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Jess Castellote on building the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art in Nigeria

Lagos-based Spanish architect, Jess Castellote, expresses hopes for stimulating a local collector base within Africa that will invest in their home-grown talent

Author Will McBain Sat 10th Oct 2020
Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art during construction, Nigeria, 2019.

WM: What initially attracted you to get involved with the Nigerian art scene?

Jess Castellote (JC): I’ve been here for 35 years. I came in 1984 as an architect by profession, and I came to work for an NGO to do some social projects, and soon after I got in touch with artists and collectors. Then in 2003/4 I started organising exhibitions with friends.

I’ve written four books on Nigerian art over the years, and a few years ago I started a foundation to document art here in the Pan-Atlantic University, where I was the architect designing some of the buildings, and I helped them create an art collection. So when they moved to the new site, I thought it would be great for the university to have a museum. This is something sorely needed, not only in Nigeria, but in the whole of West Africa, and most of Africa.

I’ve just finished a PhD on art history in Africa, at Madrid, so I’m reconverting from being an architect to something else!

At the moment I’m the director of the new Yemisi Shyllon Museum, and we’re just starting; we’re full of passion, hoping to provide a space for people to view the art from where they came from.

WM: What are you particularly excited about becoming the director of the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art  and how do you view the museum as having a positive impact for the art ecosystem, and for society at large?

JC: For me, coming to this museum was something almost natural, because quite a few years ago I did a study on the local collectors in Lagos and I wanted to know what they collected, what channels they used, what type of work, and then I became friends with Prince Yemisi Shyllon, and he expressed concern with what was going to happen with his collection.

So I thought this was a good match. The university was ready to host, and he was looking for a vehicle to reserve and maintain his collection and have an impact in society, so I put together both of them – the university and the collector – and we started dreaming and here we are. Now we have a new museum.

What interests me personally is that we want to have a resource at the service first of the university, and we want to have a resource that can be a vehicle for people discovering things not only about art, but discovering things about society through art. The history of Nigeria. Nigerian culture. Nigerian traditions.

We think the museum is a good resource for that. 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 to understand and discover Nigeria’s issues.

So we intend to go beyond art. We want to help people through art to discover things. We’re working with art but we want to go beyond that.

This is not going to be a museum that changes the whole panorama. This is an educational issue and we’re not here mainly to attract tourists, or even to preserve a heritage: this is a role for a national museum. We’re here to provide an educational resource. That’s the contribution that we think we can make. The measure of success for us in our project is not about how many visitors come, but it’s the real lasting impact we can have on audiences. We want to put a lot of emphasis on programmes.

The art world needs many more things, and we’re just a small contribution in a large landscape.

 

Sam Ovraiti, Efik dancers, 2020.

 

WM: When you first gained an interest in African art, did you expect it would start to get the recognition it deserved, and be shown to a wider audience, as it is now?

JC: Well firstly, I didn’t know whether we would be where we are now.

To use ‘African’ in such broad terms is a little risky I think, so I cannot talk on ‘African’ art; it’s so vast and complex. 54 countries with many more than 54 histories!

Nigeria has a tremendously rich tradition of art; it’s not something that starts now, it did not start with the arrival of the Europeans, it started much before.

One of the things we’ve tried to show in this museum is continuity. There’s a link between tradition and modernity. There are four artistic forms that are new. But having artists producing great works is not new.

Now it’s become little by little better known, but I still think that too much emphasis is put on Nigerian or African artists in the diaspora.

The artists appearing now in this trend and interest in African art are African artists, who in most cases are of African descent, or are born in Africa but are based outside the continent. I think we still have to take another step, and that is to discover and bring out the wonderful artists that are based locally, and that’s because they’re not linked to the system – to the gallery system – or to the international art fair systems, or the big art auction systems, so they remain unknown. This has to change as the local talent is here.

WM: So you think there’s too much emphasis on artists from the diaspora?

JC: It’s a natural thing. If I were a journalist, or a dealer, or somebody in the art world outside Africa or in the UK or US, then it’s natural that my first point of contact with African contemporary art would be artists that I could see and experience, and these are artists that are based in the US or the UK.

So it’s not bad. But perhaps we still have a long way to go in introducing or incorporating or bringing out people who are just here and moving in small circles. The ones that move out of a parochial environment, the artists that move in global circuits, are the ones that come to the front. Other artists that perhaps have great creativity, great talent, and who are doing interesting things, but who are perhaps not in those circuits, then they remain here relatively unknown. But this is changing rapidly.

For instance the art fairs, the African art fairs: whether 1-54, or AKAA in Paris, or Johannesburg, or here in Lagos ART X, they’re doing a great job but this is relatively new. They’ve been here less than a decade, but this has to continue as they’re doing pretty well in bringing out and helping people on the outside to know about locally based artists, so this is an issue that’s changing.

 

Chidi Kwubiri in front of his piece It’s Harmattan, 2019.

 

WM: So these art fairs are helping to establish a collector base?

JC: That’s another issue, the detail – until recently all the collectors here in Nigeria were collecting almost exclusively Nigerian art. A little bit of art from Ghanaian artists. But very little from French-speaking African countries. But rather than being parochial, collectors are now changing. A few of the new, young, cosmopolitan, and wealthy collectors are moving in more ambitious circles, in their collecting practices.

