By Nehru Odeh
Omooba Yemisi Shyllon wears many hats. Aside from the fact that he is an engineer, he is also a lawyer and management expert. Still, over the years not only has he demonstrated an uncommon love for the arts and promoted it both locally and international, but he is also currently Nigeria’s largest private art collector, with over 7,000 artworks of sculptures, paintings and other media, as well as over 55,000 photographic shots of Nigeria’s cultural festivals.
However, the scion of the Laarun ruling house of Ake in Egbaland and former Executive Director and legal adviser at Nigerite Limited, is not just a mere lover of the arts and culture. He has demonstrated it by his many philanthropic interventions in the cultural sector and also by his passionate concern for the development crisis in Nigeria, an issue to which he has lent his voice in many fora at home and abroad.
Still, Shyllon demonstrated his encompassing knowledge of the arts and passion for his country Nigeria recently while he was guest of the Toyin Falola Interviews which held on Sunday January 15. The event, which was part of series of interviews to celebrate Professor Toyin Falola at 70, was tagged The Toyin Falola Falola Interviews: A Conversation with Prince Yemisi Shyllon.
On hand to interrogate Shyllon were iconic Professor of African Studies Toyin Falola; renowned artist Victor Ekpuk; accomplished Professor of Art History, Peju Layiwola; and distinguished artist, painter, art critic and cartoonist Dele Jegede.
During his conversation with the distinguished guests Shyllon spoke passionately about art, the restitution of stolen art works from museums in different parts of the world, the lip service government pays to the arts and culture in Nigeria while hinging the development crisis that Nigeria is currently facing squarely on not just government’s neglect of arts and culture, but also on its demonization and relegation to the background as well as erasure by Nigerian citizens in the name of religion on one hand and the promotion of western civilization and culture on the other.
A very prominent thread that ran through the discourse is the development crisis Nigeria is currently facing, which Shyllon hinged on the abnegation of our indigenous culture. According to him, one of the reasons Nigeria is underdeveloped is the fact that its citizen has over the years embraced the culture and religion of foreigners to the detriment of their own indigenous culture. Shyllon believes the leaders are not only the ones to blame for this neglect but also the followers who sheepishly follow foreign religions and culture.
“I think this question should be looked at from a more holistic angle. We have a big problem in Nigeria. It’s not just leadership but also followership. The average Nigerian does not understand what culture is. He sees culture from the prism of religion and no more.
“I have had cause to give lectures to demonstrate the fact that culture is much more encompassing than religion. Religion is only part of the philosophical trappings of culture. There is more to culture than religion. Even within the philosophical concept of culture, we talk about the values of society, the attributes expected within a culture. This is only a part.
“When you look at culture from a wider angle, it has the elements of customs which again is very large. You also have the problem of tradition. After this, you look at the systems of government. You look at the literature, music, dress pattern, language, and food.
Shyllon then took a swipe at the ministries of Information, Culture and National Orientation for shirking their responsibilities, for not orientating Nigerian citizens on the need to cherish, respect and preserve their cultures; while recommending that not only is the Ministry of Information and culture be separated but that the ministries should be collapsed to reduced their duplication as well as cost of running them.
“To what extent is our Ministry of Orientation doing something to educate Nigerians about the importance of culture. Rather, they allow religious houses to disinform. They allow religious houses to usurp and manipulate the minds of the people. They allow religious houses to refer to their father’s house with the left hand. They allow religious houses to spread the propaganda, with a view to spreading other people’s culture. So, the problem is, it is more holistic than that. It is beyond just ministry of culture. It is for us as both leaders and followers to reorientate.
“The problem is we should not only focus on just the leaders. We should also talk about ourselves. To what extent are we doing things in either individualistic basis or collective basis to made a difference, to draw our attention in this direction for us not to lose the values. Or else what is culture. Culture is the way of life of the people. It is about everything I have mentioned earlier that is transferred from one generation to the other through the learning process. It is the unique identity of the people. We are losing our identity.
“Finally, our cultural institutions should stop sitting down and expecting people to come there. They should go out. For instance, a museum should not just expect people to come and visit They should go and talk to them in the churches and mosques and let them realize there is nothing demonic about our ethnographic and cultural objects. That the same ethnographic and cultural objects have been used to promote Christianity. The same ethnographic and cultural objects have been used to promote other civilizations.
“We are here destroying the very essence of our beliefs, of our culture without growing. And no nation can grow effectively without using its own culture to grow. America is very proud of what it is today because they grow their nation from their cultural perspectives. China is growing based on Confucianism. Japan is growing by virtue of Shintoism. And these are based on the cultures of some people.
