Jess Castellote on the Birth of the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art
Lagos-based Spanish architect Jess Castellote started out in Nigeria as a project manager in 1984. He has since then combined his professional work with an intense involvement with the Nigerian art scene, including organising significant exhibitions. Since 2008, Castellote has also maintained A View from My Corner, a widely accessed blog on contemporary art in Nigeria. He has written two books, Contemporary Nigerian Art in Lagos Private Collection: New Trees in an Old Forest and Oshinowo, and has published several papers focused on developing the Nigerian art scene. In addition, he has acted as an independent art advisor to several private and corporate bodies. He is presently the director of the Virtual Museum of Modern Nigerian Art, an online educational resource he initiated at Pan-Atlantic University, Lagos. He is also the director of the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art. In this interview with Omenka, Castellote discusses the establishment of the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art, its design, and future projects.
What informed the creation of the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art (YSMA) at Pan-Atlantic University (PAU)?
The idea of a museum at PAU goes back quite a few years. LBS has, for the past two decades, given consistent attention to the arts. Since Pan-Atlantic University opened her doors, first at the Victoria Island campus and then at the main one in Ibeju-Lekki, the arts have been an integral part of the life of the university. By now, PAU has put together a good collection of artworks from contemporary Nigerian artists. PAU does not yet have a department of fine arts, but—as a natural development of the growth of its collection—the university had, for years, looked for a way to create an art museum to host its collection along with works from artists and collectors. The initial master plan for the new campus included a provision for a future university museum.
In 2011, the university’s website started hosting a pioneering project in the country: The Virtual Museum of Modern and Contemporary Nigerian Art. Soon, the university—at that time still named Pan-African University—received proposals from a couple of Nigerian collectors to help set up a university art museum at PAU. In September 2014, Prince Yemisi Shyllon presented a proposal to PAU for the creation of a university museum hosting works from his collection. The proposal was accepted by the university. Prince Shyllon generously agreed to give 1,000 artworks from his huge collection to PAU’s university museum and committed himself to donate a substantial amount of money towards the construction of the museum building and towards its long-term sustainability. The museum was named the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art (YSMA). Construction work started in 2018. In December 2018, the university appointed me as the first director of the museum. The building is expected to open to the public in October 2019.
Though a relatively new phenomenon in Africa, university art museums have a long history in other parts of the world. In Nigeria, several universities and polytechnics have art galleries attached to their art departments, but until now, none of them had promoted a full-fledged art museum as an independent unit within the university structure.
This project would not have been possible without the support of the university, but above all, it would not have become a reality without the commitment, vision, and generosity of Yemisi Shyllon. Most collectors worry about what will happen to their collections after they pass away. Offering their works to an institution that can guarantee its preservation, proper documentation, and display is a very attractive option for them. Knowing the track record of PAU and its commitment to excellence, it is not surprising that Prince Shyllon decided to entrust such a significant part of his collection to the university. The university, the art community, and the public cannot but be extremely grateful to him. Thanks to his decision, backed by deeds, Nigeria has one more instrument to preserve, document, and exhibit her artistic heritage.
Considering the dearth of museum institutions in Nigeria resulting from a lack of government interest, how financially sustainable is the YSMA in the long term?
Setting up the governance and management structures capable of ensuring the long-term sustainability of the project is of capital importance at the beginning of a project of this magnitude. The YSMA, as a unit of Pan-Atlantic University, has its governance, management, and advisory structures integrated into those of the university, and they follow the terms and conditions stipulated in the agreement between PAU and Prince Yemisi Shyllon for the establishment of the museum. Several bodies are involved in these processes. The Museum Supervisory Council, made of nine persons, is the governing body of the museum. Its main responsibility is the definition, approval, and review of the strategies and objectives of the museum. Operational management is carried out by the museum director with the help of the museum staff. In addition, there is the Museum Advisory Board with advisory, advocacy, and fundraising roles. At a later stage, an association of friends of the YSMA will be created to also support the museum. These bodies, made of respected and knowledgeable members of the university and the Lagos art world, give the YSMA the stability and direction needed for this long-term project.
Sustainability is a very important issue for all cultural institutions. In this respect, the YSMA starts with a clear advantage over private museums: this is a project not just of one person alone, but of an institution (the university), aiming at achieving long-term objectives and having continuity independent of the person promoting it at present. In a hundred years, PAU will, hopefully, remain as an institution, and the museum will continue being part of it. There is a second advantage: the governance and management of the YSMA will be isolated from political, partisan shifts and can have a long-term view that will facilitate continuity. Ultimately, the museum will be sustainable if it can offer a service relevant to society. There is a great need in the country for cultural institutions that make the rich Nigerian cultural heritage available to the public. If the YSMA can offer that, even on a small scale, its sustainability will be guaranteed.
Please tell us a bit about the architectural design of the YSMA, including the use of indigenous techniques and materials.
