By Henry Akubuiro
His sprawling compound in Lagos resembles an open-air museum. The fence, as tall as the Great Wall of China, is draped with luxuriant, crisscrossing green foliage. To the left stands a clawing, golden, metal predator. To the right is a white bust of mother and child in a warm embrace. There is little to suggest a mansion is tucked behind the crowded garden in front of the idyllic abode, housing different shapes and hues of sculptures.
In his living room, there is no room to swing a cat: artworks have taken up every available space. Even his dining table is adorned with terracotta, Ife heads, bronzes, among other works of antiquities.
In 2016, Prince Shyllon became Africa’s leading art collector, and is ranked among the top 100 art collectors in the world. A well read man, the founder of the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art, Lekki, was born with a silver spoon, but it wasn’t the rosy childhood you would expect of a prince.
“I was born into royalty, but I didn’t enjoy the benefits of royalty,” he begins. He had a father who wasn’t very much available, so he had to rely heavily on his mother, the famous Marie Olubunmi Shapara Williams, who took good care of him until she died when he was just 14, and challenges set in. “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 certificate in business administration, for he wanted to raise his position in life and also take care of the scarcity of Nigerians with technical background in management training. He went on to score a distinction in MBA (marketing and finance) at Ife, after his undergraduate days. He found himself working with T&E, the sole agent of Caterpillar machines in Nigeria, earning rapid promotions as the marketing manager, and rising to the position of marketing director, six years after, of Nigerite Ltd, the biggest building material company in Nigeria under the Belgian Etex conglomerate. He was only 31 years old then.
Even as a marketing director, he registered to study law, and, once again, graduated on top of his class at the University of Lagos. Thanks to the book, The Richest Man in Babylon by George Clason, which he read as an undergrad, he developed a deep interest in buying shares and collecting artworks. He also studied to become a stockbroker and became a wizard in investment.
As a student, Prince Shyllon used to draw a lot. He stopped it because of mathematics, for he was a science student. Also, as an undergraduate at UI, he was a regular visitor to Yabatech, which exposed him to art. “That’s where I got the bug for art collection,” he recalls.
Prince Shyllon has lost count of the number of artworks collected over the years, but they have been estimated at over 7000 by a researcher. “Apart from the volume I have in my house in Abeokuta; apart from the volume I have in my museum —Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art — you have seen the countless artworks here. As busy as this place is (the sitting room), that’s how busy every part of this four-level house is,” he says.
What determines the kind of artworks he collects? His voice rings: “I collect everything, from sculptures, photography to antiquities. Name it! You can see two Ife heads in front of you.” He started first as a collector of sculpture. “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 —initially, it was just a passion — and I saw that, If I wanted to get the recognition, I had to expand my collection base. So I bought back into painting, right from Aina Onabolu.
“Thanks to my exposure from reading books and traveling around the world, I now started collecting antiquities. I travelled to places that were hitherto shrines, and the inheritors of those places, who had become born again Christians, wanted to get rid of the shrines, and I bought into them. That’s how I eventually expanded the scope. I also added photography,”
Does that sound creepy to you? Prince Shyllon doesn’t think he brought some 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 artworks before my children, and all the three children crawled in between these works. Nothing wrong happened to them. So it’s a matter of knowledge and exposure.”
He queries hence: “These so-called spirits, why didn’t they stop the whitemen from carting away those sculptures from Benin in 1897 when they raided Benin, and nothing happened to them, and they are in the British Museum? They are also in private homes and collectors all over the world, and you are talking about spirits. Why didn’t all these so-called spirits prevent the whitemen who came to Nigeria and took away all those artworks I was buying, and nothing happened to them?”
Prince Shyllon reminds you that the greatest patrons of the arts are the Catholics. “At the Vatican, there is a museum that has mummies. They have a lot of collections. Why are those spirits not rising up? If you visit Cairo, where I have been to, you will see centuries-old mummies, why haven’t they risen up? If you had my kind of exposure of visiting over 70 countries in the world and seen it all, all these stories about spirits rising up are fake.”
Before siting the Yemisi Shyllon Museum at the Pan Atlantic University, Lagos, he had wanted to site it somewhere else, but changed his mind on noticing that the Lamidi Fakeye doors he hitherto saw in the vice chancellor’s residence, the Ben Enwonwu’s Anyanwu, and Akiola Sekon’s paintings were all removed by the VC on the basis that they were demonic. “That’s how they lost the chance of having the museum cited in the university, whereas my museum is today cited at Pan-Atlantic University owned by strong Catholics. So why did they allow me to site the Yemisi Shyllon Museum there? Demonic ko, demonic ni!”
A forward-looking man, he didn’t want his art collection to die with him, for he had seen it happen to other people who had collected artworks and other things, whose families threw away those things or sold them off, not knowing their value. In 2009, he took part in Foreign Visitors’ Programme of the American Department of States, and toured the northeast part of the US together with his wife for ten days, going around all the major museums in Washington DC, New York, Atlanta, Baltimore, Philadelphia, etcetera. At the Metropolitan Museum, in particular, he asked them how best to preserve his art collection. He was initially planning to use his Lagos home, but he was told it wasn’t sustainable.
“That’s how I came up with the idea of creating an edifice called a museum but under an institution that shares my values and will keep my legacy in place long after I have gone,” he says.
The Ake prince from Abeokuta is the founder of OYASAF, a non profit organisation established in 2007 to promote and study Nigerian arts and artists, home and abroad. “I am more than impressed with the progress made so far. OYASAF has already carried two exhibitions in Nigeria, one in March 2008 at the National Museum, Lagos, about the history of contemporary Nigerian arts, and another in November 2008, in collaboration with Omoba Oladele Adebayo, the largest private collector of antiquities in Nigeria. Then I did an exhibition called ‘Drums and Totems’, and I exhibited about 14 local drums dating back to decades.” That earned OYASAF the recognition that took him to the American Leaders Visitors’ Programme.
On coming back, he activated the Omoba Yemisi Shyllon Foundation and established a grant to encourage scholars from abroad to visit Nigeria and interact with his museum and collection. “I can tell you that 18 such scholars were hosted by OYASAF,” he adds, and at least 10 of the scholars had bagged their doctorate degrees.
OYASAF has also provided a base for writers-in-residence programme, and has hosted about 60 artists. It has also published two books, in conjunction with other authors. He says: “OYASAF has done so many things, but Covid-19 stalled it. But now that I have the Yemisi Shyllon Museum, I think I will allow it to do its work.”
What motivates him to promote Nigerian arts and culture? He responds: “I love art. I drink art. I eat art. I dream art. I am an Ake prince, and I believe I owe it a duty to promote the culture of all Nigerians.” What’s more, he has travelled far and wide, and is pained that Africans denigrate their cultures. “Because of that, I think I owe it a duty to myself to make a difference,” he declares.