Yemisi Shyllon, Africa's Greatest Art Connoisseur

Dr Ohioma Ifounu Pogoson, Curator at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan describes him as: "perhaps Africa's largest collector and patron of its (Africa's) own arts." I guess the word "perhaps" is the safe recourse of the intellectual against probable contradiction, but I'll be quick to make Omooba Yemisi Shyllon out as indeed Africa's greatest art collector and connoisseur (and I've seen some) – and in private conversation even Pogoson readily removes the "perhaps".

The vastness, range, intrinsic and material value in the African (and arts from other lands) arts in Yemisi Shyllon's collection are simply mind-boggling; it leaves one in a daze!Shyllon

Conservatively Shyllon's collection is put at well over six thousand pieces of works encompassing "all the five areas of Nigerian/African art, ranging from antiques, traditional and neo-traditional African art, contemporary paintings and sculptures" under an organisation called OYASAF (acronym for Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation).

Bruce Onobrakpeya, one of Nigeria's most renowned artists of the old school, in his book, "Contemporary Nigerian Art" describes Yemisi Shyllon as "an avid art collector who arguably has the largest private collections of contemporary artists' works both Nigerian and non-Nigerian artists."

He has them all: antiques as old as the 12th century, and the works of great traditional artists of old such as Olowe of Ise, Agbonbiofe, Arowogun, etc to modern day masters such as Aina Onabolu, Ben Enwonwu, Akinola Lasekan, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Lamidi Fakeye, Okpu Eze, Ugorgi, Kolade Osinowo, David Dale, Abayomi Barber, Jimoh Buraimoh, Kunle Filani, etc, to younger generation and contemporary artists such as Olu Amoda, Tunde Balogun, Moyo Ogundipe, Ben Osaghae, and scores of others too numerous to mention.

OYASAF's (museum) place sits innocently in Mende area of Maryland, Ikeja, Lagos; its high fence walls, covered by plant creepers, envelope the acre or so land area. That I have gone past this area of Mende so often in the past without my attention being drawn to the place speaks a lot to its deceptive outward ordinariness. But once within, the marvel begins with the classic setting of its foreground parading scores of sculptures – bronze, terracotta, metal, fibreglass, stone – each competing for space and attention. Olu Amoda is dominant here, his best sculptural works of intricately interlocking metals and steel commanding attention here and there amidst huge stone and bronze works of some other artists, all strewn seemingly carelessly but with artistic intent.

As one wonders at one, another beckons – a bosomy damsel lying teasingly; a fisherman back from the river with his huge catch slung over his shoulder; even some community at work depicting artisans and villagers in their various activities. From balconies and rooftop the spectacle continues – some hunters peer down at you; a morose graduate in jobless lament; a sage in thoughtful pose – no space is left unfilled.

To crown it all, the ground is home to a number of exotic fauna – crown-cranes, peacocks, geese, giant tortoises, etc – which saunter and laze about as they please. This surely would qualify for the mythical Garden of Eden is a thought that crosses the mind.

Welcome to Yemisi Shyllon's paradise of art.

I apologise if I've dwelt too much on the setting before even talking about the awe-inspiring works of art to which this place is sanctuary; it is a measure of one's stupefaction with this treasure throve.

The main building itself is one huge edifice of several chambers (or rooms), filled by an incredible and suffocating array of works of art capable of doing one's head in by their sheer number and awesomeness. There is nowhere to put a foot without having to negotiate around one piece here, another piece there.

Some chambers have the eeriness of the repository of some deities, awesome and assuring all at once; original antiques, masks and ancestral figures meant for pleasing the gods and spirits, dating as far back as the 12th or 13th century before the white man came, told us the objects were evil and plundered and carted away most of them (evil as they were said to be) to their own land to preserve in their museums and private collections.

The dispossession was complete, of language, culture, and religion – all that could define one's being was eroded – and in place the invaders' foreign ones were rammed into us. As if to drive the point home, in an adjoining chamber were collections of comparative religious art of the Chinese and some other Eastern cultures (peoples who still keep to their faith and cultural wholesomeness) with a bronze effigy of the round-bellied Buddha sitting majestically in their midst.

There are no inscriptions, no descriptions; each visitor is free to draw whatever experience and conclusion he or she chooses.

Jostling for space in another part are massive wood sculptures, of old palace doors and house posts, dating back several centuries. With them the impressive intricate wood sculptures of Lamidi Fakeye and comparable artists command attention. It is said that OYASAF's is the largest individual collection of Fakeye's and Onobrakpeya's works anywhere in the world!

Four hours later and we (my wife and I, with the self-effacing Mr Shyllon himself as guide) had barely covered a third of the building and of the collections. There were still several chambers to cover. The rains had been unkind on Lagos and pressure was on us to leave before traffic became impossible, as it was wont to of late.

We called it a day and were led out through the back way whereupon was a fish-shaped swimming pool, its blue water serene and enticing. We moved through another section, an adjoining apartment filled with innumerable paintings, framed works, carvings, and rolls and rolls of artworks for which there is no space. Every conceivable space in the entire property contains or displays artworks; and this includes the several restrooms (toilets), conference room, study, etc.

It is almost impossible to put monetary value to OYASAF's collection.

From the blurb of the monograph on his collection titled Yoruba Traditional Art, edited by Dr. Ohioma Pogoson, Omooba Yemisi Shyllon's obsession (and that's what it is) with collecting visual arts began way back in his undergraduate days at the University of Ibadan some three decades ago and the collection has grown to this stupefying level through "interaction with artists, art vendors, collectors and art shops" all over the world. "One of the collectors had worked in close collaboration with foreign collectors who went around Nigeria before and during the Second World War as a cinematographer collecting works from shrines, local chiefs and established art families in Nigeria."

A man of many parts, "Shyllon is a chartered engineer, legal practitioner, business administrator, chartered marketer and chartered stockbroker with business interests covering all his academic and professional" disciplines.

Shyllon's "museum" is a rich and important point of interest for visitors and academics and I would imagine that the fantastic governor of Lagos State, Babatunde Fashola, would have it included as a "must-place" for his official visitors to Lagos.

As Pogoson says in the Foreword, "Truly the OYASAF collection…must be ranked in the league of the great private collections like those of the Phillips, the Clarks and the Corcorans. In the case of the Corcorans, a reputable School of Art has even emerged…I hope that, one good day soon, we may begin to speak in like manner of Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon…"

Truly edifying and amazing!

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