By Toyin Falola
It was Les Brown, an American politician, who said, “life takes on meaning when you become motivated, set goals, and charge after them in an unstoppable manner.” In this sentence of fewer than 20 words, Brown summarizes the trajectory of ambition and the key ingredients that make an ambition worthwhile and successful. In his conversation with Victor Ekpuk at the last edition of the Toyin Falola Interviews, Prince Yemisi Shyllon reinforced Brown’s quote in his own words, and perhaps without ever having come across Brown’s quote of the same similarity. Prince Shyllon attributed his venture into the collection of art and investment in art and culture to a trajectory that stemmed from his search to create a distinct personal identity. In this piece, I reflect more broadly on his answers to the questions posed by Ekpuk.
Before actively collecting art and crafts for several years, Prince Shyllon enjoyed successful career stints at an executive level in multinational companies, with government institutions and boards, as an investor, and as a board member for companies. These, without the other aspects of his life he eventually took upon himself, are enough to make a name for oneself anywhere in the world. However, the prince chose to aspire to something greater than just making a name for himself; thus, the processes for bringing his legacy to life were set in motion. Starting with a search for an innate and unique identity, Prince Shyllon’s interest in the arts and humanities, which he had let go earlier in life for his deep-founded interest in calculations and mathematics, resurfaced. So, like the theory of growth and development — where nature and nurture are said to be equal contributors — Prince Yemisi Shyllon’s resurfaced natural talent soon fed on the elements he interacted with and his experiences during the earliest post-education stage of his life. What started as an interest became a passion, and he began actively collecting art and seeking out contemporary artists.
As Brown said, life begins to take on meaning when you charge after your goals in an unstoppable manner. This can be likened to what Prince Shyllon’s passion for art translated into an obsession founded on goals to promote and preserve African art and culture, patronize contemporary and young Nigerian artists and bring them to the limelight, and create an ecosystem that will give African arts a respected place in the world, one that has extended in different forms, including residency programs for critics, scholars, artists, and art investors looking to study African and Nigerian arts — this, effectively becoming now larger than life or a single existence, is his legacy.
Legacy is a concept that stems from one person but is larger than its progenitor. Prince Shyllon’s unique identity is what has birthed his legacy. He mentioned something which holds: the bulk of the people who know him today — and I boldly claim a percentage starting from 90 — know him, not for his exploits in the other fields of endeavour he succeeded in, but as an art collector and promoter. The bulk of the recognition and awards he received connected to his deeds in art and culture. For generations to come, his name will surely be listed among the past executives of some of the multinationals he worked for; however, the bulk of the listings of his name and the popular association of his name in decades and centuries to come will be for art collection, culture, and art promotion. For Prince Yemisi Shyllon, art is not only a vehicle for conveying cultural values and beliefs, as you would see in the average African society; art has become culture itself. Culture is a sum of the way of life of a people, and its components are personal cultures — the ways of life of individual persons that come together as the atomic parts of the overarching societal culture. Prince Yemisi Shyllon’s life is fully defined by art. Lodged within his culture are enviable world views, robust associations, and a holistic approach to living.
Art is considered a part of an elitist culture, where it takes those on the upper strata of the societal hierarchy to appreciate and collect art in its varied forms, but Prince Shyllon’s views, as shared during the interview, served as a solid demystification of some beliefs — shall we call them misconceptions — about art. Art can be appreciated and enjoyed by all. However, it takes a deep level of self-awareness — which will, in turn, spark a high level of awareness of one’s society and the environment — to appreciate art. When one has attained a deep level of self-awareness, such a person can remove self or ego from being the centre of focus, a mindset that will result in an all-new awareness and profound appreciation of the ubiquitous existence of art.
Aside from being a way of life and a source of joy, art has also served as a berth for a robust investment portfolio for Prince Shyllon. Investment is an aspect of art culture; when one is as passionate about art as Prince Shyllon, that passion takes varying forms of deployment, one of which is to task the self with sourcing and investing in artworks and artists. Investing in art means being deeply passionate about art and understanding its uses for humans and in human societies. These are prerequisites for taking on a life of investment in anything — whether it be a cryptocurrency and other forms of blockchain technology, art, jewellery, real estate, or stocks and bonds.
Of truth, art remains one of the best ways to diversify one’s investment portfolio. However, it all must start from a genuine interest in art; for you cannot successfully invest in something you do not understand, do not appreciate, or place value on. Prince Shyllon is the collector of the earliest works of several contemporary Nigerian and African artists. He believes that singular move, which has served the artists as the stepping stone to the limelight, has also brought him immense personal benefits, being profitable investments that will yield multiple folds of their initial worth.
Art is a venture that has multiplying effects on society. Aside from being a lucrative and stable source of investment for individuals, art is a way to bring exposure to society and facilitate such society’s attraction of external investors. Beyond that, a society that fully embraces and is actively into art and art output is a society where the members will be gainfully and productively engaged. Due to its enduring and long-lasting nature, art is a vehicle through which legacies and societal histories can be retained and transmitted. Furthermore, a societal embrace of art is a marker for development, self-introspection, and a high level of willingness and commitment to growth and transformation.
When the people of a society intentionally venture into art expression, preservation, and promotion, it means such people have first recognized the importance of their culture, values, existence, and identity. And a society that has attained such levels of recognition is waiting to skyrocket through growth. Examples of such exist in Japan, where anime and manga are two forms of art that power the exposure and development of Japanese art and culture to the world. These art forms have been powering the exposure, adoption, and acceptance of Japanese culture and contributing to the development of the Japanese economy, especially as there are indirect contributions from anime and manga to other industries like food and clothing merchandise. On the other hand is France, a country whose focus on art and investment in art and art museums has served as a lucrative avenue to boost national revenue — seeing as tourism, valued at 211 billion in 2019 — is the main contributor and driver of the French economy.
Nigeria is a country that is struggling to have an overarching sense of identity that citizens can aspire to, so much, so that ethnic identities supersede the Nigerian identity — thus leading to the factions, disgruntling, and lack of cohesion that bedevil the Nigerian spatial entity.
As pointers to other ethnic groups, the Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, Efik, Tiv, and Urhobo consciousness and identity are stronger than what currently serve as the vehicles of national consciousness and identity in the country. However, one way of combating the issue is for the country to unify through art. Nigeria has the potential to solve its identity crisis if there are concerted national efforts to express the Nigerian identity through art and promote such identity, especially in a way that shows it also relates to the several ethnic groups. This way, the Yoruba, with their strong sense of Yoruba consciousness, identity, and culture, can see the reflection of their identity and art in the overarching national art expressions.
This endeavour will cut across the nooks and crannies of the country and involve government bodies and agencies, private stakeholders, and researchers. It is a move that has to go beyond the documented policymaking lacking implementation — as is often the case in our country. It should not be another means to take pay cuts and self-indulging shares of resources that have come to be termed as the national cake. It is a national project that has to go beyond constructing and abandoning cultural centres in 3 or 4 cities in the country. It might just be the needed starting point for the country.
This is yet another dimension of thought that the interview has opened up, lending credence to the vitality of what we do in interviewing Nigerian, African, and Pan-African personalities.
(This is Part Two of the interview report with Prince Yemisi Shyllon conducted on January 15, 2023. For the transcripts: