Shyllon: Nigeria Must Preserve Artistic Heritage

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Yemisi Shyllon is a multi-dimensional individual who has excelled in the fields of engineering, law, banking, chartered brokage and art auctioneering. But it is in the area of arts that his passion has become so infectious that posterity will never forget him. In this interview with NKRUMAH BANKONG-OBI, he reveals the reasons for his interest, and the roles that individuals and government could play to improve the arts

You  do a lot of things simultaneously, and doing them well too. What exactly drives you?

There are three things really. First is the quest for knowledge. Second, the need to make a difference and third, the need to leave a very good legacy. The search for knowledge accounts for my incursion into different spheres of human endeavour, whether engineering, law, banking, chartered brokage and of course art auctioneering. The quest to make a difference also led me from engineering to law. As a boardroom player at the age of 31, with a multinational company, I found myself working with expatriates and some Nigerians. There was one Nigerian on the board that was not a lawyer; he just read business management. As the Company Secretary, whenever he said “in law”, everybody kept quiet. Nobody challenged him. And whatever I said was counteracted. Even when I suggested a good business strategy, my colleagues counteracted. But nobody interfered when this man who had only a Hihger National Diploma spoke. So I registered for a degree in law. And as God would have it, I excelled significantly both at the University of Lagos and at the Nigerian Law School. I think I have achieved my goal. Now, whenever I am speaking in any boardroom, you would know that a vastly learned person is speaking. If you bring a business plan or statement of account, I will interpret it in a way that an accountant, ordinarily, would not. If anyone brings something relating to the legal profession, I can do same. So I have this rare combination of experience.

The third goal is to leave a legacy. I looked around myself when I was 50 years old, and I said, “Now I’m going towards the cliff, what am I going to do? So I decided I would let money work for me when I turn 55; that I was not going to work for it. So I put a few things into place. To make a difference, I looked around me and said to myself, “You have been accumulating artworks for about 30 years, why don’t you create activities around them?” I asked myself again, “How many people have left a mark in this area?” I found it was not many, that is, if there ever was any.

So I created activities around my artworks. Not necessarily income-generating activities, but something to leave a legacy for you and I, so that our cultural patrimony would be preserved. That was why I set up my art foundation, the Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation, OYASAF.

What kind of family were you born into and how was your upbringing like?

My upbringing was not rosy, even though my family had a good pedigree. My father was an accountant. But he did not take care of me; I had to provide for myself. My father more or less abandoned me to my fate as he had his love somewhere else. I think that became my motivation. This made me become mature at a very young age. All along, I comported myself to be self-dependent.

Why didn’t you choose any other venture to make a mark? Why visual art, which is less recognised in Nigeria?

Two reasons account for my choice of visual art. I looked around and saw that our people were suffering from the impact of slavery and colonialisation. These account for why the black man is not developing. Our development is retarded. And this has led to lack of self-belief. The black man has had a kind of re-orientation into believing that the culture out there is superior to his own. This is subsuming our culture. I just covered the Nigerian Cultural Festival. My photographer went to cover Iwude Ilesha Cultural Festival. I have just discovered that a lot of our cultural patrimony is not appreciated by the ordinary people on the streets. It is even sadder to know that the people in government are so ignorant about our cultural patrimony, the beauty and essence of our race.

As a student of history and philosophy, someone who is widely travelled, I have embarked on religious pilgrimages on my own to India, China, Japan, Israel and Saudi Arabia; and, of course, I have studied Ifa, which is the heritage of my people. I have toured the nooks and crannies of this country enough, so, I have discovered that in 200 or even in 100 years, our children will not be able to speak our language again. By this time they will regard anything African as inferior. Then, for instance, if your great grandchild wants to study the history of your people, he may have to go as far as India, Russia or London to get research materials.

I have been looking at history, and I have discovered that it is generally the case. When a race fails to believe in itself, it becomes subservient to a superior race. These are some of the reasons that prompted me to contribute something to humanity. That is why I went into collection and preservation of Nigerian artworks.

The whole essence of life, from my point of view, is not building houses, having children; these things can go when you are dead. Nobody will know who your child was. When the time comes, you will just leave the world like another animal. As a zoo keeper, I watch these animals. The major difference between us and them is that we have to leave a legacy. Animals make love, eat and have children like humans do. But the main difference between us is the legacy we leave when we are gone.

Besides these motivations is the fact that I breathe art; art is my life. When you are able to convert your passion into something that engages your time, something that makes a difference, the end is always very beautiful.

There is a huge crucifix on one of the walls outside your house. Besides, you have also talked about some religions you have studied. Does religion play any significant role in determining what artworks you collect?

