Living with art could mean a myriad of things to different people. Particularly if your passion is collecting art, this could have very literal and symbolic meaning. For Prince Yemisi Shyllon, the driving force for his art collection of over 7,000 artworks of sculpture, painting, and other media, as well as over 55,000 photographic shots of Nigeria’s fast disappearing cultural festivals, is to promote culture and creativity. Most importantly, he also wants to immortalize himself. And this would be achieved by turning over all of his major collection into the public museum he is building. In 2015, Shyllon, who is widely regarded as the largest private art collector in Nigeria, offered to build N3.5billion Museum for Pan African University, through his multifaceted non-profit organization, The Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation (OYASAF). Shyllon, who also excelled as a chartered stockbroker, chartered marketer, chartered business administrator, qualified lawyer could easily be described as a revolutionary in the art scene. During this interview which was conducted 2 years ago, he shares insight into his ideas about collecting for a domestic and institutional space and the role of collectors in the contemporary art world.
What are your basic ideas about collecting art?
Art is a source of pleasure for me. It is decorative, informative and entertaining. It is also a form of intellectual discourse and dialogue. As for being decorative, look around the environment here (referring to the expansive compound with various sculptures and art works.) you cannot but entertain yourself and enjoy the beauty of the arrangements, the concepts, and the ambiance and so on. You can never be bored when you are in front of a work of art. In terms of providing pleasure, I receive a lot of visitors here on invitation and the moments I spend viewing and discussing my collections with them is very pleasurable. In terms of intellectualism it allows me to engage with the heritage of our people and appreciate our forefathers for their creativity and contribution to civilization which is being increasingly recognized in the world. Art also makes me understand human nature better just like the animals I keep around me. More than all of these, I am able to read the thoughts of those who created the artworks.
How would you describe your approach to collecting art?
There are three ways in which I collect art. One: You have to do some reading and research and not just collect artwork. You’ve got to understand what you’re collecting for good judgment, as in every human endeavor. If you’re doing anything and you don’t have a good idea about what it is all about, you’ll just waste your time and resources. You’ve got to do some study and research especially when you’re neck deep into it for a purpose. I remember when I first started; it was merely a thing of interest. It eventually became a passion and eventually an obsession. Now, it has become an interesting vocation that engages my mind and allows me to give positive values back to our society and the world in general. The second approach is that art collection should not be based on beauty but their compositions, concepts and richness. The composition has to be deep and there has to be a message flow between you and the work. Then again, while you’re buying, you should have a defined purpose in mind, as to what you’re going to do with it. Finally, you’ve got to approach the purchase of artwork with rational and logical decision making mind. This includes composition of the artwork, the design, the uniqueness, the use of materials, the timelessness of the artwork, and the universality of the concept of the artwork.
What are the messages you have tried to give through your collections?
I think I have tried to showcase the positive things that our people have contributed to the world which our people over the years, have not helped to propagate. I gave a lecture at the Trenchard Hall of the University of Ibadan, where I espoused the fact that there is a general demonization of the creations of our creative talents in this country and that we need to do something about it. We must stop looking at artworks from demonic or fetish point of view for which our colonial masters and their missionaries made us see artworks. Some of these works that our people generally regard as demonic are showcased in large quantities in museums in Britain, Paris, the USA and in many other countries of the world. Meanwhile, where these work originally emante, they are treated as if they represent Satan. Our governments do not invest in our artworks and do not adequately staff and fund our museums of art. If you visit some museums here in Nigeria, you’ll find their workers at 11:30am doing prayer sessions with a view to purportedly driving away the evil spirits in the artworks for they are paid to conserve and preserve. Through my foundation (OYASAF) and my collected artworks, I have been propagating and promoting our unique identity as a people, our contributions to world civilization and drawing out the perspectives of those contributions within the framework of world history.
Do you see yourself as the owner of these works or just a custodian?
Well, legally, I own the legal and equitable titles to the artworks in my collection. But as a visionary, I regard myself as a trustee to the world and custodian of the artworks. As a collector, I pay for the works, and acquire the legal titles in the artworks while their artists retain their creative license. As a visionary, I know that the works will outlive me just as many have outlived our forefathers and that I will not take them with me when I’m gone. To this end, I have arranged for establishing Nigeria’s first privately funded public museum with the Pan-Atlantic University in Lagos which I am funding but which will also require extra funding for completion, from others. We’ve signed the agreement and I’ve disbursed the first tranche of funding and I’ll further fund it, for the next 15 years.
What’s the role of a collector in the making of art history?
We use our hard earned incomes to buy works of art from artists who would otherwise not have a job. One of the roles a collector plays is create employment for artists. The fact that you buy an artist’s work encourages him to continue to produce works of art. And of course, in my own case, I use my foundation to propagate them by organizing residency programs for them to meet art historians and artists from different parts of the world. I sponsor the annual workshop with University of Lagos and organize regular lectures. I’ve also sponsored school competitions and children’s workshops.
How has the art market changed since you first gained recognition as a collector?
Within the time I started collecting and now, artworks have appreciated significantly. Works that I used to buy for peanuts in those days, which at present value calculations, would now have been worth some thousands of Naira, are currently being sold for millions of Naira. Trading in Nigerian artworks is now big business. We now have art auction houses that thrive on it. We have Mydrim, Terraculture, Art-house Contemporary, and Signature Galleries and so on. It has also rubbed on us collectors because you now look at your artwork and know it’s something of value. In my early collecting days, I found myself buying works that some families had been using to collect dirt in their homes or the ones that the owners didn’t know how to conserve. I had to have them and retouched. They have become invaluable. By so doing, I have helped some artists become “restorers” and “retouchers”.
How does your emotional connection with works differ from genre to genre?
It depends on my interpretation of what the artist is trying to convey to me. The way in which the work is embellished to make me feel pleased enough to have it, the kind of message the artist is trying to convey, the form, the medium and the composition of the work. It’s like the way one loves his children because having these art works is like having children to me.
What was it that spurred you to purchase your first piece of artwork?
During my undergraduate years at the University of Ibadan, I visited Yaba College of Technology saw school’s student’s demonstration works And I fell in love. That’s how it all started. I found myself, many times, leaving the library to view those artworks.
Do you both —professional artists and enthusiastic art lovers –look at art from the same viewpoint or do you use different criteria for your personal appraisal?
Some artists don’t title their works and in so doing, they leave them to collectors to give their own titles from their interpretations. And many a time, artists title their works but when I buy some of such works, I end up re-titling. Many at times, they agree with me because the eye at which an artwork is viewed may be different from that of the artist who created it. So, it all depends on the eye in which each person looks at the work.
Do you believe in the statement that art is its own form of alternative medicine?
Of course. The pleasure art gives is therapeutic. If you’re hypertensive and you look through several interesting and captivating pieces of artworks, which alone could momentarily bring down your hypertension. If you visit those handling autistic children, they you will observe that they use art to teach them because they know the importance of art for therapeutic treatments. Art has also been found to be a potent weapon for some ailments. Even for those who suffer from neurotic maladies, relating with art is part of their treatment. Also, when women are in labor, they show them artworks to doze off for anesthesia. In some advanced countries of the world, when people to be medically operated, they show them artwork to assist them to doze off.