Shyllon also spoke about a national cultural edifice in Nigeria, where a foreign government built a monument that has become a very good children playground. However, under that pyramidal monument are the names of the towns and cities of that country, which according to him was done in such manner to socialize children and make them love and want to relocate to that country
“So our children go there, dance, play and when they grow up, they want to go to that country, they want to japa. That’s the problem. We don’t realize that what we are doing individually or as government goes a long way in permeating down, in destroying our very essence as a people, into destroying our identity, into destroying whatever we think we do or are,” he said.
On the restitution of looted art works, which has been on the front burner of public discourse, Shyllon said Nigeria should not be in a hurry to receive those looted art works unless there are adequate infrastructure in place where those art works can be preserved.
“Those works should be returned but should not be hastily returned. We should at ensuring under the different conventions and UNESCO to have recognition of our legal rights to those works. Once our legal rights are established, we can use that to negotiate royalty on an annual basis and give ourselves enough time to prepare the reception for those works.
“We are in a hurry to have these works returned. What has happened to some of them that have been returned? Go to our various national museums, you will weep. I have been to museums in Africa and I am not proud of what I have in my country. I have been to the Kenyan museum in Nairobi. I was very pleased by what I saw. I have been to Cairo museums in Egypt, I was very pleased with what I saw. I have been to the Senegal museums; I was very pleased with what I saw. I cannot say that about my country which was why I volunteered to serve without collecting money as part of the management committee of one of Nigeria’s national museums founded in 1957.
“Let us use the advantage of the various United Nations and treaties under supervision by UNESCO to negotiate that they recognize our legal title to retain possession for now and give some phased return in which we build capacity, in terms of infrastructure, human capital, science and technology.
“We don’t have carbon dating equipment in Nigeria and we are shouting restoration and repatriation. We lack the necessary infrastructural capacities. The bulk of the Nigerian populace that you are returning the works to believe that those works are demonic,” he said.
Shyllon also decried government reluctance to invest in art which according to him is more lucrative than kidnapping. “Art is more lucrative than kidnapping. It is more enduring. It is lawful; it is a legal transaction that is respected all over the world. It can be passed from generation to generation. It also helps to promote the culture of a nation. It helps to develop young minds into being more productive in society. Collecting art is a form of providing employment. If Nigeria could invest in art, the tourism potential is extensive.
“The Eiffel Tower takes about 10 million visitors per annum. The potential behind art is huge and unimaginable. Art will give this nation something to be proud of. It will give this nation something to showcase, which in fact means that we contributed to civilization, that we had history before we were colonized. It is completely better than ransom taking,” he maintained.
Shyllon also spoke extensively about his family and educational background and how they contributed in not just shaping his life but also in inculcating in him his passion for the arts and culture. “I grew up in Yaba, Lagos; I had the privilege of being nurtured by my maternal grandmother who is the first daughter of the first lawyer in Nigeria. She told me a lot about the academic exploits and the roles Shapara Williams played in Nigeria’s development. I grew up with that kind of zeal of wanting to make a difference like my late great grandfather. I attended St. Patrick Primary School in Yaba.
“I also attended Lagos City College, a secondary school at Yaba, because my grandmother ensured that I attended school very close to her. I found myself attending the University of Ibadan because during my time it was the first place you wanted to go for university education. This eventually made all the difference in my life. It was the University of Ibadan that introduced me to loving animals and plants. Of course, I also found myself at the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University where I got exposed to what culture is all about.
“Before then, I had been collecting arts at the University of Ibadan. I used to go to Mokola. I started collecting arts out of interest for culture and arts. But the University of Ife gave me a cultural input into the importance of arts. When I left the University of Ife, I found myself working as an engineer in Kano. I found myself travelling far and wide; I discovered more about life, museums; in fact in total, I have gone to about seventy countries in the world. My love for arts started with the interest I gathered when I was in secondary school; I was a very good arts student. I did all that until I forgot about it because of mathematics. That latent talent in me brought out the arts.
“I was more interested in sculptures. My first sculptural work is a stylized work by an unknown artist whom I stumbled upon at the University of Ibadan, and I still have it in my collection. In fact, I put those early works in a place which I called ‘The Crowd’. When people come, I show this to them. That was how I started at the University of Ibadan.”
Shyllon also hinted at how he became a renowned art collector. “I started out of love, interest for art. I had a latent talent in art. As I moved from interest, I went into passion. In that passion, I began to read about Nigerian art.
“In my work life as an executive director of a multinational company, I had gone round the world. Before I knew what was happening, the passion became an obsession. I told my people that that obsession had grown to become glorious. It gave me the opportunity of making a mark in my life.
“Many people who meet me only recognize me as an art patron the moment I introduce myself as Yemisi Shyllon. They do not recollect that I am an engineer; they don’t remember I have a degree in business administration; they don’t remember I am a lawyer; they don’t remember that I am an investor.
“I am best when I am within my artworks. My best friends are artists because we share the same values of life. We look at life from a very expansive point of view,” Shyllon averred.