How the book made me rich, Nigeria’s biggest art collector –Yemisi Shyllon – The Sun Nigeria
By Henri Akubuiro
Its sprawling complex in Lagos resembles an open-air museum. The fence, as high as the Great Wall of China, is draped in lush, criss-crossing green foliage. To the left stands a claw-like golden metallic predator. To the right is a white bust of mother and child in a warm embrace. There is little to suggest that a mansion is tucked away behind the crowded garden in front of the idyllic abode, housing various shapes and hues of carvings.
In his living room, there is no place to swing a cat: the works of art have taken up all the available space. Even its dining table is adorned with terracotta, Ife heads, bronzes, among other antique works.
In 2016, Prince Shyllon became Africa’s top art collector and is ranked among the top 100 art collectors in the world. A cultured man, the founder of the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art, Lekki, was born with a silver spoon, but it was not the rosy childhood one would expect of a prince.
“I was born into royalty, but I didn’t enjoy the perks of royalty,” he begins. He had a father who was not very available, so he had to rely a lot on his mother, the famous Marie Olubunmi Shapara Williams, who took good care of him until his death when he had only 14 years, and challenges have arisen. For the scholarship I got, I don’t think I would have become what I am today,” he recalls.
Incredibly, Prince Shyllon studied Engineering at the University of Ibadan but added another degree in Business Administration as he wanted to elevate his position in life and also deal with the scarcity of Nigerians with a technical training in management. He then obtained a distinction in MBA (marketing and finance) in Ife, after his undergraduate studies. He found himself working with T&E, the sole agent for Caterpillar machinery in Nigeria, gaining rapid promotions as marketing manager and reaching the position of marketing manager, six years later, of Nigerite Ltd, the largest company of construction materials in Nigeria under the Belgian conglomerate Etex. He was then only 31 years old.
Even as a marketing manager, he enrolled to study law and once again graduated at the top of his class from the University of Lagos. Thanks to the book, The richest man in Babylon of George Clason, which he read in undergrad, he developed a deep interest in buying stocks and collecting art. He also studied to become a stockbroker and became an investment magician.
As a student, Prince Shyllon drew a lot. He quit it because of math, as he was a science student. Additionally, as an undergrad at UI, he was a regular visitor to Yabatech, which exposed him to art. “That’s where I got the art collecting bug,” he recalls.
Prince Shyllon has lost count of the number of artworks collected over the years, but they have been estimated at over 7,000 by one researcher. “Apart from the volume I have at home in Abeokuta; apart from the volume I have in my museum – the Yemisi Shyllon Art Museum – you have seen the countless works of art here. As busy as this place (the living room) is, that’s how busy every part of this four-level house is,” he says.
What determines the type of works of art he collects? His voice resounds: “I collect everything, from sculptures, photographs to antiques. Name it! You can see two heads of Ife in front of you. He first started as a sculpture collector. “My first love is sculpture,” he admits, “because I loved the three-dimensional element of sculpture. But when I made up my mind I wanted to be a sculptor – at first it was just a passion – and I saw that if I wanted recognition I had to broaden my collecting base, so I bought the painting back, directly from Aina Onabolu.
“Thanks to the exposure of my readings and my travels around the world, I began to collect antiquities. I traveled to places that were until then sanctuaries, and the heirs of these places, who had become born-again Christians, wanted to get rid of shrines, and I joined in. That’s how I finally expanded the scope, I also added photography.
Does that sound scary to you? Prince Shyllon doesn’t think he brought any evil spirits home. “It’s a matter of personal belief. If you think a spirit is there, it is there. If you don’t believe it, there’s nothing there. I had my works before my children, and the three children slipped between these works. Nothing bad happened to them. It is therefore a question of knowledge and exposure.
So he asks, “These so-called spirits, why didn’t they stop the white men from carrying these carvings from Benin in 1897 when they attacked Benin, and nothing happened to them, and they’re in the British Museum? They are also in private homes and collectors all over the world, and you talk about spirits. Why didn’t all these so called spirits stop the white men who came to Nigeria and took away all these artworks that I was buying, and nothing happened to them? »
Prince Shyllon reminds you that the greatest patrons of the arts are Catholics. “In the Vatican, there is a museum that has mummies. They have a lot of collections. Why don’t these spirits arise? If you visit Cairo, where I’ve been, you’ll see age-old mummies, why didn’t they rise? If you’ve had my kind of exposure by visiting over 70 countries around the world and you’ve seen it all, all those stories of rising spirits are false.
Before moving the Yemisi Shyllon Museum to the Pan Atlantic University in Lagos, he had wanted to move it elsewhere, but changed his mind when he noticed that the Lamidi Fakeye doors he had seen in the residence of the Vice Chancellor, Anyanwu of Ben Enwonwu and Akiola Sekon’s paintings were all removed by the VC on the grounds that they were demonic. “That’s how they lost the chance to have the museum cited at the university, when my museum today is cited at the Pan-Atlantic University owned by strong Catholics. So why did they allow me to set up the Yemisi Shyllon museum there? Demonic kbdemonic Nope!”
A forward-looking man, he didn’t want his art collection to die with him, as he had seen it happen to other people who collected art and other things, which families threw away these things or sold them, not knowing how to value them. In 2009, he participated in the US Department of State’s Foreign Visitors Program and toured the Northeastern United States with his wife for ten days, touring all the major museums in Washington DC, New York, Atlanta, Baltimore. , Philadelphia, etc. At the Metropolitan Museum, in particular, he asked them how best to preserve his art collection. He originally planned to use his Lagos home, but was told it was not sustainable.
“That’s how I came up with the idea of creating a building called a museum but under an institution that shares my values and will maintain my legacy long after my gone,” he said.
Prince Ake of Abeokuta is the founder of OYASAF, a non-profit organization established in 2007 to promote and study Nigerian arts and artists, at home and abroad. “I am more than impressed with the progress made so far. OYASAF has already held two exhibitions in Nigeria, one in March 2008 at the National Museum in Lagos, on the history of contemporary Nigerian arts, and the other in November 2008, in collaboration with Omoba Oladele Adebayo, the largest private collector of antiquities from Nigeria. Then I did an exhibit called ‘Drums and Totems’, and exhibited about 14 local drums dating back several decades. This earned OYASAF the recognition that led to the US Leaders Visitor Program.
Upon his return, he activated the Omoba Yemisi Shyllon Foundation and created a grant to encourage foreign scholars to visit Nigeria and interact with its museum and collection. “I can tell you that 18 of these academics were hosted by OYASAF,” he adds, and at least 10 of them had obtained their doctorate.
OYASAF also provided a base for the writers-in-residence program and hosted approximately 60 artists. He has also published two books, in collaboration with other authors. He says, “OYASAF did so many things, but Covid-19 blocked it. But now that I have the Yemisi Shyllon museum, I think I will allow it to do its job.
What motivates him to promote Nigerian arts and culture? He answers : “I love art. I drink art. I eat art. I dream of art. moreover, he has traveled a lot and is saddened that Africans denigrate their cultures “Because of this, I think I have to make a difference”, he says.