There is no getting away from Omoba Yemisi Shyllon. An engineer, lawyer, philanthropist, astute business manager and art entrepreneur, not only is he ranked among the world’s top 100 art collectors, he was the largest collector in Africa in 2016. An internationally recognized promoter of art and culture, he is currently Nigeria’s largest private collector with over 7, 000 artworks comprising sculptures, paintings and other media. He established the Omoba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Foundation in 2007 to promote the study and appreciation of Nigerian art and artists both locally and globally. He also established the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art Nigeria’s first privately funded museum at Pan-Atlantic University, Ibeju-Lekki, which recently won the Museum Opening of The Year award, a prize awarded by Apollo magazine. He is the major sponsor of the Five Million Challenge, a project being organized by a group of vibrant youths under the aegis of Humanity Nigeria to rid our streets, canals and gutters of waste plastic bottles. In this interview with NEHRU ODEH and TAIWO OKANLAWON, he speaks about why he decided to sponsor the project, the need to keep the earth safe and the implications if we don’t.
As an art collector and philanthropist, you have contributed so much to art in Nigeria? Why are you interested in saving the environment and the earth?
We are all stakeholders in this environment. And it appears people are not aware of their responsibility to the environment. One of the reasons there is covid-19 is that humanity has abandoned the environment. They have not done what they should to ensure that the environment is kept as healthy as possible. We find gutters and drainages in Nigeria, particularly in Lagos where I grew up. As a kid in the 70s here in Lagos we had what we called Wole Wole. Wole Wole were people who went around, ensuring that drainages were clean, the environment was clean. And you were punished for not taking care of your environment.
These young people have challenged the grown-ups in Lagos and Nigeria; they have made them to be conscious of the fact that we have to focus on the environment. We have to focus on our environment with a view to ensuring that the various negative outcomes of not taking care of our environment does not end up destroying us as a people. They came up with this idea and approached me to sponsor their project with a view to breaking the Guinness World Record for collecting the largest number of waste plastic materials. And of course, I have had some experiences with waste plastic materials. When I go on a boat ride – with my boat – from Apapa to Ilase on pleasure trips, I find the engine of the boat clogging as a result of waste plastic sachets and bottles. I would have to stop the boat in between. I always marvel when I compare our shores with those I have enjoyed in Australia, America, Mexico, England etc. I find their waters are always clean, no grease. Whereas in my own country, the waters are always looking black and stained.
So when they came up with this project of picking up waste plastic bottles and water sachets, I found myself responding positively. Now, there are implications for these waste plastic materials around. They clog our drainages, and you find the Victoria Islands of this world, the Lekkis of this world, becoming a canoe-riding lagoon whenever we have heavy rains and people have to take canoes to their homes. Homes and offices are destroyed as a result of blockages of drainages in Lagos. And of course, if you go to Oworosonki – the under bridge of Oworosonki and some areas of Isale-Eko – you also witness it. So that’s the first point- blocking of drainages. The second point is that so many people are not aware that the fish that we eat peck at these plastic wastes in streams, our lagoon and the ocean and feed on these plastic wastes. The plastic waste in the fish we eat is carcinogenic. They form a very strong medium by which people can easily have cancer. So that is the reason I am trying to, at least, alert the world, the people and the Nigerian government that we all need to do something about the plastic wastes in terms of recycling them and also regenerating plastic materials rather than not regenerate at all. In some countries in the world – for instance in England – if you go to supermarkets you are given paper bags. They have replaced paper bags with plastic bags in super markets. In some states in America, if you go to supermarkets, they give you cloth bags to carry your grocery. But in Nigeria we use plastics with reckless abandon, without being aware of the carcinogenic effect and the blockage of our drainage channels in Nigeria.
The environment has a lot to do with art and aesthetics, which you are passionate about. And as one of the leading art collectors in the world, could you speak about the link between art and the environment?
