This year, our Focus feature shifts from highlighting the practices of emerging
and established artists to giving prominence to the practices of the rising
number of collectors of Modern and Contemporary African art. In this edition,
Bisi Silva interviews the Nigerian collector Prince (Engr.) Yemisi Shyllon
about the history and highlights of his art collection.
1) Bisi Silva: You started collecting art as a student; what inspired your incredible passion for art?
Prince (Engr.) Yemisi Shyllon: As a student of engineering at the University of Ibadan in the seventies, I depended very much on reading in the library of the Yaba College of Technology, Lagos during my holidays. In those days, Yaba Tech was highly patronised by all students living around that vicinity. When I took my break from reading I would spend about thirty minutes walking around. During such walks, I would spend substantial time looking and marveling at the sculptural works of students on display at the demonstration area of Yaba Tech Art Faculty. This eventually gave way to my strong interest in collecting sculptures long before collecting paintings. At the universities of Ibadan and Ife where I had hostel accommodations, I kept my small
sized sculptural pieces in my rooms and kept the large ones in my uncle’s residence in Ibadan. In 1981, after my MBA at the University of Ife, I moved into my first three bedroom at Ketu on the outskirts of Lagos and assembled all my sculptural pieces into my flat. I fondly remember that my landlord did not believe I had just graduated from school; he wondered how the art had been financed. I must mention that while I was studying for my MBA at Ife, I worked part time as a physics and mathematics teacher at the Anglican Grammar School, Ife. I used the money made from teaching to buy art and shares, two activities which had consumed my time and any excess funds I derived from my family, family members and scholarship funds. At that early stage I bought
works that caught my fancy from around me in Lagos, Ibadan, Enugu, Benin and Ife.
|Some sculptures of OYASAF collection.|
2) BS: What informs the choices that you make? How do you decide on what to buy? How would you rationalize your collection?
YS: My choices are influenced in varying degrees by the intuitive appeal of the work, the artist, the depth of artistic dexterity in the work, the age of the work, etc. I also consider the medium of the artwork and in the case of sculpture the anatomical form and balance of the work. The balance of colours in the artwork, the style of the artist, the creative appeal of the artist, my knowledge of the history and position of the artist, the size of the artwork, my expectations in the type of artwork (e.g. whether modern or traditional), and of course the appropriateness of the price. All of the above parameters influence my decision as to what to buy, very much beyond just what takes my fancy.
Consequently, the rationale behind my collection is two-fold. Before full consciousness of my role and responsibility, I collected primarily with the aforementioned criteria in mind. Above all I collected art with a view to satisfying my passion for artworks, to decorate my environment and to satisfy my immeasurable pleasure in owning art and always being surrounded by them—whether at home or in the office. However, I later grew conscious of the need for me to contribute to promoting Nigeria’s art and culture through my collection, in the absence of other infrastructure, for the benefit of preserving our art, history, way of life and heritage. At this later stage, my reasoning
expanded to include in-depth research on the history of Nigerian art. This enabled me to discover the void with regards to our art history, and in relation to the works in my collection. As a result of this, I began to work towards filling those gaps as much as possible. This is part of what led to the incorporation of the family run art foundation, (Omooba Yemisi Shyllon Art Foundation) OYASAF. My personal collection is now legally owned by OYASAF while I hold in trust, the equitable interest in the artworks, on behalf of my family art foundation. The over 6,000 artworks in the OYASAF collection is a strong statement about my passion for visual art and culture of Nigerian in all ramifications, ranging from modern and traditional Terracotta, life-size bronzes, metal, wood, plaster, stone and fiberglass sculptures, as well as modern and contemporary paintings from earliest pioneers of Modern Art in Nigeria such as AinaOnabolu, Okaybulu, Ugoji, Akinola Lashekan amongst others. The classical African works cover substantial geographical spread including Igbo Ukwu, Benin, Owo, Ife, to Eket, Ogoni,
Bazinge. From Ijebu, Egba, Yewa, Ekiti, Ilorin, Nok to the Jebba region.