I have no business with religion when I collect artworks. For instance, there are Shintoist, Buddhist works, and there are Christian as well as Ifa works around me. I collect good pieces of artwork. The crucifix you saw came as a result of my trying to make a statement to the people that come here. Many a time they begin to wonder and ask, “What is your relationship with this work and Christianity?” I look at the empty-headed people and laugh because they forget that the greatest patrons of artworks are the churches. From the time of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Paul Reuben, Botticcelli, Van Dyke, Giovanni and the great Cara Vaggio – these are people who worked for the Vatican to propagate the bible. It doesn’t mean that when you use the material there is a spirit around you. It is just a means of bringing your mind closer to God Almighty in whatever way you practise your religion.

Because of their beliefs, I decided to put the crucifix there. I tell you, since the crucifix was erected, no one has bothered to ask me whether I am an anti-Christ or a Christian. I am a lover of art antiquities, photography – everything from anywhere and any angle.

As somebody who has been maligned in religious terms, because of the kind of artworks you collect, how do you feel when you see other artists being maligned too?

I feel such people are stupid. Whoever makes such conclusions is ignorant because the Qur’an does not abhor the collection of artworks, as it is being claimed by some Muslims in Nigeria. What the Qur’ran abhors, that I have read, is carving human forms. It sees this as trying to compete with God, by trying to create human beings. If you go to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, you will see giant sculptural pieces that are expressionistic, that are abstract in nature. It tells you that those who brought the Qur’an to Nigeria understand it better than our leaders. That is why you find that our country does not invest much in our museums and galleries, because they are ignorant. They do not know the impact artworks can have on the promotion of tourism and what it can bring in by means of foreign exchange. It can very well rival what oil is bringing in at the moment.

Is that why we don’t have an operational cultural policy?

Yes; but one thing is to have the policy and another is to have people who can implement the policy.

Who should implement the policy?

Our leaders of course. I keep telling people, if we have a head of state and a minister of culture who are bent on promoting our culture and with a good cultural policy, and they gain the support of the ruling class, Nigerian artists will go places. On the other hand, if you have a ruling class which does not know much about culture and its impact in raising the country’s position in the global society, then, no matter how good that policy is, you are wasting your time.

Indulge me, don’t we have other policies? What has government done with the housing policy? I have served governments, during which I have recommended low-cost housing. The recommendation was never implemented. I have served governments, during which I recommended that we should have herbal farms, farms where we can plant crops that we can use in saving lives, long before the Chinese raided our country and are making billions in foreign exchange. The recommendation was never implemented. Government threw the recommendation into the waste paper basket. If you don’t have people who are exposed enough to know that these things go a long way to solving problems, you are wasting your time.

But why do artists have problems communicating  their problems to government? 

Well, the artists in Nigeria are not organised. They are yet to form formidable groups like you have in other professions — like engineering and law. I started recently to speak out. At the annual general meeting of the Nigerian Society of Artists, I mentioned the damages being done to artworks at the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos. I also mentioned the issue of the vice-chancellor in one of the first five universities in Nigeria, who has put aside works of arts he inherited in his official residence. He uprooted a major work of art done by the late Professor Ben Enwonwu. I drew the attention of the National Council on Museum and Monuments to the new form of slavery that junior civil servants in our museums are subjected to when they are sent out to go and “train” under people. When they get there, they give them non-sustainable stipends and ask them do some dirty jobs. The poor junior workers take the stipend and keep quiet because they have never been to England or any of those other countries before.

It is sad to know that since I called their attention to the plight of these artists, the Nigerian Society of Artists has not come together to pay a visit to the powers-that-be in this country, and draw their attention to some of the issues I raised. I remember that some of the Nigerian Society of Artists members had some grouses against another group and so they did not attend the AGM. I found this disturbingly interesting.

You are part of a group and you want to make a difference, yet, you stay away from others. Artists are not given their due respect in Nigeria. And in fact, I can tell you that artists deserve far more respect than we are giving them in Nigeria. If you want to talk about people at the level of Bruce Onobrakpeya, you are looking at people like Henry Moore and Picasso. That is what our own living legend stands for. But nobody regards him; as a matter of fact, most people do not even know him. I have heard of one great Nigerian who bought Onobrakpeya’s works before he became “born again”. He since has thrown the works away because he felt that they are anti-Christ. That is how bad the environment we are operating in is. We are operating in an environment where the followers have been hoodwinked by religious leaders to believe that when you see a piece of artwork, it has some spirits in it. Yet you go to museums in Paris and find works taken from our shores. And when you listen to the provenance of these works, they are from the grandchildren of bishops that came to this country long ago. Their grandfathers claimed the works were demonic, but they took these artworks in the dead of the night to their family homes and away to their countries. Now they constitute part of the private collections of the French and other exhibitors.

You have over 6,500 pieces of artworks and over 25,000 photographs in hard disc. Can you quantify that in monetary terms?

I do not discuss money and art.

