Elevating Africa: The Collections in the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art
By Toyin Falola
Africa is often viewed with a degrading lens by other continents, especially by those in the West. This notion is not independent of the slowed development of the continent since the mass independence of African countries from colonial rule. Many issues continue to plague Africa, but there is no denying that the continent is well-equipped to catapult itself to economic and developmental prosperity. It is laughably lamentable that many Western views, especially during the colonial era, described Africa as the continent that is home to barbaric people. In having difficulties understanding the intricacies of African nations, scholars chose to write what their minds deemed fit about the continent – which was vastly different from the reality of these countries.
Civilization stemmed from Africa, though some forces are militating against this truth, the fact remains that Egypt was the first epicenter of world civilization. Beyond Egypt, African empires such as Mali, Oyo, and the Sokoto caliphate, to mention a few, were also civilized way before the advent of the colonialists. There were organized forms of completing tasks and interacting in these societies – traces of civilization – before Africa’s earliest known European exploration. For instance, the Egyptians had their system of lettering and communication – hieroglyphics, and their artistic construction of pyramids to support their religious belief in the afterlife. Modern practices of Archeology have helped bring Egypt to the fore as the home for civilization in arts, medicine and healthcare, religion, astronomy, writing, and philosophy.
In the face of faux representations and the propagation of supremacist agenda, African arts have served as a means of beautifying the continent and as solid proof of the civilization of Africa before the arrival of the Europeans. Art is a replica of a people’s way of life. The artistic works that have been excavated from some African locations serve as a pointer to African civilization and development. It is ironic that while the Europeans considered Africa barbaric and backward, African arts, especially the sculptural works, were so exquisitely made that the Europeans extracted these works to bring them to their countries. This concept has raised many debates about whether artworks stolen from Africa should be returned, as well as other questions such as, could the illegal transportation of African arts be conceived from a mindset beyond beautifying one’s home country, or could the colonizers have deemed those artworks too beautifully made to have come from Africa? It may have been the case that in taking those artworks to Europe, they believed they were taking them to a more befitting place. However, it remains plausible that in doing so, their aim could have been to erase traces of African civilization to support their biased claims that Africa is barbaric and uncivilized.
One of the wonders of art is its capacity to serve many functions, a characteristic imminent in African art. Conventionally, the scope of the roles African art plays goes beyond the entertainment and beautification of the continent. These works are also solid proof of Africa’s civilization and its long-standing traditions and history.
For example, the Nok terracotta artworks culled in 1928 from a Nigerian village, serve as unmistakable proof of the existence of the Nok people, who were archaeologically traced to the 5th century. The Nok people were skilled in geometry, often making triangular eyeballs for their artifacts. They also had ample experience in glazing and the making of iron equipment. More so, they were advanced enough to replicate humans and animals in calculated artistic forms.
This range of symbolic representation is commonly ascribed to various works and types of African art. The Egyptian pyramids, as previously mentioned, are also proof of a civilization that was religiously profound and understood cremation long before the incursion of Europeans. Similarly, the Djenne terracotta figures serve as testimonies to the civilization of the Malians years before the French thought to invade Mali. Likewise, the Benin and Ife artworks all project the civilization of diverse African empires – independently sustained before the advent of the Europeans.
Amid clamors for the restitution and return of stolen African art to the continent, counterarguments propose that the artifacts are better protected and guarded abroad as African leaders are not geared towards caring for and protecting African artifacts. This is evident in the poorness of several government-owned museums in Africa. To demonstrate the value and preserve and appreciate these works, museums and collections must be evaluated for their capacity, funding, and diversity of representation. Understanding that art acts as a preservation tool for the society, time, and place it reflects, not only should previous works be prized, but modern art should also be appreciated to preserve the current state of our world for the future.
This brings us to the necessity of acquiring and maintaining modern African artworks. The clamor for better recognition and consideration of African artworks is not limited to seeking out and caring for ancient African art alone. While there is a need to preserve history and culture by doing more in acquiring and maintaining ancient works of art, forward-thinking is needed. As we protect our history, we should also collect strong stories of our present, which will serve as our history in the future.
Some visionary Africans understand the essentiality of protecting our history and historicizing our present. For example, Prince Yemisi Shyllon is a grand supporter of the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art at the Pan-Atlantic University in Lagos, Nigeria. The Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art is a first-of-its-kind, an innovative means of historicizing the life we currently live as Africans and protecting the artworks that stand as proof of our forebears’ lives. This is the first university-owned art museum in Nigeria. The Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art is championing the collection, preservation, and promotion of African artworks. This museum boasts of thousands of artworks collected from all over Africa. By showcasing celebratory African artworks, the museum elevates the African continent in a move akin to what African artworks did in the colonial era. In the face of unfortunate occurrences, gross disregard for human rights, and the many problems that plague many African states—problems which have led to the ridicule of the continent—the Shyllon Museum of Art, which draws tourists from all over the world, serves as a repairer of the dented image of the African continent.
One of the grandest beauties of the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art is that it leverages technology to offer visibility and promote African arts. In a world where experiences are increasingly tending towards the virtual, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic, the Museum’s virtual tour option is laudable. This virtual tour option has been so optimized and excellently crafted that it is believed to be comparable to the physical experience.
The Yemi Shyllon Museum of Art contains about 1,000 artworks that are a mixture of traditional and modern works. It is a proud collection of various media arts by celebrated Nigerian artists of the past and the present. The legendary Ben Enwowu, Yusuf Grillo, Aina Onabolu, and others are featured and well-represented. There are also famed contemporary artists like Kelani Abass, Victor Ehikamenor, and Lanre Tejuoso. The museum allows the old to meet the new, in a sharp contrast that projects the diversified beauty and value of African arts.
Specifically, the Making Matter exhibition at the Yemi Shyllon explores how African arts have evolved over the years and how Africanism has been reflected in African artists’ choice of art materials. The Making Matter exhibition explores how modern African artists have stuck to timeless local materials to adapt to new and evolving art forms. Another prominent feature in Nigerian arts is the replication of the societal and political life of the people. The Mirroring Man exhibition depicts this idea as pre-colonial, colonial, post-colonial and contemporary artworks are displayed together to reflect what life in Nigeria as a Nigerian was and what life in Nigeria as a Nigerian is presently. As African arts hugely reflect the lives and times of the people, Nigerian artists are not to be found wanting to make Nigerian arts a mirror of societal constructs, acts, and perceptions.
The pieces in the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art contribute hugely to scholarly debates, discourses, and writings geared towards promoting and elevating Africa. It is, therefore, safe to say that the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art is at the forefront among the African museums that propagate and elevate the continent.