3) BS: Cultural philanthropy is at its embryonic stage in Nigeria and throughout Africa. We do not yet have the equivalent of the Gettys or the Astors or the Rockefellers. Recently you set up OYASAF. Can you please tell us more about the genesis and necessity for this foundation?
YS: The incorporation and formation of the Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation was engendered primarily by the realization of the sheer size of the collection of artworks acquired over the past three decades. I felt it was important to formally set up a foundation to safeguard the collection for future generations.
Additionally through OYASAF’s collection, we have implemented a variety of educational programmes which include providing fellowships for scholars through OYASAF fellows which has attracted nine fellows since 2009. We also support visual art workshops for artists as well as for children. We have lent work to museums for exhibitions. Publications of OYASAF’s collection are a high priority in making information accessible to a wider audience. The premise for our activities is to contribute to the development of Nigerian art, to foster exchange between Nigerian artists and scholars/researchers, and above all to curb the flight of Nigerian art and artists from the country. And of course to present Nigeria’s visual
art to the world.
4) BS: In the absence of government interest in supporting the visual arts—the National Endowment Fund for the Arts has yet to be implemented and the lack of a adequate Museum of contemporary Art constitutes an enormous infrastructural deficit, which limits the level of artistic and curatorial professional development in the country. Taking this into consideration how do you see Nigerian artists competing globally without the requisite physical and intellectual nourishment and platforms?
YS: Well, I have been asked this question many times and my answer has always been
to the effect that Nigerians would usually do well with or without these supports, but such support would create a needed competitive edge. We didn’t have these supports yet we bred the first nobel prize winner in literature, the Professor Mabogunjes, Awojobis, the Fela Anikulapo-Kutis, the Yusuf Grillos, Bruce Onabrakpeyas, David Dales and many more excellent artists and academics. That is my position on this.
5) BS: Which is your favorite work in your collection and why?
YS: This is a difficult question to answer given the sheer volume and diversity of my collection. I will therefore attempt to answer your question in relation to the different classifications of the collection. Now, with respect to painting, my favorite is the 16ft by 8ft beadwork by David Dale titled “As The Evening Falls” (1994) this made me brake the wall of my house just to bring it in for hanging. As for traditional art, it is a Gelede headdress with the super structure of an EPA mask in my collection. With neo-traditional art, it is the approximately 13ft x 3ft x 3ft sculptural piece by the late Lamidi Fakeye titled “IFA Story Of Creation” executed as a commission from 2004 to 2007. In the modern sculpture section, pride of place goes to the original mould in plaster from which all copies of Ben Enwonwu’s globally famous “Anyawu” – the risen sun—was produced. As for photography it is the image of a small time petrol dealer sleeping
with plastic jerrycans in his wheelbarrow,which is used to hawk his petrol to buyers.
This photograph taken in 2009 is by Ariyo Oguntimehin.
6) BS: What does your collection say about you?
YS: There are over six thousand artworks in the OYASAF collection, which I believe makes a bold statement about the obsession for Nigeria’s visual art. It includes work ranging from modern and traditional Terracotta, lifesize bronze, metal, wood, plaster, stone and fiberglass sculptures as well as modern and contemporary paintings from Nigeria’s pioneer artists such as Aina Onabolu, Okaybulu, Ugoji, Akinola Lashekan amongst others. Traditional artworks are from all the geographical areas of Nigeria ranging from Igbo Ukwu, Benin, Owo, Ife, Eket, to the Ekiti, Ilorin, Nok, and Jebba.
7) BS: Are there any African artists whose work you don’t have, but feel would complement your collection? If so, who?
YS: The African artists whose works are not represented at OYASAF but who would complement our collection include : Yinka Shonibare MBE, Skunder Bhogosian