Exploring Nigeria’s Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Arts

The Founding Mothers of Nigerian contemporary art. L-R top: Susanne Wenger, Princess Elizabeth Olowu, Eunice Okeji, Asabi Bakare; bottom: Clara Etso Ugbodaga-Ngu, Chief Constance Afiong ‘Afi’ Ekong, Ladi Kwali. Image by YSMA, used with permission.

One hopeful morning, some undergraduate students of Mass Communication visited the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Arts (YSMA) located within Lagos, Nigeria’s Pan-Atlantic University, to uncover the secrets of the art there and the people’s reactions to it. Our visit to YSMA — the first university museum in Nigeria — was primarily to observe their stunning collection of African arts, as part of our features writing course. However, we ended up being enthralled by an astounding contemporary collection of art created by Nigerian women artists. 

What comes to mind when you hear the word “museum?” In 2014, HuffPost published an article that described at length how people are meant to act and feel on a typical tour through a museum. In summary, the article claimed visitors are: heroically intelligent, full of innate knowledge, strangely peaceful, and intrigued by some piece of art that transports them to some long-ago century, while those in charge are alert yet relaxed, knowing exactly what to say to engross visitors.

Those we met at the YSMA were a broad spectrum of people comprising arts lovers, others like ourselves who were there on an academic exercise, the students from some high schools in Lagos on an educational visit, and some others who just came for sightseeing.

The Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Arts, Pan-Atlantic University, Lagos, Nigeria. Image by YSMA, used with permission

Founded in 2019, the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art is named after Prince Yemisi Shyllon, a Nigerian art collector. Shyllon funded the construction of the building and donated over 1,000 artworks from his vast collection. YSMA offers a “transformative learning experience” to students and the general public, states the museum director, Jess Castellote, on YSMA's website. This is achieved by engaging “diverse audiences” to better appreciate the wealth of “knowledge about Nigerian art” through art exhibitions, educational programs, and visits to the museum. YSMA won the Museum Opening of The Year 2020 award by Apollo Magazine. 

The Invincible Hands exhibition

‘The Comforter’ by Olawunmi Banjo. Screenshot from the Invisible Hands catalog.

The pieces in the Invincible Hands exhibition were meant to highlight women’s contributions to art in Nigeria. This collection is culturally and stylistically rich, re-enforcing the beauty and importance of art in Nigeria.

The erasure of Nigerian women artists is a “historical fact,” assert Ebubechi Nwokoma and Chinyere Nzenwata, Nigerian art critics and staff of YSMA, writing in the Invisible Hands catalog. The result is that “women have received little or no recognition,” nor have they been accorded  “their rightful place in the spotlight.” Consequently, this exhibition “aims at resonating the feminine presence and point of view in the art system from when it emanated and highlighting its significant growth through the contributions of female artists today,” write Nwokoma and Nzenwata.

It is quiet when we walk up to the first work in the collection.

‘Light up the Lamp’ by Ngozi-Omeje Ezema. Screenshot from the Invisible Hands catalog.

At first glance, “Light up the Lamp” by Ngozi-Omeje Ezema appears to be a clump of leaf-shaped clay shells hanging from thin fishing strings. However, upon stepping back, viewers discover that all the shells outline a huge kerosene lamp, those used nationwide before electricity became widespread. Ezema researches and teaches ceramics at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, south-east Nigeria. Her clay artworks reflect a “paradox of hope and despair” while also depicting “how strength is drawn from pain and appointment.”

“Cycle of Life” by Nike Davis. Screenshot from the Invisible Hands catalog.

Textile artwork, “Cycle of Life,” is a floor-to-ceiling work by Nike Okundaye-Davies, popularly known as “Mama Nike.” It is a piece crafted from the adire material characteristic of the Yoruba people. There are several patterns woven in a light blue material over a deep blue background. The work also contains motifs that are symbolic of the artist’s craft (such as scissors) as well as her culture. The Nigerian batik and adire textile designer trained under her grandmother, who taught her traditional cloth weaving, painting, embroidery, and leather craft. She is the owner of the Nike Art Gallery in Lekki, Lagos, which is one of the largest privately owned galleries in Africa.

While I’m appraising Olawumi Banjo’s “The Comforter,” I hear the click of heels on the museum’s floor. I turn and see Madonna, a staff member of the museum. Her green and blue braids are glistening under the lighting. She explains that the work is a hyper-realist painting. The term “hyperrealism” refers to artwork that is created to look photographed, not painted. This work is a painting of a boy comforting his mother, who is seated and dressed in a traditional “Ankara wrapper” outfit and gele (head tie). The artist used a black background in this work, drawing the subjects to the foreground. Banjo, an alumnus of the Pan-Atlantic University is a hyper-realist visual artist specializing in surrealistic landscapes. Banjo’s art explores “hidden realities which confront us individually and collectively across the globe.”

9-Year-Old Bride’ by Peju Alatise. Screenshot from the Invisible Hands catalog.

As I approach “9-Year-Old Bride” by Peju Alatise, I can hear voices coming from the entrance. The museum seems to be getting more visitors. The work is a sculpture that criticizes the practice of child marriage in Nigeria. It consists of several figures dressed in similar “Ankara” material, including a little girl facing forward and a couple of men and women (some without heads) slightly turned away from her. Alatise is a multi-disciplinary artist and architect in Lagos, Nigeria. Her art is “relentlessly experimental and labor-intensive” and cuts across “a variety of mediums, techniques, and materials, including but not limited to paintings, film, installations, and sculptures.”

Quiet reflections

Displayed art at the Yemisi Shyllon Museum. Image by YSMA, used with permission.

Those who went on the tour did nothing but mimic the response of the museum tour staff. The heavy critiquing of the work was reduced to childlike compliments ranging from “This is really cute,” to “I do not understand that one at all,” accompanied by intense sessions of photography of the paintings and their own smiling faces. Quiet reflections on the art turned into heated debate sessions on subjective opinions about which artist did what best. Taoye Idahor’sThat’s What They Said” (2015) was subject to one of these arguments, where students went back and forth on whether she was right to leave a great amount of white space on her artwork. 

And all this was when the students were paying rapt attention. Some minutes into the tour, many of the people there, having gained an adequate amount of knowledge, decided that the best course of action was not to ponder on what they had witnessed but to drop all things museum-related and have a good laugh about nothing in particular. 

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