Seeking clarity in a Nigerian art museum
Art critic Emmanuel Iduma is emerging from a pandemic rut by visiting the Yemisi Shyllon Art Museum on the outskirts of Lagos.
After nearly seven years abroad, I returned home to Lagos in December 2019. Three months later, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Nigerian government announced a lockdown. The city entered a state of inaccessibility that lasted nearly six months. Parts of town that were ordinarily cacophonous with the horns of impatient drivers and the commotion of shoppers settled into anxious silence. Food could only be ordered inside; in city restaurants, tables were stacked in dark corners. Even the endless stream of construction workers has disappeared, making the empty, roofless buildings seem haunted.
During those months, I often remembered the pleasures I had taken for granted as a writer and assistant professor at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, namely frequent visits to museums and galleries. I felt the distinct feeling of living in a timeless era, as if the version of myself that was suddenly in Lagos was irreconcilable with who I had been elsewhere.
The digital art scene in Lagos
Yet soon enough, I was content to be in Lagos without seeing any art, an activity that suddenly seemed unnecessary in an age of existential and viral threats. Even when things started to return to normal and galleries and art exhibits were allowed access again, I limited my experience to browsing from my computer screen. I spent hours browsing the 2020 editions of ART X Lagos and the LagosPhoto Festival, which, although continental in scope, were entirely virtual.
Then, one day in early October 2021, I found myself browsing the site of the Yemisi Shyllon Art Museum, a new private museum on the outskirts of Lagos. I wondered if her collection – a wide array of pieces spanning multiple eras of Nigerian art – might be the perfect reintroduction to art in the city I now called home. By the morning of my drive, the streets of Lagos had regained their pre-pandemic vigor.
The winding road to the Yemisi Shyllon Art Museum
Twenty minutes into my ninety-minute journey, as I made my way towards the outskirts of town, the traffic lights disappeared, giving way to free intersections that required as much patience as they did. daring to pass. These suburbs were dominated by fenced communities. The large, closed entrances were named after sprawling mini-estates: Diamond Estate, Crest Estate, Beachwood Estate. Elsewhere, giant billboards announced the upcoming closed communities, along with the exorbitant sums required as deposits for buy-ins. Pedestrians continued, hurrying across the street in front of oncoming traffic. I was upset, given all the time I had spent inside. But it was also a pleasure to travel further Lagos than I had done since my return. Every inch of the more than 40 kilometers was a reward for the excruciating isolation of the previous year.
And then my navigation app told me I was fifteen minutes from Pan-Atlantic University, where the Yemisi Shyllon museum is located. The map said I had to turn around at some point, but everywhere I looked it seemed to be under construction – Lagos is a city in constant construction. A man dressed in a work vest suggested that I go on foot, because from where we were and given the state of the road, it was impossible to enter the university by car.
I walked for about ten minutes over swamps, only to fall into a muddy hole and quickly turn around. The man who had sent me for my walk to nowhere now showed me a tap where I could wash my shoes and my feet. By the time I finally got to the museum – not on foot, but in my car – I was 30 minutes late for my visit.
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A guided tour of more than 1,000 works
The museum is a vast expanse of ruby-red brick, windowless and light against the blue sky. The only opening to the outside world is an entrance positioned near the edge of the cube-shaped structure. The university itself is a modest complex; three buildings stand just east of the museum, encircled by seemingly endless expanses of undeveloped land.
I approached a woman sitting alone on a long information desk. I told him that I had signed up for a tour. – Interesting, she said, as a surprise. Repeatedly but brilliantly, she proceeded to describe the contents of the museum. Guided tours are available for an additional fee throughout the day and can be arranged reserved here.
Donated by Prince Yemisi Shyllon – lawyer, engineer and stockbroker – the collection includes more than 1,000 works. Isioma, my guide, gave information on the trajectory of our visit: we would start with the gallery on the ground floor, largely devoted to an ongoing exhibition called Invincible hands, featuring contemporary art by Nigerian women. Next, we headed to the gallery above, where a selection of works from the permanent collection was located.
Reconnect with art, post-containment
Like a kid surprised by their better-than-expected test scores, I was elated as I walked with Isioma into the downstairs gallery. The range was eclectic, with paintings, sculptures, collages and photographs by up to 38 artists. Isioma demanded an engagement, asking me every now and then to guess what material had been used for certain works of art whether one was clay or paper, wood or bronze. Sometimes I imagined that her enthusiasm, as she attended to a single visitor, made up for the absence of a larger crowd. I didn’t see any other clients in any of the galleries during the time she showed me around. Visiting a museum in the middle of a working day – in a city of no less than 23 million people and in a country with the third highest unemployment rate in the world – was a luxury few could afford. to offer.
But that, in a way, was a work trip for me. I hoped that he could inspire future writings, that he could push me to regard art as preponderant, as I had done before the confinements. And there was something else. Art has a way of illuminating your priorities. When I watched, for example, “Ola II” by Abayomi Barber – a dark bronze bust of a woman peering into the distance with tender and determined poise – I thought of my wife. I felt grateful for how easily we organized our days, waking up with each other and working from home. I wish she had been there with me, so every photo I took of what I saw was sent to her in preparation for when we get back together.
After Isioma and I walked up a staircase bathed in warm light, I became even more in awe of the breadth of the collection. I immediately recognized the paintings of Aina Onabolu, a painter born in 1882, known for her work in portraiture, and often called the father of modern Nigerian art. There was a piece by Ben Enwonwu, once commissioned to make a bronze sculpture of Queen Elizabeth II. For the first time since returning to Lagos from New York, I was surrounded by Nigerian art, without the mediation of a screen or the distance of an ocean. It was good.
After showing me around, Isioma let me wander alone. As I took more photographs of the artwork, circling the galleries again and again, standing face to face with the Benin bronzes and the Nok terracotta, I felt skepticism set in. The museum was open to everyone, but how many wanted to make the trip? Was I an exception to the rule in a town I call home?
Hope for a more accessible future
Then, shortly before leaving, I spoke with Michael Oseghale, the director of the museum. It was a secluded place, he admitted, but he hoped that since an airport was being built nearby, the suburb of Ibeju-Lekki would continue to expand and the museum would attract new ones. neighbors. The museum, he continued, was affiliated with a university without an art department, and so they catered to a wide range of disciplines, seizing every opportunity to increase the learning experience for students. Graphic design students could learn about color combinations using paints, and accounting students could learn about asset valuation by studying Benin bronzes, he said.
Sharing stories of Nigerian artists
Oseghale reassured me not only by his knowledge but also by his awareness of the challenges of being a museum manager in Lagos. I felt real anger when he remembered that a university student visiting the museum said, “I didn’t know Nigeria had artists.
“What we’re doing here is telling our own stories with the artwork that we have,” Oseghale said.
My own story was best evoked in one of the paintings of the Invincible hands exhibition: “Flight Conditions” by Wura Natasha-Ogunji. It is an imposing abstract work painted in oil; a range of colors distributed unevenly on a large sheet of paper. Watching him was like watching a nimbus move in the sky. It matched how I thought about the past year, which I’ve spent most indoors: full of signs of what was to come, like the moment between a thunderclap and a downpour. When I walked out of the university gate, it started to rain.
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