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Art as Educator: The Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art Opens in Nigeria

The Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art offers up the soul of Nigeria through its art, communicating the nation’s culture, traditions and history to an expectant generation

Author Will McBain Mon 12th Oct 2020
Chidi Kwubiri, It's Harmattan, 2019.

At the beginning of March, Nigeria saw the opening of a groundbreaking new gallery dedicated to art from Africa, the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art (YSMA).

Located one hour’s drive east of Lagos, the YSMA will show pieces donated by the Nigerian prince, Yemisi Shyllon, who’s reportedly one of the biggest collectors on the continent.

Up to four hundred of the thousands of Shyllon’s donated works can be exhibited at one time, with pieces from Ben Enwonwu, the ‘father of Nigerian modernism,’ and El Anatsui, the famous Ghanaian sculptor, on display, as well as many other African artists.

The YSMA follows the inauguration of Dakar’s vast Museum of Black Civilisations. Both museums are setting the stage for the future return of artwork stolen from Africa, currently residing in international museums.

The first director of the YSMA, Jess Castellote, a Spanish architect who moved to Nigeria over 30 years ago, was motivated to help create a new museum at the grounds of the Pan-Atlantic University, in order for people to “have a space to view art from where they came from”.

Driven by a personal interest in Nigerian art, Castellote has organised numerous exhibitions since 2003. He’s written four books on the topic – while authoring the influential Nigeria Art Market Report – and also conducted his own study at the turn of the century into local collectors in Lagos.

It was through this research that he became friends with Yemisi Shyllon, who was becoming increasingly concerned by what would happen to his extensive collection, which totaled more than 7000 artworks and many thousands of photographs.

“Pieces from the continent regularly break records at designated Africa auctions in London, New York and Paris.”

Castellote effectively acted as matchmaker, agreeing with the university, for whom he designed a number of buildings, to house the collection which would not only be open to the general public, but also act as a great resource for its students.

As well as honouring Shyllon’s legacy, more important for Castellote was to create a place where Nigerians could understand more about their own culture and society, their history and traditions, through the power of historical objects. “There are some things that can be taught in the classrooms, some things that can be learnt in the libraries, but we think that interacting with historical objects, in this case, artworks, can be a better way than a lecture for understanding and discovering Nigeria’s issues,” Mr Castellote said in conversation with Turbare.

Castellote has been at the epicentre of a radical transformation in the African art market over three decades: a market that sees pieces from the continent regularly breaking records at designated Africa auctions in London, New York, and Paris.

While art fairs and museums in Africa and abroad are helping establish a wide ecosystem and educate a growing collector class wishing to purchase art from the continent, the museum’s director is particularly keen for a wider audience to know more about the emerging talents operating locally.

“There are artists that I think are quality, but are not yet recognised enough. Somebody like Tony Nsofor, or take Ayogu Kingsley, from Enugu, who’s an extraordinary artist and just 25 years old,” he says.

 

Nyemike Onwuka, Crossroads of Migration I
Nyemike Onwuka, Crossroads of Migration I, (2019)

Once the sharp edge of the COVID-19 virus is sufficiently blunted in time for the museum to open its doors once more, the richly textured museum, adorned with copper-stained concrete walls and built-in an iconic cube style that Castellote designed, will kick off with two inaugural exhibitions.

Making Matter: Materiality and Technology in Nigerian Art will be shown on the ground floor, while Mirroring the Nation: Art, Society, and Politics will exhibit on the upper floor (both until December 2021). Both exhibitions have been curated by local curator Iheanyi Onwuegbucha, from the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos.

Locally based artists will also have opportunities to showcase at YSMA. This is particularly important for Castellote, as he sees the Nigerian art scene over-represented by artists from the diaspora.

The market is ripe for investment in lesser-known talents from the region, which is something the YSMA is keen to help address, as well as promoting emerging artists ultimately to get more representation within the international gallery system.

Mr. Castellote acknowledges the contribution that art fairs, including 1-54, AKAA in Paris, and Lagos’s ART X have had, in beginning to expand global knowledge of contemporary West African artists among collectors. Yet having a museum dedicated to art from Africa will only help this ongoing project.

In addition to an over-emphasis on the diaspora in collecting circles, there has been an issue with collectors not having enough access to art from across the continent beyond the most well-known art scenes of South Africa and Nigeria, the two countries which have the highest profile internationally.

“Artists not attached to a gallery are beginning to represent themselves online.”

While it’s true that nascent art hubs are growing in stature all over Africa, they remain relatively parochial, and the two largest art fairs remain in the western and southern African powerhouses. Nigeria and South Africa get the most exposure in the media, and in international galleries and art fairs, yet auction houses in Africa also rarely have enough artwork from other African countries up for sale.

However, this is changing, and the potential for collecting art from the whole of Africa – including French-speaking countries which are massively under-represented – is growing significantly.

Social media is helping too, with many artists who are not attached to a gallery beginning to represent themselves online. While this is not foolproof, it is helping to expand the potential for purchasing African art from across the continent, and not just the most well-known pieces from Nigeria and South Africa.

New, online platforms like Turbare will also cater to the needs of collectors and stakeholders.

Despite such a profound impact on Nigeria’s growth market, Castellote remains humble. He doesn’t believe that through the opening of this museum they will change the whole panorama of the regional art scene, instead emphasising that, “We’re just a small contribution in a large landscape.”

Rather than focusing on how many visitors come through the doors, the museum is instead pivoting on creating programmes which will have a lasting impact on its guests, and it is through this that the museum has the potential to make an enduring contribution to its audience’s appreciation, and understanding, of the history of Nigerian and West African art.

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