Nigerian mega-collector Prince Yemisi Shyllon discloses his intentions

Zihan Kassam

“It is a glorious obsession,” says Prince Yemisi Shyllon about his life as an art collector. “It goes from interest to passion and passion to obsession until you are buying artwork at every auction and you have to build new storage spaces just to house your art collection.”

Well there you have it; the difference between a dilettante and a dedicated collector! Prince Yemisi Shyllon, from Ake in Abeokuta, Nigeria, has the largest private art collection in Nigeria with a collection of over 7000 artworks ranging from traditional art to modern and contemporary paintings and sculptures, as well as over 55,000 photographs documenting the fast-fading cultural festivals of Nigeria. Through his multifaceted non-profit organization, The Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation (OYASAF) founded in 2008, he plans to establish a museum of Nigerian art.

During his recent visit to Kenya, Prince Yemisi Shyllon held a presentation on ‘The tension between the artist as creator and cultural preserver and the need for commercial successes’ at the Kuona Trust Centre for Visual Arts in Kenya. He commenced the seminar with a request for a moment of silence for the late Joseph Murumbi, Kenya’s first Foreign Minister and second Vice President acclaimed as Africa’s greatest cultural collector who entrusted the Kenya National Archives with a portion of his book, art and artefact collection.

Prince Shyllon visited the National Archives on his Nairobi visit and gave his second talk ‘African culture as the basis of our future societal and economic progress’ at the Nairobi Gallery where The Murumbi African Heritage Collection is on permanent display. Murumbi’s co-founder of African Heritage, Africa’s first Pan African Gallery, Alan Donovan, recently published Murumbi’s story in a book based on Murumbi’s own transcripts called “A Path Not Taken”. Prince Shyllon said he respected Murumbi and his unrelenting desire to collect art.

Prince Yemisi Shyllon was accompanied by associate Herman Bingham, an African American art collector who said he “fights for the rights of Africans to have a significant voice in how African culture is preserved.”A traditional African sculpture enthusiast, Bingham has held 25 exhibitions in public spaces in the USA. He described game-changers like himself and the Yoruba prince as “African revolutionaries in culture.” Bingham opened the Kuona art-talk, handing the floor over to Prince Shyllon who introduced himself as a legal practitioner, chartered engineer, marketer, stock broker, investment analyst and art auctioneer.

Before delving into the details of his home-based collection in Lagos, Prince Shyllon spoke about OYASAF’s objectives, which includes promoting Nigerian art and culture worldwide, providing exhibition loans to international museums and educational institutions, and sponsoring international fellowships, workshops and art related PhD residencies. He spoke about the OYASAF journal of Art (TOJA), an online publication promoting African art through research papers, reviews, critical discourse and recorded site visits with product and industrial designers, sculptors, painters, installation artists, printmakers and photographers.

Prince Shyllon started collecting art as an undergraduate in 1975. Today, his collection is a comprehensive archive that can easily function as an historical record of Nigerian art. However, it also includes art from other African countries like Senegal, Cameroon, Togo, Ghana and South Africa, as well as prized possessions from other continents including drawings by Salvador Dali and Simon Bull. His collection spans from a 9th century bronze Igbo Ukwu snail shell from Benin to a 2016 abstract painting by Kenyan artist Adrian Nduma, which he purchased the day before his talk at Kuona. He tells us about the legendary artists in his collection. “The El Anatsui works in my collection are his early works in wood dating from 1973. Two of the eight works with me were lent out to the New York Museum of Art in the USA, for a three year travelling exhibition through Canada and the USA from 2010 to 2013.”

From photographs he shared of his two large estates in Lagos, his private grounds are rampant with sculpture. As the prince says, “If you have a garden without sculptures, it is of no use at all!” The prince owns a sizeable collection of bronze sculpture by famous Nigerian sculptor Ben Osawe, whose works were exhibited at the Piccadilly Gallery in London in the 1960’s alongside Henry Moore and other distinguished European artists.

The Princes collection includes a 1955 painting, Portrait of an African Man, by pioneer artist Aina Onabolu, often referred to as Nigeria’s first artist, who contributed to Nigeria’s art educational development by teaching extensively in schools. The Prince tells us that Onabolu, “collaborated with Kenneth Murray in developing many early emergent artists in Nigeria including Ben Enwonwu.” There is a 1932 work, charcoal on paper, called Awaiting Verdict, also by Onabolu.  Prince Shyllon has several paintings and sculpture by Enwonwu in his collection including the original plaster sculpture for the bronze Anyawu or The Awakening that was presented by the Nigerian Federal Government as a gift to the United Nation headquarters in New York.

From Prince Shyllon’s contemporary collection, several names stand out including Olu Amoda, Nigerian sculptor, muralist, and multi-media artist known for his talent in up-cycling. There is a1993 oil on board, The People of Hope, by Nigerian artist Yusuf Grillo, formerly the president of the Society of Nigerian Artists and known for his fearless experimentation with mediums and prevalence of the colour blue in his paintings. The Prince enjoys artwork that displays and innovative use of materials. “The artist that made the cock with silver plated spoons in my collection is Mr Endurance Omooloja. He graduated top of his class in Sculpting from Auchi Polytechnic in Nigeria. He automatically qualified for my art foundation’s standing six weeks art residency grant to school. He produced the Cock art piece in February 2015.”

Another notable piece in the OYASAF collection is untitled oil on board work, painted in 1998 by artist Susanne Wenger, also known as Adunni Olurisa, an Austrian artist who lived in Nigeria documenting Yoruba culture. There are also paintings by Diseye Tantua, a member of the Guild of Professional Fine Arts in Nigeria whose popular “Afro pop art” comprises traditional Nigerian proverbs painted on bright coloured images of buses, taxis and street signs.

Although there are numerous abstracts in the Prince’s vast contemporary collection, there is an abundance of realistic painting including works by Olawumni Banjo, one of the premium realists who attended the Pan African University in Lagos and depicts everyday life in painstaking detail. A man who moves with the times and doesn’t skip a beat, Prince Shyllon has collected multiple paintings by new internet sensation Oregsegun Olumide who has over 18.7k followers on Instagram to date. Olumide creates hyper-realist oil paintings that are so-lifelike that they are consistently mistaken for photographs.

From the array of artwork in his collection, it is clear that Prince Shyllon has kept his eagle-eyes peeled, ceaselessly researching the ever-evolving art scene in Nigeria and beyond. He believes by collecting art he is safeguarding Nigerian cultural heritage. He tells us to “stop making excuses and take responsibility for the destiny of African art.” African and international audiences can actively be responsible for how the continent’s art is perceived and preserved. Instead of waiting for someone else to set it on a pedestal, artists must begin to value art themselves and start collecting from each other. It is time for us to take things into our own hands and become the much needed revolutionaries and sustainers of culture.

May 4, 2017