OMOBA YEMISI SHYLLON: A COLLECTOR FROM THE HEART

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By *Tunde Olanipekun* 

 The year 1952 was a unique one in the annals of history, it was the year the first general election in Nigeria was held, same year the Macpherson’s constitution went unto effect. A year that the Nigerian Broadcasting Service NBS transmitted its first National program. Also the year The Redeemed Christian Church of God (R.C.C.G), a Church with few members, now the largest Pentecostal Church in Nigeria that has spread to about 200 countries of the world was established.

Prince Shyllon, art collector, patron
Omoba Yemisi Syllon

The first  Central Bank of Nigeria  Headquarters was built in Lagos in 1952. It was same year that Omoba Yemisi Shyllon was born, and the series of epoch that formed the background to Shyllon’s beginning  as a prince of Ake in Abeokuta, Ogun State, Nigeria. From the Sogbulu and Ogunfayo lineage of the Laarun ruling house of Ake in Egbaland. Imagine he came just when the gold plated British West African coin with a hole in the center was minted. This exotic settings perhaps  shaped Omoba Shyllon’s life for the great giant he has become in the arts .

British West African coin

To his credit, he built the first privately held Museum in Nigeria, Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art at the Pan-Atlantic University having grown as a connoisseur from his student days at the premier University, University of Ibadan, with just a few collection of artworks, to the current largest collector of artworks in Nigeria and no 100 in the world. He went ahead to study Law and Masters in Business Administration MBA at the University of Lagos and Lagos State University respectively, to become a major player in many company’s boardrooms in Nigeria.

Mr. Frank Aig- Imoukhuede, a former director, Federal Department of Culture (now Federal Ministry of Information and Culture) noted in 1990 that about 70% of Nigerians now attend art exhibitions as compared with just a  decade back when few Nigerians were seen among the expatriates at art exhibitions. Now Institutions like Banks and Financial Houses are competing with Foreign and Government Cultural Agencies in sponsorship and patronage of art. A practice  that was limited to the Church, Pope and Kings in the time past.

Wikipedia opines that in the history of art, ‘Art patronage refers to the support that Kings, Popes and the wealthy have provided for the artists such as musicians, painters and sculptors.’ In ancient times this has helped the development of art and artists in the artistic movements, works and evolution of styles. Nigeria  now has a robust list of home-bred collectors like Sir Arthur, Mbanefo, Mike Odua, Jide Maiye, Kofo Abayomi, Pat Utomi, but sadly Nigeria have lost many notable art patrons in recent times. Among them are Sammy Olagbaju, Rasheed Gbadamosi ,Olisambu, Mrs Oni-Okpaku etc.  By God’s mercy we still have Omoba Shyllon around, who  undoubtedly  is currently the largest private art collector in Nigeria if not Africa with over 7,000 artworks of sculptors and paintings. 

Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art, a privately funded institution in Lagos Nigeria
Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art, Pan-Atlantic University

Apart from the indigenous artists, he has in his collection, works of Nigeria’s finest visual artists which includes the first, second, and third generations of modern artists in Nigeria. Some of his collections include the works of contemporary Nigeria artists that started in the fifties by late Chief Aina Onabolu, Akin Lasekan, and Ben Enwonwu to the second generation of artists that includes, Yusuf Grillo, Uche Okeke, Bruce Onabrakpeya, Erabor Emokpae, Isiaka Osunde, Susan Wenger, Timothy Fasuyi to the third generation of artists like David Dale, Kolade Oshinowo, Nike Davies Okundare, Ben Osawe, Theresa Akinwale, El-Anatsui, Charles Shorunmu, the list is endless.

Agidigbo player by Deola Balogun collection Omoba Shyllon

TESTIMONIES
Shyllon has been involved in the development of art in Nigeria through OYASAF – a non-profit organization he founded in 2007, to promote the appreciation and study of Nigeria art and artists both in Nigeria and across the world. Professor Peju Layiwola of the Creative Department of University of Lagos confirmed that OYASAF has had four editions of entrepreneurship workshops that gulped a lot of money while it lasted.

A vivid example of the contribution OYASAF International Artist’s Residency is Clara Allen’s wonderful testimony with  Sandra on the positive impact of the program on their art practice in a video documentary https://youtu.be/tJYXfij2ekw in 2018.

Mrs Olaitan Saidat Otulana,director, Lagos State Council for Arts and Culture in her testimony said,”
“Omoba Yemisi Shyllon is very generous with his collections. He donated part of his collections to the, Freedom Park,Lagos, The Shyllon Museum of Art that he built at the Pan-Atlantic University will definitely outlive him. It has become a tourism destination in Lagos. He also played an advisory role in the building of Mama Nike Art Gallery. He is in the forefront of the promotion of Art in Nigeria.

Earlier in year, July, 2020 the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Arts and Nero Asibelua Foundation (NAF-YSMA) announced the opening of applications for a research support grant for Nigerian Art History, the Doctoral Research Grant operated by the Pan Atlantic University picked two recipients; Enekwachi Awgu and Primrose Ochuba as the first two beneficiaries, another evidence of Shyllon’s devotion to the development of art in Nigeria.

While responding to questions from the wire agency, Reuters concerning his passion for the Nigerian Art https://www.reuters.com/video/watch/idOVCXM03N7 and the pursuit of glorification of African art in all its glory, Shyllon said, “Let us promote the richness and beauty of our culture. I use my arts collection as a means of propagating our past, our present and the ability to look into the past and present to help people look into the future.”

