For Africa’s leading renowned art collector Omooba Yemisi Shyllon, it’s not all gloom and doom in the visual arts scene. The future glimmers with opportunities and promise, he tells Okechukwu Uwaezuoke
Here is the first rule before Omooba Yemisi Shyllon’s stately presence: the interviewer, poised with his pen and notebook, must have his wits about him. Otherwise, chances are that he risked losing the thread of this conversation. For it is the portly 68-year-old’s stock in trade to be both eclectic and encyclopaedic in his discussion of any subject matter. True, his renown as Nigeria’s – if not Africa’s – leading art patron may be more often talked about in the media. Still, his polymathic credentials – burnished by his membership of the Nigerian Bar Association as well as his being a fellow of such professional bodies as the National Institute of Marketing of Nigeria, Institute of Directors- Nigeria, Nigerian Institute of Management, Chartered Institute of Stock Brokers, Nigerian Society of Engineers and the Chartered Institute of Marketing of the UK – tend to assert themselves in the course of a prolonged conversation.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the Abeokuta prince, who held court from his seat behind a large desk facing the camera and his interviewer that sunny afternoon, looked more cerebral than regal in his blue-tinted rimless spectacles and coffee-coloured native dress and green fez cap. As for the paintings and sculptures behind him, they were eloquent testimonies of his decades-long passion for collecting art. Ditto the large art-suffused office and OYASAF premises, located in the choicest residential section of the Lagos mainland neighbourhood, Maryland.
OYASAF? That’s the often-used acronym for Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation, a Lagos-based non-profit organisation which the art collector established in 2007. The foundation, which is basically an extension of Shyllon’s penchant for art, has been assiduously seeking to promote the appreciation and study of Nigerian art and artists wherever they may be found globally. For besides regularly organising art exhibitions and public lectures on arts and culture, it annually hosts and sponsors artists, scholars, curators and art historians from outside Nigeria. The beneficiaries of this annual fellowship programme – numbering 17 so far – were drawn from the US, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, South Africa, Kenya and Ghana.
Among OYASAF’s many landmark legacies are the now-rested annual art entrepreneurship workshop in collaboration with the University of Lagos, the endowment of The Yemisi Shyllon Professorial Chair at the University of Port Harcourt, the donation of life-sized sculptures to such public spaces as the Freedom Park in Lagos Island, the University of Lagos and the University of Ibadan as well as the publication of two books and an art journal. More recently, about a thousand artworks from its collection were donated to the Yemisi Museum of Art at the Pan-Atlantic University in Ibeju-Lekki, Lagos, which won the Apollo Magazine’s Museum Opening of The Year 2020.
Back to the interview, Omooba Shyllon was arguing that the world, which had the benefit of hindsight from historical antecedents, ought not to have been caught “pants down” by the COVID-19 pandemic. That was only a preface to his answer to a question bordering on the significance of these times for the visual arts sector.
Hadn’t it indeed been a significant time for the creative industry! Things surely would no longer continue in the same familiar old ways. New ways had to be devised to keep the creative mills turning. As part of these new ways, Shyllon identified the production process of artworks as well as their sales and publicity.
Talking about production, the fact that “artists now have more time to work” – as he observed – paves the way to an added impetus to sourcing newer art materials. The production process has, in other words, become more pliant in deference to these dire times. During the lockdown, not a few artists could have been constrained by their inability to access conventional art materials.
For sales and publicity, activities seem to have shifted to virtual platforms. Shyllon noted that, because physical exhibitions have been largely curtailed, the social media in particular and the internet, in general, have provided opportunities for artists to interact with their collectors. Leading local and international art auctions were also known to have been held online last year. For the artists, this implies cheaper ways and more effective ways to publicise their work. Even gallery exhibitions, some of which were online, have been better publicised during this period.
Meanwhile, so much seems to be hurtling downhill with horrifying speed and many untapped potentials in the visual arts scene still lurk in the fringes of the industry’s consciousness. These untapped potentials, Shyllon added, could be found both in the secondary and post-secondary schools. An example was a 21-year-old Osun State-born artist, Isaac Adedokun Oyedele, whose ballpoint drawing of the US President Donald Trump went viral. The drawing eventually caught the attention of President Trump, who described him as a “wonderful artist” and urged him not to give up on his dreams. “Not only did I see it @Doks_Art, I think it is fantastic. You are a wonderful artist, never give up your dream!” Trump tweeted.
Also, it is doubtful if there is still any credible artist in the Lagos art scene, who hasn’t heard about Shyllon. Besides the fact that his OYASAF is hyperactive on the social media, the art collector follows virtually every artist – both upcoming and established – on Instagram.
His passion for collecting art, he’d often corroborated in different interviews, has since grown to become an obsession. He even constructed new storage facilities beside a recreational area behind his residence to house his newer collections. And to imagine that this was a predilection he traces back to the late 1970s, during his undergraduate years at the University of Ibadan! Recognised in 2016 as Africa’s largest collector, he ranks among the world’s top 100 art collectors.
Now, it began to make sense why he would root so much for unearthing untapped potentials that he collaborated with Professor Peju Layiwola to organise annual art workshops at the University of Lagos. This also explains why he remains an ardent fan of the bi-annually-held Harmattan Workshop at the Delta State town of Agbarha-Otor. Then, there was this high-wattage idea of his: lock up artists as housemates à la Big Brother Naija reality show, provide them with materials and imagine the outstanding result.
A longtime advocate of art as a stimulus for tourism, he decried the fact that the authorities were yet to fully tap into this potential goldmine.