Can you say how much you have spent collecting these works?

I have been collecting artworks since I was 20, so it is difficult for me to say how much they have cost me.

You can do the calculation as a businessman. Some form of calculations can help you arrive at a tentative figure.

I have never looked at art from the point of view of a business. By my estimation, what I have is invaluable. Take a work by Agbo Folarin in my collection for instance, or take a work by Lamidi Fakeye that sold in thousands of dollars, it is very difficult for me to tell what the value of those works are today. We will need art valuers to achieve that.

Would you accept if a valuer is brought for that purpose?

In terms of value, aesthetics and contributions, my collections are of inestimable value. I will like people to see their value from the point of view of creativity. The high-calibre creativity of my brothers, sisters and fathers, in what they are doing out there. I will like the world to appreciate the fact that these people have contributed to civilisation. There are so many innovations by Nigerian and African artists that I will love the world to see. When you begin to monetise artworks, their esoteric value is destroyed. I don’t want to try that at all. And I will urge you not to look at art from the point of view of monetisation. That is one problem that my country now has. We have monetised everything. So we have become a country of kidnappers, swindlers, trigger-happy robbers and looters of  treasuries. If you ask a child now what he wants to become when he grows up, he will say he wants to become a pastor because they are now buying Bombardier jets. Children used to wish to become bankers, but now that bankers are no longer highly paid, they would rather become pastors. We have lost our values. In the days of my father, people were contented with their profession. If you said “I am an accountant”, even if you hadn’t money in your pocket, you had your respect.

The documented history of Nigerian art is under 100 years…

How can you say that? The history of Nigerian art predates Christ himself. The history of Nigerian art moves from Ife, Esie, Nok, and others. They pre-date Christ. If you go to Old Residence in Calabar, you will see a set of works that indicates the history of Nigerian art. Ife art predates Benin, the Esie. The Igbo-Ukwu and the Bakor and Nok, some of them predate Christ  himself. There is a stone which has been discovered and it had been there 770 years before Christ was born.

How did you conceive and build this compound to give this aesthetic splendour, combined with the artworks dotting the premises?

I had a major collection of art, so when I was drawing the plan for this house, I had in my mind what I was going to do with the garden, the swimming pool area and the walls to accommodate the paintings; and the floors to accommodate sculptures. We moved into this house in 1994. Even my children were born in art, they crawled on the artworks.

There is no doubt that your Foundation has done a lot for artists. However, what considerations are there for student-artists, who complain of high cost of materials and fees? 

There are two major programmes we are engaged in to develop creative arts in the country. The first is the annual development partnership with the Creative Arts Department of the University of Lagos, where I welcome people to workshops.

I am also working with a popular studio in America to introduce sculpture workshops in Nigeria. This is my own way of balancing the seeming lopsidedness. I have always said that painting is not our culture. It is a result of our acculturation with the Europeans and Americans. Our forefathers were celebrated as sculptors; the Terra Cotta, Bini, Owo, Bakor works of art are examples. Even though we had some tie-and-dye, they were latter-day developments. If you talk about any Nigerian artists recognised in the world in the past, it was in sculpture.

Are you a politician and what is your view of politics?

It is a very dirty game in Nigeria. In fact, Fareed Zakaria of the CNN said it all. He said in Nigeria people attain power with the view of acquiring wealth. Whereas in the developed world, people acquire wealth with the view to acquiring political power. To stop this nonsense, I think we should encourage people who are not looking for money to go into the Assembly. The way you can do that is to make the work of the legislature part-time. This idea of legislators calling ministers to defend budgets, this or that, is just a technique of looting the country. I think the President needs to look at our Constitution very well. If you have a permanent secretary in-charge of budgeting and you have a department responsible for collating budget proposals in the Presidency, why can’t these people who do this job go and defend the budgets before the National Assembly? This budget defence thing is a means of encouraging corruption. Many a time they invite a minister; after one week, they send for the minister again. When is that minister going to find time to work?

Why is it difficult for Nigeria to have a national gallery?

It is greed, self importance, disregard for our culture and ignorance about the importance of these things to our national life. Greed, because the money budgeted for such developments is pocketed. Ignorance, because instead of building a gallery, we spend money on sending pilgrims to Jerusalem and Mecca. Yet we say we are a secular state. It is absolute ignorance and stupidity. Instead of awarding scholarships to our youths to go and study, build hospitals, people selfishly sponsor their relations and political allies on pilgrimages to Mecca and Jerusalem.

Israel’s economy gets fatter every year. Saudi Arabia’s economy grows every year, while my people continue to wallow in ignorance because the schools are not there. No scholarship for the very intelligent indigent students. I didn’t say people should not go on pilgrimages. It should be a personal affair.

.This article originally appeared in TheNEWS magazine of 04 February 2013

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