Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art, Ibeju-Lekki
Opened October 2019
The Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art (YSMA) at Pan-Atlantic University on the Lekki peninsula, two hours’ drive east of Lagos, opened last year as the latest of a wave of privately funded institutions across Africa that in the past five years have transformed the museum sector on the continent. The Yoruba prince Yemisi Shyllon – the country’s foremost art collector – donated $1.7m towards its establishment and 15 years of maintenance, along with 1,000 works from his collection. Together with the university’s own holdings, and donations from contemporary Nigerian artists, Shyllon’s gift means that the museum boasts one of the most impressive permanent collections in Nigeria – ranging from contemporary West African artists such as El Anatsui to historic sculptures, with particularly rich holdings of Nigerian modernists such as Bruce Onobrakpeya and Uche Okeke – housed in a smart red-concrete building with some 1,200 sq m gallery space, designed by the Spanish-Nigerian architect Jess Castellote, the museum’s inaugural director.
But the YSMA is also something entirely new. As the first privately funded university museum in the country – the result of five years of collaborative planning by Shyllon and Pan-Atlantic – its founding ambition is to reimagine the way that Nigerian history is taught to young people through its art. Current displays explore the use of traditional materials such as clay, wood, metal and bronze, and the ways in which Nigerian artists have engaged with the history of their nation over the previous century.
For its supporters, the YSMA’s role as a teaching museum, changing the way that young people in Nigeria understand themselves and their culture in relation to historical objects and artworks, is paramount. Charlotte Ashamu, associate director of advancement and external affairs at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art (and a member of the YSMA’s board of advisors), points to the chance the museum offers to ‘positively impact a key segment of our population: youth’; the artist and art historian Peju Layiwola tells me that ‘the YSMA has acquired valuable works of art made by Nigerian artists, thus making it possible for a younger generation of Nigerians to see these works within their own cultural space.’
During the pandemic and amid the recent unrest in Lekki, the museum has continued to focus its efforts on developing educational programmes and resources, including its ‘6000 Youths’ outreach programme designed to introduce local secondary-school students to object-based learning. ‘The success of the museum,’ the institution has stated, ‘will be measured by how much we are able to engage.’ The imagination and commitment with which it has begun this mission are everywhere apparent.
Samuel Reilly is editorial assistant at Apollo.
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