As a collector, I’m very particular about my environment. When you walk in here, you see everything is prim and proper. It’s part of those things I have developed over time. I have been collecting art since I was at the University of Ibadan. And it has become part of me. So there is a lot of relationship between what we are doing and art, especially when we have planned that about one million of those bottles are going to be used to produce the largest art form in the world, under the Guinness World Record. I think one million of them are going to be used and one million are going to be recycled with the co-operation of LAWMA and some industries. And of course there is one artist who has already mooted that idea to me. His name is Yelloseesee Uwaoma. He is a Goldsmith Master’s degree scholar in art in England. I have acquired some of his works, using waste plastic bottles. I have given three of such works by Yelloseesee Uwaoma to the organizing team of the Earth festival to showcase the positive use of plastic bottles and waste plastic bags in producing art works. As a collector, I have encouraged artists to use waste materials to produce art works. If you go round my garden you will see wires. This is a piece of art produced with wire, ordinary wire. If you go round my garden you will see rejects spark plugs – spark plugs you use for engines. And you have works of art done with rejects nails. So this is in line with my philosophy. I have been encouraging artists in residence. I have sponsored programmes on artists in residence, both local and abroad under my Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Foundation, OYASAF. And so their programmes align with the objectives and goals of OYASAF in not only promoting art and culture but also showcasing our country to the world. And of course this programme will go a long way in showcasing Nigeria to the world. We are going to win the Guinness World Record for the largest waste plastic materials collected not only for recycling but also for producing art works.
You have a passion for art. How did your growing up influence your passion for art and the environment?
My passion for art started at the University of Ibadan. I started collecting art as a part two student. I can also draw. I have my painting in one or two places here. The University of Ibadan made me. At the University of Ibadan I used to go and relax at the zoo. And so when you go round my garden you see animals- the peacock, the bees, the crown cranes, the Australian ducklings etc. We have one 80 year old tortoise in the compound. University of Ibadan created that in me. Also as I was doing a land survey during my part three programme at the University of Ibadan I stumbled into the University of Ibadan Horticultural Centre, where I was wowed by beautiful blossoming flowers. And after that I used to go and relax at the Horticultural Garden. So I thank the University of Ibadan. Because when I was a part two student in the university, I would go and relax at YabaTech on holidays because my grandfather’s house is close to the place. And I also stumbled into the Student Demonstration Collection of the polytechnic. Whenever I was tired in the library I would go there and relax. So that was how I started collecting art work from that tender age. And of course if you ask me about the environment, University of Ibadan remains the best university environment among the old universities. Everything is prim and proper and very environmental friendly there. The trees are still growing. They have not destroyed the trees, unlike many other institutions of its type that have been destroying their natural environment. So I learnt a lot from the University of Ibadan and owe it a lot. I subsequently went to the University of Ife to do a Master’s degree programme. Again I was exposed to their zoo, which is supposed to be the largest in any institution in Nigeria. I was also exposed to the pristine serenity of the University of Ife. At the University of Lagos where I also did some degree programme, they keep their environment clean, even though they are not that blessed with so much land. But they utilize their land mass very well. So I learnt a lot from my various degree programmes at the Universities of Ibadan, Ife and Lagos.
This step you are taking is a great one for humanity and mankind. How does it impact our today and our future? How does it save our today and our future?