Omoba Shyllon (left) and Tunde Olanipekun


Adeola Balogun, a veteran sculptor and lecturer at the Yaba College of Technology who has been commissioned severally by Omoba Shyllon has this to say about his uncanny obsession for art, “Omoba Yemisi Shyllon is a well gifted individual in almost all sphere of endeavours but with heightened endowment in the appreciation of visual art”.  Shyllon once retorted that it was only artists that ‘cheats’ him, because once he is fascinated by an artwork, he is willing to pay the price to have it for keeps. His  assertion is a veritable one, being an individual with enviable qualifications in myriads of field of financial endeavours, such people could be very shrewd. At any rate, he still displays this astute capacity intuitively, when the need arises; he bargains hard. However, once the deal is sealed, Shyllon never defaults in keeping his own side of the bargain; to the best of my knowledge, he doesn’t owe artists. Despite his vast collections, the location of every art piece is vivid in his mind. Once he is connected with an art piece, the place of the piece in his collection is already established prior concluding negotiations with the artist. He is not only interested in acquiring artists’ works, their welfare is of concern to him too.

Omoba Shyllon and Madam Kavita Chellarams (left) at an event in Lagos

I must add, he is a quiet philanthropist. He has commissioned me many times to create monuments donated to higher institutions in the country; these included: Towards Achieving Distinction (welded steel, 28 ft) and Symbol of Culture and Justice at the University of Ibadan and Lagos respectively. Over a score of my life-size bronze works, including other phases of my studio trajectories are well represented in his art collection (OYASAF).”

Dr. Kunle Filani , Former Provost, College of Education (Technical) Osiele, Abeokuta, an art historian and art critic  also opines that Omoba Yemisi Shyllon is phenomenal to Nigerian art not just because he is perhaps the most avid collector, considering the huge number of artworks and variety in his possession, he brought in an unusual sophistication to connoisseurship by entrenching himself into the study of art history and criticism. He is therefore an informed curator of his collections.

Shyllon with one of his collections-image courtesy The Nation online

Equally significant is his unique venture of building the Omo Oba Yemisi Shyllon Museum within the Pan-Atlantic University premises. By this remarkable feat, he has succeeded in immortalizing himself and the artworks in his collection. More curiously is the fact that the Nigerian government at all levels up till date couldn’t build a befitting modern gallery to house contemporary creative outputs by the ever so talented Nigerian artists. 

Apart from the patronage of artists, Shyllon has consistently supported research efforts into art history and appreciation. He continues to sponsor book research, art conferences and exhibitions across Nigeria and beyond.   His humble disposition to artists is virtuous. He makes respect mutual for both artists/scholars and himself. His contributions to the development of art is exemplary as an individual and his personal dedication to the growth and documentary of the African race.
At a chance meeting during an event organized by the Committee for Relevant Art ,CORA’s Lagos Book and Arts Festival with the theme. “30 Years after the Art Boom in Nigeria” at the Freedom park, Lagos Island, where he spoke about his involvement in the development of Nigerian Art through Art Auctions locally and internationally. Omoba Shyllon said, “I established the Omoba  museum of Art in Pan-Atlantic University ,Lagos and funded the construction. I donated 1000 artworks  from my private collections. I also funded the running cost of the Museum which runs into millions of naira.” Shyllon is the Supervision Council chairman, of the Omoba Shyllon Museum and he sponsored the construction of the museum. He has also sponsored editions of entrepreneur workshops of OYASAF with the Creative Department of the University of Lagos. 

Images from Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Arts
Images from Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Arts

He has acquired many Nigeria artworks some of which has been dated to the 9th century. His collections  also cut across the world which includes the works of the famous Salvador Dali.

On the issue of “Artists copying other artists works” ,he said it will be very difficult to stop. “It is a general practice all over the world. In some places around the world, Artists will be busy with their easels copying old Masters works. This is accepted as long as they don’t sign it or they are honest enough to write clearly that it’s a copy of the original artist.

For an Artist to be copied is a pointer to the fact that the artist is good.  The Society of Nigerian Artists however  should come with a way of curbing lazy young artists who copy established artists. When asked why he decided to build the edifice at the Pan-Atlantic University, he noted that “many art collectors have passed on but what happens to their collections when they are gone cannot be ascertained, that is why he has decided donate 1000 artworks that spanned over 40 years of his collection to be housed by the museum and managed by a reputable institution who can creditably keep the ideals of the Museum”.

Omoba Yemisi Adedoyin is a prince of Ake in Abeokuta Ogun State, South West of Nigeria. He studied engineering at the University of Ibadan, Law at the University of Lagos and earned his MBA degree at the University of Lagos. He holds an honorary doctor of letters (HON.D.Litt) from the University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria.  His abilities to continue his Law practice, management engagement and board room meetings with a affiance devotion to showcasing and promoting Nigeria art locally and globally is outstanding. In my humble sojourn as a painter, gallerist, and art writer for about four decades, I have incidentally found myself meeting and visiting many foreign and home- bred art collectors  in Nigeria, but particularly amazing is Omoba Shyllon who is ranked among the world’s top  100 Art Collectors. He has created a comfortable place for himself in the pantheon of Nigerian Art.


References:

1). Wikipedia

2). The Artist Now – SNA, Lagos State/ Baffles Art Gallery,1991

3). African Art by Frank Willet, Published 1971

4). 20th Century ART OF AFRICA by Kojo Fosu published in 1986

5). Sholmank Art Gallery Brochure, Lagos. 1993 edited by Tunde Olanipekun

6). OYASAF International Artists residency documentary on You tube 2018

7). CNN documentary on Omoba Yemisi Shyllon.

Tunde Olanipekun is an artist, art writer and runs Baffles Art Gallery in Lagos, Nigeria, his blog page is at https://bafflesart.wordpress.com/.

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