Dr Jess Castellote, the Director of the Museum, received me warmly and he immediately took me on a tour of the facility, which opened to the public in October 2019. While we were at it, he explained how all the works in the museum’s permanent collection were acquired. At least a thousand 1000 pieces were donated by Engineer Yemisi Shyllon, after whom the museum is named.
He also gave a quick background to the ongoing exhibition, titled Making Matter and which showcases how Nigerian artists from time immemorial have produced exquisite art using various materials, including (but not limited to): wood, textile, clay, beads, bronze and steel, among others.
“Artists across time and space have explored materials not only with ritual and symbolic significance but also social, political and economic functions,” writes the curator, Iheanyi Onwuegbucha in his introduction. “This exhibition invites us to reflect on the material culture of Nigeria through engagement with the various materials explored by Nigerian artists through the ages.”
A second, complementary exhibition on the upper floor shows how “different generations of Nigerian artists have engaged with their indigenous cultures and the socio-political milieu in the country, playing the role of their society’s conscience’.
I stared in wonder at the sheer range (and age) of the works, some dating back centuries (Think Benin, Ife and Igbo Ukwu bronzes, and Nok terra cottas, all so very well preserved) and paintings from the early 1900s.
There are rare pieces by Bruce Onabrakpeya (The complete collection of Stations of the Cross stands out), Aina Onabolu, Erhabo Emokpae (possible created and exhibited during FESTAC ’77), Demas Nwoko, Ben Enwonwu, (multiple pieces), Ben Osawe, David Dale, Bisi Fakeye, Jimoh Buraimoh, El Anatsui and lots more.
Call this collection the gold standard of Nigerian art and you won’t be wrong.
And without a doubt, this is one of the most diverse and remarkable collection of works by Nigerian artists – ancient, contemporary or modern, living or dead – exhibited under one roof anywhere.
I think everyone who can, young or old, should see this place. It’s quite a drive if you’re coming from the Mainland, but it’s worth the distance. It’s almost like being inside the British Museum, but in a more modest space. The atmosphere here is refreshing. It feels almost like I was walking in another world, free of the afternoon heat and rush-hour traffic.
Another interesting thing: Dr Castellote designed the museum building and supervised the construction from start to finish, ensuring that every detail is as it should be (observe the bare, unconventional stairs when you go).
As he walked me into the building (which has no windows and is cooled by a built-in system that mimics how a fridge works), he took his time to explain to me how he decided on every feature of the structure, hanging roof and all.
“I wanted there to be a seamless transition between the exterior part of the building and the interior section,” he explained. Behind us, a towering Bruce Onakbrakpeye piece (made from re-purposed car parts, and which I last saw at Freedom Park in 2019 thereabout) stood imperiously behind us.
Imagine standing on your balcony and it still feels like you’re under a bus shelter, your view undisturbed.
Inside, the walls demarcating the different ‘rooms’, for want of a more suitable description, don’t touch. According to Dr Castellote, he did this purely to give visitors a sense of continuity, of fluidity. It’s all one enclosed space – almost like a maze.
The museum, he added, is also taking a different approach to how the public relates to the work on display. They want visitors not just to admire the works for their aesthetics but to also engage with them, to understand under what conditions they were produced and in what context, in what age.
To make his point, he explained the process court artists in the Old Benin Kingdom produced all those amazing bronze pieces – now at the centre of global attention — in the 16th century and why they are survive to date.
The YSMA has 17 Benin bronzes in its collection (not all of them are on display).
Dr Castellote believes we should be teaching today’s student population more about this important heritage that were not looted from Nigeria.
To kick things off, the museum has started with primary schools in the immediate vicinity of the university, hosting the pupils to daylong education and enlightenment sessions. On the day I visited, I saw a batch of students being taken lectured about an impressive installation at the reception. I immediately recognised it as a creation of Prof Peju Layiwola.
“The success of the museum will be measured by how much we are able to engage and the impact on people,” a statement on the museum’s website reads.