Brilliant question. If we go on this way, we would destroy ourselves as a people in Nigeria. When drainages are blocked, sewages will become exposed. When sewages are exposed, our lagoon will overflow. Our streams that feed the lagoons will also overflow. And we are going to destroy our environment and ourselves as a people. As I mentioned earlier on, it has a long-time effect on the amount of fish that feed on waste plastic materials in our lagoons, streams and oceans. And they endanger Nigerians who consume fish on short, medium and long term basis because those fish feed on waste plastic materials. As they continue to feed on it, we will have increasing occurrence of cancer. So that’s the second point. The third point is that this project will highlight the need for Nigerians to take more interest in ensuring that their environment is kept clean, like the days of my fathers, when there were health inspectors, which we Yoruba call Wole Wole.Maybe this project will spotlight the need for the Lagos State government and other state governments to reinvest in public health safety, in terms of how we manage our waste, and how we dispose our waste, in order to ensure that what we do do not threaten the climate; because if what we do threatens the climate, then humanity’s existence will be threatened. The ozone layer is opening up everyday, and it is human waste that is leading to the destruction of the ozone layer. The more the ozone layer opens up, the more the radiation of the sun will have a damaging impact on humanity. There is a limit to how much human skin and human body can tolerate the sun’s radiation. So this project has a far-reaching effect on climate change, which is currently a global issue. And that’s the more reason it is most welcome. Fourthly, it will inculcate in the upcoming generation the need for them to be selfless and contribute to the development and maintenance of their environment. These young people are doing this on a selfless basis, with little or no funds except those given by sponsors. They are so devoted and their efforts are very time-consuming. It requires a lot of co-ordination, and so on that basis it is worth commending. They are also creating precedence for those younger than them, who are going to come up to take what they are doing to another level, for the good of humanity and the good of our nation. Fifthly, what they are doing will draw attention to our corporate stakeholders and governments in order to make them do more for the environment, to spend more for the environment, to invest more in the environment for the purpose of ensuring that humanity and Nigerians don’t suffer from the adverse effect of the poor management of waste plastic materials. And lastly, what they are doing is going to help the populace become aware of their responsibility toward ensuring that they provide a sustainable environment for the survival and continuity of the upcoming generation in Nigeria.
I read one of your articles in which you narrated how difficult it was to value art then until the emergence of the auction market. What are the other things aside from the auction market that add value to art?
First of all, the first thing that adds value to art is that we need to reinforce the creative skills and knowledge of Nigerian artists or art. I have seen that the syllabus of Nigerian artists appears very narrow. For instance, in line with this project of ours, Nigerian artists are not exposed to chemistry of material, the makeup of materials, as a subject. And if Nigerian artists were more exposed, there are many areas that they could use to improve their creativity. Not only that, I have discovered that they also need to be exposed to the basic elements of marketing management. Home-based Nigerian artists are more trained to producing than marketing; whereas, for every artist, the total concept of creativity should go beyond production. It should not only be about the market but also about finance. So when an artist produces a piece of work he doesn’t know much about how best to market it in that same environment. Secondly, he is not fully aware of the various investment possibilities in that art piece. If Nigerian art syllabus could be expanded to include marketing and finance, it would go a long way in improving the value and skills of Nigerian artists. Lastly, I have given opportunities to a large number of international scholars from Emory University, Texas University, Stanford University, University of Vienna in Austria, to mention a few. And I have come to see that they even appear to know more about Nigerian art history than the products of Nigerian art schools. When many of them come to OYASAF for the philanthropic training I give them, under the art residency programme and also for the OYASAF fellowship programme for their PhD, I find that the content in terms of Nigerian art history is very, very low. And I find it very disappointing. Whereas, I have had scholars who came to study here and were much more knowledgeable than Nigerian artists. So we need to also look at that area of Nigerian art because art history forms one of the most important fulcrums for developing those who will now go into art valuation. Art valuation requires a deep knowledge of art history. So that is another area in which you can improve the value of art in Nigeria. By having more and more Nigerians go into the basic training of art valuation, art management and art investment they make a lot of difference. And one of the ways in which we can increase the value of art in Nigeria is for us Nigerians to see art from the angle of its intrinsic value, to see art from the angle of its impact in promoting the history of our people, the values of our people, the identity of our people as per definition of culture rather than seeing art from a myopic, religious angle. The average Nigerian sees art from a very myopic angle of religion. I have had cause to deliver lectures both in Nigeria and abroad, indicating that religion is only one-seventh of the content of culture. And of course, that one-seventh segmentation also has thousands of related issues.
