By Toyin Falola
On December 3, 2022, the Pan-Atlantic University will confer an honorary doctorate on Prince Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon in recognition of his immense and impactful work in the furtherance and promotion of Nigerian art. Prince Shyllon’s commitment to art and engineering is legendary. I am addicted to the two television programs he sponsors on art and engineering. He is a vanguard, an avant-garde collector, a pathfinder in the proportion of Ogun, the Yoruba god of iron. Having been in his unique spaces—full of wonders and splendors—I also see a Sango in him. Shyllon, a prince of Ake, can jump off Olumo Rock and land softly on the ground. His achievements are hard to define in human terms.
There is a popular and acceptable sentiment that passion is never enough, that one must push beyond love and passion for a cause or phenomenon to have a chance at success. This aphorism might hold in several cases; however, for every established phenomenon, there is at least an exception—an outlier, defying odds, going against rationalized outcomes, defeating doubts, and conquering conventional beliefs. For the established belief that passion is never enough, Prince Yemisi Shyllon, who has more than succeeded in his areas of passion, is an outlier. He is a man who sided with his passion for arts and, in so doing, became the modern Ogun, the pathfinder, forging through never-before aspects and shaping out pathways in them. This, he did literally and figuratively. As an art collector—Africa’s largest collector at that—Shyllon has been at the forefront of discovering many African talents who have gone on to dazzle the world, finding their path and evolving into globally recognized and appreciated artists. If we traced back such an accomplishment with rippling effects of positivity on the nation’s global outlook and talent export, it would be to a passion that this successful man dared to chase.
Prince Yemisi Shyllon and I have at least one similar education history, sharing the alumnus status of two of Nigeria’s best and most prominent universities. While our times at these academic institutions might have been inverse—he had his first degree at the premier university, the University of Ibadan (UI), where I had my most recent degree, and I had my first degree at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU)), where he had his Master of Business Administration degree—one cannot but admit that Prince Shyllon is a well-read technocrat turned collector and pathfinder. After a fulfilling academic sojourn in UI, leading to an engineering degree and a Master of Business Administration with distinction from OAU three years after his Bachelor’s degree, Prince Shyllon was positioned to have a fulfilling career. However, his love for law spurred him to bag yet another degree at the University of Lagos. The vastness of Prince Shyllon’s knowledge and experience is best summarized by his earliest academic endeavors—that a man could have excelled in engineering, marketing and finance (his MBA specialization), and the law tells of a man with sound and diverse knowledge. It is not surprising that after his academic sojourns, he quickly rose through the ranks in the corporate world, becoming the first African Executive Director of Nigerite Limited—Nigeria’s largest manufacturer of building materials.
Prince Shyllon’s emergence as the holder of such an elevated position at a multi-national at the prime age of 31 speaks to several things. Firstly, he strategically underwent programs to give him an edge and position him for the career he had envisioned. Secondly, his qualities exceed sheer brilliance and intelligence and include uncanny business acumen, such that he could rise from mid-level to senior career roles at a large firm in a matter of years. His focus, business acumen, education, and sheer brilliance also came to play when he served as the legal adviser of ETEX’s African region (the parent company of Nigerite Limited). When preparation meets opportunity, the resultant effects of the encounter positively blow out of proportion, and so it was for the early career life of Prince Shyllon. His technocratic and corporate expertise and experience go beyond his early years at Nigerite, as he also held top-level advisory and leadership positions in corporate and government organizations. As a 37-year-old proud Egba man, Shyllon was the Chairman, Board of Directors, Ogun State Broadcasting Corporation and Ogun State TV. He also chaired the Ogun State Government’s Raigate Investment Company and Gateway Tourism Corporation. Besides these roles, his stewardship extended to the national level, where he was a pivotal member of the National Think Tank.