They’re also generally more knowledgeable about what’s going on in other places, so it’s changing. The old-established collectors were rather conservative, with very strong links to the artist and without intermediaries. But now the system is changing little by little, but it will take time.

WM: Nigeria and South African markets are considered the strongest in Africa. But how do you view the growing scenes in Senegal and Ghana, and elsewhere on the continent?

JC: In February I saw the catalogue of the next auction at Strauss & Co, one of the big auction houses in South Africa. And in that auction, it was almost exclusively South African. There are a couple of our works from West Africa, but what happened is the collectors there do not have much access to artists from the rest of the continent. They come here to Nigeria for ART X, or to international art fairs, but how many Nigerian or West African artists have exhibited in South Africa in the last few years? And how many South African artists have had solo exhibitions here in Lagos?

I cannot remember a single one. Although perhaps there has been, so while there is interaction, there is a Lagos–London or Joburg–London scene; there is very little in relation to the same thing happening for East Africa. If you look at the auctions, it’s not the whole art world being represented. The auctions in East Africa, in Nairobi, form an art scene that is almost exclusively East African, although from time to time they do have artwork from South or West Africa.

You look at the auctions here in Nigeria and again they are almost exclusively West African, so we still have a long, long way to go to have more of a relationship within Africa. Although things are changing recently!

WM: So it’s just a matter of time?

JC: This is a matter of time. Because it’s changing already. For instance, in the last art fair in Lagos, there were more non-Nigerian galleries than Nigerian; that’s already a huge step forward, because collectors were able to see and buy from galleries from Ethiopia, from Nairobi, from Accra, and we had galleries from South Africa too. This would have been almost unthinkable just a few years back, even more so five years ago. So this is one art fair, once a year, with new galleries, and things are moving. A few Nigerian and other African collectors are going to 1-54, whether in London or New York or Marrakech, or to the Joburg or Cape Town art fairs, so they’re seeing and buying, and a few collectors from outside are coming here for the first time. So this is changing, and it’s growing.

 

Jimoh Buraimoh, Dancing Competition, 2014.

 

WM: How important is social media in establishing networks among various countries, and increasing the visibility of artists from Africa?

JC: The online market is growing, but it’s very small compared to the traditional channels. I know quite a few, especially a few young Nigerian artists, who don’t have gallery representation, but who are on their own. They’ve managed to reach audiences outside Nigeria through social media, by regularly posting images of their works, or in some cases by people contacting the artist directly and buying from posts seen on Instagram. But it’s risky, as there’s no guarantee with what you may be buying. But it’s already happening, but not in terms of volume. But few people would risk buying from artists who are not known, without guarantees that the work will be sent, or the quality will be there. But although there’s risks, it’s growing. Especially from sales among very young artists.

WM: Are there other art hubs emerging in Africa that you have your eye on?

JC: I’m impressed with what’s going on in places like Uganda, Ethiopia, and Nairobi. Once exclusively for expatriates, these emerging hubs are developing systems of locally-based and enlightened collectors. While there are also interesting things coming up in Ghana and Angola. South Africa continues to be a very special, if more established, market. I think they’re very interesting art scenes that are growing, dynamic and fresh. They also encourage a different type of collector – more enlightened, locally based – so that’s an interesting element there.

 

Ayanda Mabulu, The Matriarch, 2020.

 

WM: Will you produce another Nigeria Art Market Report?

JC: I stopped a couple of years ago to do a PhD. I just completed that, but now I’m really working to continue the report and expand it a little bit, but not only the art market at auction, I’d like to try and cover a little bit more of the art market, the auction market, and also non-commercial initiatives. There’s a need for that, so whoever does it, there’s a need for documentation which will help collectors.

Collectors need data, so do corporations involved in the market. It’s not only data, it’s the entire documentation. Books. How much serious academic and scholars’ research has gone into the art market in Africa? Because you have quite a few professors with specialization on African art, but most of them are based in American universities or British universities, and they’re not here, so we need more publications to have a focus on what’s going on here.

WM: With the increase in art sales comes the growth of fakes, but how big of a problem is the spike in imitations?

JC: There’s a big problem, there’s no doubt. Nigerians are very good at all types of entrepreneurial activities, for good or for bad. A few Nigerians are very much involved in certain activities that are not good. But Nigerians are involved in many wonderful things. The film industry, the fashion industry too, the creative talent is incredible. But the amount of money in circulation in the art scene is growing, and you have people here who witness Enwonwu’s work selling for $1.4 million and you say, ‘Wow, I think I could replicate that’, because technically it’s not beyond difficult to produce this work, for very good artists, and introduce it into the market as a fake.

The number of people who come to me who say they have an uncle who’s found an Enwonwu! With many years of research, I can say, ‘Sorry, it’s a fake.’ But because both Christine and Tutu were found in obscure flats, they needed accreditation from the teams at Sotheby’s and Bonhams. But copies can be pretty good, and they’re clearly not done by amateurs, but are clearly done by somebody who is a practising artist with a high level of competency.

While statues can be more easily replicated. Bronze statues can be faked and passed off for an original piece. Only experts will know it’s not legit, and how many copies of Benin sculptures are good, I mean pretty good, and you might never know.

WM: Which up-and-coming artists are you most impressed with?

JC: There are so many artists to name that I think are quality, but are not yet recognised enough. To name just two then attention should go to somebody like Tony Nsofor, or take Ayogu Kingsley, from Enugu, who’s an extraordinary artist and just 25 years old.

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