Prince Yemisi Shyllon’s collection holds over seven thousand pieces. The Nigerian art collector spoke to our author and C& writing mentee Agwu Enekwachi about art, artists and his plan to establish Nigeria’s biggest privately funded public museum
Agwu Enekwachi: Art collection is not a common pastime for most people. So at what time did you discover your interest? When did you collect your first piece?
Prince Yemisi Shyllon: I was born with a certain art talent, but it was not nurtured fully due to the bias against art in comparison to science during my early school years. However, my latent interest in art was rekindled on viewing sculptures at the Yaba College of Technology’s Art and Design demonstration ground in Lagos. I was an engineering student at the University of Ibadan at the time and the experience led me to start collecting sculptures, especially wood carvings. The first work I collected was a stylized female form in 1975.
AE: Do you consider art collection an addiction or an obsession?
PYS: For me, collecting art is a glorious obsession that is very fulfilling and contributes to documenting and promoting the culture and heritage of a people. It is elitist and esoteric, but, most importantly, it sharpens the mind. If you have the opportunity to be a collector, you will find yourself drifting into it to the extent that you are constantly enamored in the realm of its complete beauty.
AE: With the number of works in your collection, how do you deal with issues of storage, documentation, and conservation?
PYS: We try to be creative with space. We have works on the walls, in the gardens and other spaces. Also some of my collections are outside of Lagos. Documentation is a painstaking process, but I once had assistance from the National Commission for Museums and Monuments. For three years they worked with my team to document my entire collection. We have been trying to update our records as more works are collected. Different materials have their own risk factors as we have noted over time, but conservators are invited at intervals to check on the works.
AE: How do you organize the works you collect? Are they arranged according to specific narratives, stylistic movements, or historical epochs?
PYS: I allow variations in my arrangement and it has to do with my aesthetic judgment and my insistence on having a good spread of all the genres of Nigerian art. For example in my office, you find works of antiquity cohabiting with modern, traditional African art and contemporary art pieces. Ben Osawe’s bronze works, sculptures by Olowe of Ise and pop art by Diseye Tantua share the same space.
AE: Some art collectors treasure their collections to the extent that values beyond money are ascribed to them. How much is your art collection a part of you? Would you let go of it for a price?
PYS: My collection is a very important part of my life. It is not about money, like I said earlier. Rather, I see it as my commitment to leaving a legacy that humanity can benefit from. For this aim, I am already parting with some of my pieces in addition to the funding that will achieve the establishment of Nigeria’s first privately funded public museum to be located in the Pan Atlantic University, Lagos.
AE: What is your relationship with artists like? Do you stay in contact with the artists whose works make up your collection?
PYS: Some of the artists whose works I have in my collection are unknown or late. Having good relationship with the artists is important to me especially those who are still productive. Apart from buying their works, I learn a lot through collaboration on the many art development programs that we engage in. I am interested in the provenance of any work of art and the artist is the focal point. Recently, in order to highlight the artist Lamidi Fakeye and his contexts, I co-authored and published a book on his works in my collection. Fakeye was a famous Nigerian wood carver of Yoruba tradition and I hold the largest collection of his works.
AE: You run an art foundation, tell us about its activities.
PYS: The Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation (OYASAF) was launched with an exhibition of Nigerian modern art history in August 2008. Since then, we have remained committed to collecting, research, publication and promotion, as well as photographic documentation of indigenous cultural festivals and practices. Through our annually sponsored Unilag art workshops which started in 2010, we have deepened art practice among many Nigerian artists and non-artists. In order to encourage interest in art, we organize art competitions for schools. Our other activities include: lectures on topical issues in art and residencies for graduate artists. Our current preoccupation is setting up an online journal for African art and establishing Nigeria’s first privately funded public museum, as I mentioned earlier.
AE: How does all of this make economic sense for you? Do you organize art auctions?
PYS: I don’t organize auctions from my collections, though I am an auctioneer for auction houses in Nigeria, when invited. I have also served as a member of several jury panels to select art works for auctioning. When I started collecting, it was for its own sake. With time, I realized I was documenting the political, cultural and social life and history of a part of my interactive space of human existence and this has become a motivation for me.
AE: The role of art collectors in art history is well documented. Where do you see your collection fitting into this role now or in the future?
PYS: I believe my collection will be historically significant because I have invested in lasting edifices that will enable people to view, research, enjoy and talk about it for centuries to come. Art collection is a comparatively silent activity in Nigeria that is yet to be given due recognition. We unfortunately have a situation where religious organizations demonize our art, especially sculptures, forgetting that some of the greatest patrons of art in world history are religious institutions. Many people ignore the importance of art to the world’s cultures and heritage, and that we owe a duty to humanity to promote it.
Agwu Enekwachi is a Sculptor, Art teacher and freelance writer. He is currently an MFA student in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He participated in the Culture Journalism Workshop organized by Contemporary And in Lagos, Nigeria.