While holding all these positions and serving on several boards and committees for private companies, corporate bodies and organizations, and government institutions, some of which he still serves on to date, Prince Yemisi Shyllon had a much deeper passion for tourism and art. As a profound lover of African arts and believer in the touristic potential of the African continent, he started collecting artworks from his second year of undergraduate study at the University of Ibadan, and in 2007, his long-nursed passion birthed the Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Foundation of Art. Today, the foundation is Nigeria’s largest private art collection, with about 15 years of existence. Beyond being the largest private collector of art, Prince Shyllon has, through his foundation, realized his dream of promoting Nigerian art and artists. The foundation has resources—art galleries, art residency programs, collaborations with corporate institutions and government bodies, support and sponsorship—through which he actively promotes and projects Nigerian art and artists at a large scale to the global audience. Many artists had their earliest works collected by Prince Shyllon, thus paving the way for recognition and exponential growth for these artists.
To gauge how pivotal his work as a collector has been in the Nigerian, African, and global art scene, we must consider how Prince Shyllon has over 7000 artworks of Nigerian artists across genres, ages, and timelines. Also, he has over 55,000 photographs of various Nigerian festivals, many of which are fast going extinct and hardly preserved, no thanks to the decline in the national investment in and consideration of arts and tourism. Through his initiative of collecting and preserving these photographs, Prince Shyllon has registered himself as one of the strongest preservers of Nigerian history, although he never took an interest in history while in school. He believes he has a calling and a legacy that transcends him; therefore, he is not only collecting artworks out of passion but also to fulfill his mission. This is evident in how he has made his collection easily accessible to museums, educational institutions, and scholars, and in so doing, bringing much-needed attention to the beauty of African art (especially that of Nigerian origin) and how our stories and histories are being told through art.
Prince Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon’s actions also reflect the belief that “the legacy transcends the man,” particularly in the way he has collaborated with other organizations and foundations to promote Nigerian art through exhibitions, documenting Nigeria’s major festivals, and art residencies. He is a man whose inner characteristics of generosity and selflessness are shown in his love for art. Through the Residency Program of his foundation, close to 100 artists of varying media and genres from within and outside Nigeria have benefitted from research into and a study of his collection, coupled with strategic meetings with Nigerian art stakeholders and the provision of a serene environment to work, study, and practice throughout the program. His generosity extends to other art-related initiatives, like the funding of a Professorial Chair of Visual Art and Design at the University of Port Harcourt. He is also famously known for generously donating artwork to the Lagos Freedom Park and the University of Lagos. The popular sculpture of a graduate on the University of Ibadan’s Oduduwa Road is also courtesy of Prince Shyllon.
Similarly, he donated to the Ade-Ajayi Garden at the University of Ibadan and restored Ben Enwonwu’s famous 1952 painting to the University of Ibadan Vice-Chancellor’s office. Prince Shyllon is an alumnus who keeps giving back to his alma mater. Beyond artworks, he also supported the restoration of the University of Ibadan Zoo, and in his magnanimous generosity, he contributed impactful financial resources to the creation of the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art at the Pan-African University, Lagos, making it the first privately-funded university museum of art in Nigeria. His initial donation to this establishment was a grand generosity of 1000 artworks. Since then, he has served as the Grand Donor and Chairman of the museum’s supervisory council.
Prince Shyllon’s life, work, engagements, and interactions these past decades speak of and project his love for and commitment to the advancement of Nigerian art, for which he has received national and international recognition. He is a worthy example, and his life and deeds serve as an inspiration to many.
In the end, the best lives are those spent furthering the cause of humanity and actively promoting peace and the good in our human races. Prince Shyllon has done this and continues to do so through his work, which is why I am beyond pleased at the news of yet another deserved recognition coming his way. Honorary doctorates are an honor, a privilege, but there are instances that they almost feel like something deserved. In such instances, the honored person is worthy of recognition and appreciation. The same sentiments apply in the case of this honorary doctorate coming Prince Shyllon’s way.
Congratulations on this recognition, Omooba Dr. Shyllon, Eniyan iyi, and thank you for being the quintessential proof that good still lives among humans.