By Tajudeen Sowole
With a museum donated by Prince Yemisi Shyllon to Pan-Atlantic University (PAU) Ajah, Lagos, it appears that the vacuum of modern and contemporary Nigeria art museum would perhaps be filled. The Museum of Nigerian Art, however, is not leaving out ancient and traditional art of the country's origin from works in its hold. During the signing ceremony between Shyllom and PAU, at Oba Elegushi office of the institution's Pro-Chancellor, Mr. Paschal Dozie, the donor stated that the proposed museum will be Nigeria's first ever "one-stop-non-government museum."
Prince Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon (left); Pro-Chancellor of Pan-Atlantic University, Mr. Pascal G. Dozie and Vice Chancellor of Pan-Atlantic University,Prof. Juan M. Elegido receiving the donation from Shyllon
The one thousand pieces collection, Shyllon assured, will cover several periods of Nigerian art and generations of the country's artists. Some of the works include carvings of traditional artists such as Olowe Ise, Lamidi Fakeye; modernists like Aina Onabolu, Akinola Lasekan, Ben Enwonwu, as well as works of post-modernists and contemporary artists.
Over the decades, Nigerian artists, collectors and other art enthusiasts have lamented the lack of a modern and contemporary museum of art in the country. The two government agencies saddled with the responsibility of promoting and preserving the country's art, National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) and National Gallery of Art (NGA) don’t seem concerned or see the relevance. For the NCMM, set up from a 1953 document known as Antiquities Ordinance and later through Federal Department of Antiquity by Decree 77 of 1979, the concept of museum is confined within preservation of ancient art and traditional religious objects. All its 34 museums spread across the country, including the biggest, National Museums, Onikan, Lagos, are exclusive spaces for ancient and traditional arts. For NGA, set up in 1993 through Decree 86, the collection of modern and contemporary Nigerian art in its possession, which are statutorily meant for display at a museum or gallery facility, are currently trapped in the Abuja office of the government agency. The only semblance of a museum under NGA is a decaying unit known as Modern Gallery of Art at the National Theatre, Lagos, where some paintings and sculptures are on display.
Clearly, the concept of a museum from government agencies' perspectives is as antiquated or obsolete as the documents that set up the parastatals. However, a private initiative, conceptualised in 2012 by Visual Arts Society of Nigeria (VASON), in collaboration with select artists and aimed at setting up what could have been the country's first non-government museum or gallery of art, did not take off beyond the idea. By not having a museum or gallery of art, particularly of modern and contemporary content, Nigeria's cultural heritage and artistic value have been bleeding slowly to death. The best of modern and contemporary art of the country's origin are either endangered in private collections at home or being exported abroad into the hands of unknown connoisseurs.
Shortly before the necessary documents setting up the museum were signed, Vice-Chancellor of PAU, Prof Juan Elegido expressed the university’s gratitude to Shyllon for the donation and listed the benefits of the project. "The donation of the museum is significant for many reasons: first it provides an effective way of preserving Prince Shyllon’s collection for posterity while making it available to the public. Secondly, it will greatly enhance the research and educational resource of the university as well as the general public.”
Work on the design of the museum, he stated, has already started. Elegido reminded guests that PAU has a strong history of promoting Nigerian art, and particularly cited the development of a virtual museum of Modern Nigerian Art created in 2010 and managed by Jess Castellote.
Dozie also expressed his elation, when he said, "History is being made today." He said a people's worth is evaluated through "their art." He described the donation as a "generosity of Prince & Chief (Mrs.) Shyllon."
In a country where 'nothing goes for nothing', any institution, particularly of non-government origin, would be as grateful and elated. The current market value of the paintings, sculptures and 200 photographs being donated, according to Shyllon, "is estimated at ₦1,607,885,000:00 (one billion, six hundred and seven million, eight hundred and eighty five thousand naira). The construction of the museum facility, he also stated will cost “₦100m, as well as a yearly contribution for 15 years for the maintenance of the museum." The total donation is therefore estimated at "₦2.2b both in cash and in the value of the artworks."
Earlier in his speech, Shyllon explained the main reasons that spurred the donation. The demise of a vast collection of some well known past collectors, the educational values implicit in the art that could be passed to younger generation as well as scholarly opportunity for researchers and art managers were the major "motivation that led to the donation." Among the works extracted for the donation from Shyllon's vast collection of 7,000 are works by Yusuf Grillo, El Anatsui, Simon Okeke, Uche Okeke, Okaybulu, Akinola Lashekan and Bruce Onabrakpeya from the post-modernists era. Among artists from contemporary periods whose works are in the collection are Disoye Tantua, Segun Aiyesan, Kelani Abass, Adeola Balogun, and photographs of Nigeria’s cultural festivals by Ariyo Oguntimehin.
Being what the donor described as a "one-stop-museum of ancient, traditional, modern and contemorary Nigerian art," the facility will also have space for other collectors who may want to donate to the museum. "There is a provision for other collectors to donate works as we can create sections for such donors," to enrich the museum, Shyllon assured.
Confirming the one-stop-museum identity of the PAU Museum of Nigerian art is the special interest of Shyllon in the country's cultural festivals. In 200 photographs by Oguntimehin, taken at several yearly cultural festivals across Nigeria in the last three years, Shyllon shares his passion in protecting what he described as "our declining cultural festivals." And just in case some of the festivals become extinct in future, the photography documentation, he hoped, would become a valuable window of archival medium to revisit the past.
Shyllon laments that some of the most important archival photographs of Nigerian origin shot by indigenous photographers are in the possession of foreign galleries and museums in the U.S. and U.K. In fact, the donor's brother Prof. Folarin Shyllon, a legal expert on cultural matters who was present during the signing ceremony, reminded guests that the safety of African cultural objects in their places of origin has been one of the leading issues surrounding repatriation. For the PAU Museum of Nigerian Art, Folarin was optimistic that "security and probity can be guaranteed."
Indeed, why should anyone doubt the commitment or passion of the university in sustaining a museum of art? Recall that PAU, right from its inception, has been hosting quite a number of art exhibitions. That passion for art led to the creation of PAU Virtual Museum of Modern Nigerian Art in 2012.
Still on sustaining a museum of such a vast texture, the financial aspect appears huge for one individual philanthropist to handle. Is Shyllon getting financial partnership from any corporate or individual group? "The financing is being taken from what God has given us: a lot of money is required, but my family and I are happy doing this, to leave a legacy."
The thirst of Nigerian artists for what appeared like an elusive museum or gallery for Nigerian art was felt in the voices of some of the artists who witnessed the ceremony. Painter Kolade Oshinowo and print maker Nike Davies-Okundaye were excited that a museum of private origin as Shyllon's donation is soon coming on stream. Davies-Okundaye urged other collectors to "emulate Shyllon's gesture”. Other artists present included painter and former Commissioner for Culture in Ondo State, Mr. Tola Wewe; President of Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA), Mr. Oliver Enwonwu and President, Guild of Professional Fine Artists of Nigeria (GFA), Mr. Abraham Uyovbisere.