ise, Igbo Ukwu, Benin, Ife or Nok work of art, I would guess that some of these Western assessors would claim emphatically, that they are not original. But what they forget is that many families continued to worship “their gods”, in shrines and those who took away our works, therefore, did not have access to the works leftover in many family shrines. There were nobles in Nigeria that were not “Oba”, but who also kept some of these objects of our indigenous cultural art, in their homes and shrines.
But I must admit that there is an increasing number of fakes and forgeries around us and we do not locally have the equipment nor the know-how, to scientifically determine the age of these works. In the past, when I was still actively collecting historical works, I would travel to shrines and see the works in their original state. Local dealers would also bring works to me, but I quickly learned to easily notice the differences in quality. People have devised ways to trick buyers into purchasing fake works of cultural art. There are, however, indeed many Nigerians who hold valuable historical works in their collections.
So, in 2009, as I was increasingly noticing the challenges posed by forgers and thinking to the advice of the professor to concentrate on modern and contemporary artworks, I started to slow down in collecting our historical indigenous cultural works.
Also, the burning cry and debate for restitution, has led to the slowdown of my collection of historical works of art, but rather concentrate on our neo-traditional, modern, contemporary and photographic works of art.
I have just learned that the curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum of Oxford University, wants to return the Benin works in their museum back to Africa. But the question arises as to how prepared we are to rightly receive, manage, and handle those works on their return. Are we psychologically ready? Are we infrastructurally ready, technically ready, scientifically ready? These works may only go to join the bulk of those in our public museums that are being badly managed.
Some people are reported to have just returned to Nigeria, a terracotta work of art that is said to be 600 years old. Did the work come with a dated authentic age certificate or was it simply labelled as a 600-year-old work because someone said so? Did we carry out any carbon-dating of the terracotta work to determine its age?
Instead of clamouring for the return of our heritage works of art in Western museums and homes, why do we not leave those works with the West, but have those institutions that are currently holding them admit and agree to our legal title to the works? Why don’t we have them pay annual royalties to us for those works, as the original owners, until we are ready to manage them? For instance, if they were to admit that the Olokun head, collected by Frobenius, belongs to Nigeria and that it is now worth some tens of millions of pounds, why do we not all agree as current holders of the work, we receive 1% annual royalty of the value of the piece, with such an agreement incorporating a renewal option of say, every 20 years? The holders of our works can also be made to agree to assist in our preparedness, in our ability to better manage the works according to international standards.
As to the repeated statement that “they were looted, just send them back to where they belong”, I say: the world has evolved! There is currently a globally acknowledged and preferred way to manage works of art. To preserve them, you have to build a place to house and conserve those works. You have to continuously invest to document, showcase, conserve, preserve, and conduct research on those works. Yes, we have national museums in Nigeria, but what is the state of those museums? Are they well managed? Let us now consider those works that were not taken away. What have we done with them? We should search our conscience for our true intentions and extent of commitments into preserving our indigenous culture. We must investigate our capacities and resources, search our spiritual dispositions and attitudes to those works and of course, question our religious misbelieves. Do we truly love the works? If the works were to be returned, will they not steeply lose their current high values?
As an example, I recently assisted a university in Nigeria to restore a 1952, 10ft by 3ft painting by Ben Enwonwu. The work was later unfortunately recovered from outside the university building, in a trash heap! That work by Enwonwu would now sell for about 70 million Naira. This illustratively sums up the true situation that we face in promoting art and culture in Nigeria. We generally do not currently fully appreciate the value of our indigenous culture.
The one that stands out most in my collection is an Ife bronze head that was scientifically dated to be 650 years old in 2014. It is now in the YSMA at the PAU museum. Another favourite is a Benin bronze water spirit figure. I also have some Olowe of Ise works: epa masks and an agere ifa. I love the dynamism and movement of Olowe's carvings.
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The first is Dr. Adeola Balogun, I met him in 1996. Olumide Oresegun is another—I have about thirty of his works—Innocent Oboh, Kesa Babatunde, Clara Aden, Tolu Aliki, Kelani Abass, Omolaja Endurance, Ahmed Abiodun, Louisa Spyratos, Ozuma Patrick, Armstrong Udohchukwu, Paul Ogunlesi, among many others. I keep tabs on them all, mentor them and monitor many of these great talents.
I look for contemporary artists that strongly and meaningfully express messages in their works. Do their works evoke passion? What is the quality of their composition? Indeed, many factors go into pricing contemporary artworks. One also has to look at the number of exhibitions the artist has carried out and the quality of their collectors. What is the quality and composition of the peer group of the artist? To what extent has the artist's works travelled? The passion of the artist in his works, the mix and balancing of materials and so on.
The Nigerian government is not very much investing in the art industry. To date, Nigeria does not have a standard and befitting exhibiting national gallery of art, for displaying the extent, beauty, strength, and quality of artworks and creativity of her artists. We also need art centres to encourage Nigerian artists to produce more works. Many of the major works that are being sold through our art auction houses are leaving our shores and may never return to Nigeria.
Generally, most Nigerians have the negative attitude that these sculptures are demonic. For instance, the average Nigerian visitor to our homes would usually be uneasy. I get comments like, "I don’t know how you manage to live with these things. Don’t these things pursue you at night?"
Nigerians are more receptive to paintings because paintings are two-dimensional. There is also the problem of undue monetisation of the value of artworks, with people often asking questions about the price tag of artworks in collections. To these questions, I do not generally give answers. I want visitors to only enjoy and appreciate my collection for art's sake. I am not interested in their monetary value. That's why I selflessly granted some 1,000 artworks to the YSMA at PAU for public enjoyment, appreciation, research, the development of Nigeria’s culture and artists.
Potential collectors should first learn to appreciate and understand the real value of art, before collecting. They should not only collect based on impulse or just copying others.
Secondly, they should not look at art from an investment point of view only. They should look more in terms of how you can use art to develop artists, create tourism employment and expand the frontiers of creativity in our country. They should think more about how we can engage artists to develop our country and Continent through the utilisation of our valuable and abundant talent in art. They should generally aim to give more than just receiving. Art should be appreciated beyond just money. They should aim to give back to their society.
They should concentrate on enjoying the beauty, joy, and pleasure of art while taking the time to look out for how we can help to expand the frontiers of our society through art. We should uncover how art and culture can be used to develop our nation in tourism and its associated benefit of promoting employment.