Finally, corporate organizations and government statutory organizations need to invest in the preservation, conversation and promotion of art. In other countries of the world that I have visited, corporate entities go a long way in promoting art by buying art works, keeping them in their banks and offices etc. But in Nigeria because of this problem of religion, myopic perception of art from a very prejudiced and religious angle, we do not give art the value it deserves. And it is going to rub off on our potential to diversify our economy. One of the greatest benefits of the diversification of Nigerian economy is the promotion of tourism. I have been to 60 countries in the world and I can tell you that all those countries have one thing in common: they develop their natural heritage sites and create artificial heritage sites, using art. They also promote their historical background. You know recently Donald Trump was talking about bringing down statues. These are parts of aesthetics. Well, in my country, even those states that are pretending to promote tourism, using art, they site their so called monuments – which are not, by definition, monuments – in roundabouts where visitors do not have access to the works, where there are no ancillary amenities to promote the utility value of those heritage sites. I do not want to give specific examples, but I am sure you all know what I’m talking about. And when I say pretentious monuments, I mean the materials they use to produce those works do not qualify those works as monuments. If you go round my garden, all those works you see there are either metal or bronze, which is alloy or copper and tin. They last centuries. Napoleon Bonaparte in the 18th century, produced art works in Paris. Those monuments still exists because the materials with which they are produced are durable. But you find my country producing so-called monuments that cannot stand the test of time and durability.
You have invested so much in the arts and humanities through your philanthropy. What drives that passion?
I have invested in art so much so that one day I told my wife that “some people think I’m stupid for taking the bulk of my assets, which is art, and donating it to a museum I spent my money to build. And the value is humongous, when you add the value of the art work as at today’s market price, not at the price I bought them. I then asked her supposed I decided to sell those art works and she asked me what I would do with the money. Am I going to eat more food than what I’m eating? Am I going to wear double dress? Am I going to use more than the cars I have in the garage, which I don’t show off. I don’t show wealth. It’s wrong. So I believe that every human being comes to this world to do one thing: that is, to survive. We all come to this world to survive. We are born to this world. We didn’t choose to come; we just found ourselves born. And our parents ensure we survive when we cannot ensure our own survival. And when we can ensure our survival, we work at survival till we die. However, there are three types of survivalists. You have the negative ones. The bulk of Nigerian politicians are negative survivalists. The bulk of those who steal money in the corporate world are negative survivalists. They just loot. They don’t add anything to society that can ensure that those coming after them survive better. They tap from their environment. They tap from their interaction, from me and you. They loot you and then take care of their immediate family. Then they die. There is also the passive survivalist. The passive survivalist is the kind of person that comes to this world to survive. Ajala, who travelled all over the world, is an example of the passive survivalist. He went round the world. He enjoyed, took photographs. But did he add value to society? Maybe his family, yes. Maybe his immediate family, yes. But did he add value to our common humanity? No. The positive survivalists are those who in the cause of their sojourn on earth survive, and at the same time add value to society than they met it. They create positive impact while surviving.
When you now ask me why I collected art. In 2007, that is thirteen years ago, I identified that I had so much art works. And how do I make a difference in the world in such a way that I can become a positive survivalist? I have told you how I started collecting art out of interest, went to read in a school environment and got interested. Then it became a passion. And from a passion it became an obsession. And it is now a glorious obsession. It is glorious in the sense that I’m using it to create positive impact in the world, establishing a museum, setting up a foundation that gives grants to people from different parts of the world to come and learn about our culture, write Masters and PhD theses, and also help artists produce works that promote our culture, our creativity, our values and gives us an enviable position in the world, a position that we can say we contributed to civilization. Because when you look at the Ife Bronze, it was produced around the 12th century, the Benin Bronze was produced around the 14th century, the Igbo Ukwu Bronze was produced much earlier, around the 9th century etc. There was technology behind all those bronze works. We were not taught how to do it. Our people came up with it. And so we were able to showcase to the Western world that we had a history, that we had science and technology before they came on board, before they destroyed our system with slavery and colonization.