The architecture of the museum follows the principles that inspire the design of all the other buildings of the university: fitness for purpose, flexibility, sustainability, and character. We wanted to create a flexible space that will allow the museum to change its display configuration according to changing curatorial demands. Secondly, we wanted a building that will use resources efficiently. The excellent thermal insulation of the external walls and the efficient air circulation throughout the single exhibition space will require a minimum air conditioning load. In planning the YSMA building and its systems, the designers gave great attention to security, environmental control, efficient lighting, display quality, and ease of circulation. In addition, the shape—a clean cube of 30 x 30 x 11 meters—and the richly textured finish of the stained concrete walls give the museum building an iconic character that makes it stand out on the campus lawns and makes it clear how much the university values the museum as an important contribution towards its educational mission.
In an interview, you noted that “Unlike a national museum whose aim is generally the preservation, study, and display of works of historical significance for a country, or local museum conceived as a tourist attraction, or museums that centre their activities on artistic and curatorial experimentation, the YSMA will focus on audience engagement. Our objective will not be to attract the highest possible number of visitors, but to have the highest possible impact on those who come.” Kindly tell us how you plan to achieve this, considering the relative disinterest of the public in contemporary art?
The YSMA will be, from its inception, an audience-centred museum. The museum was born with a vocation to serve society. For this reason, the YSMA will aim at being more than a mere tourist attraction. The success of the project will not be measured by the number of visitors, but by the lasting impact the museum leaves on them. We would like every visitor coming to the museum not only to enjoy good art but to learn and be questioned about social, historical, economic, or philosophical issues. The primary target audience of the YSMA will be the youth from Pan-Atlantic University and from other universities and schools in Lagos. The YSMA will also aim at providing a service to a wider audience of families, collectors, scholars, artists, other art professionals, and visitors.
To achieve its goal as an educational museum, and to become a cultural destination for Lagos, the YSMA will use artworks from its wide collection to engage audiences and introduce them to Nigerian history and culture. Art can be a great instrument to foster a deeper understanding of what it means to be human and to promote creativity as a necessary feature in all disciplines, from economics to information technology to communications. Through object-based learning methodologies, the YSMA aims at offering programmes and activities that have a real educational value for students who are not primarily involved with the arts. The YSMA hopes to go beyond the discovery of art. Fostering critical thinking, visual and art history literacy, bringing to the fore social issues, and contributing towards a greater sense of citizenship among its visitors will be objectives the YSMA will try to achieve.
Kindly tell us about the types of works that will be featured in the YSMA.
The YSMA starts its journey with a permanent collection of more than 1,000 artworks by Nigerian artists ranging from the pre-colonial period till the present. The bulk of the collection comes from the donation made by Prince Shyllon for setting up the museum. In addition to these works, the YSMA collection includes works from the university collection and from donations by artists and collectors. Despite its expansive exhibition space, the museum will not be able to display all its works at the same time. For this reason, the curatorial programming shall rotate the works on display to ensure that the breadth of the collection is shown over time.
In what ways will the YSMA contribute to the growth and development of Nigerian artists?
Three foundational features define the character of the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art (YSMA) at Pan-Atlantic University (PAU) and differentiate it from other art museums. In the first place, the museum starts with a core collection—the works coming from the Shyllon collection. Exhibitions at YSMA will make extensive use of the works from the exceptionally good collection given to the museum by Prince Shyllon. In the second place, being a university museum, the YSMA has a distinct educational objective to achieve: to contribute to the overall mission of Pan-Atlantic University of offering a service not only to its students and staff, but also to the larger community. A humanistic formation is a central element of the mission of Pan-Atlantic University. The YSMA will be a teaching museum, with audience engagement and learning through educational programming as its principal aim. In the third place, the YSMA has, as a unit of the university, well-defined governance and management structures aligned with the overall mission of the university and the terms of the agreement between Prince Shyllon and Pan-Atlantic University for the establishment of the museum.
The three foundational features mentioned before are at the centre of YSMA’s mission, and they define the type of museum that YSMA wants to be and the goals it wants to accomplish. The YSMA aims at being a teaching museum that, through exhibitions and educational programmes, advances the academic goals of Pan-African University and engages and serves diverse audiences in the university and the larger community and helps them learn about art and through art. The YSMA aims to become a significant actor in the cultural and educational life of Lagos and, eventually, to become the leading university art museum in Africa.
Please give us an insight into the first project the museum will embark on.
The museum will start its curatorial programme with two simultaneous, long-term, thematic exhibitions curated by Iheanyi Onwuegbucha. Each of them will occupy a whole floor of the museum. At the lower space, Materiality in Nigerian Art will explore the materiality and physical qualities of different art media and the way Nigerian artists have used them from pre-colonial times until now—wood, metals, clay, fibre, textiles, stone, paper, discarded and repurposed materials, and so on. The exhibition will show how Nigerian artists have explored different materials available within their environment, mirroring the various social and cultural conditions of their times. At the upper level of the museum, the exhibition Art and Society will explore the ways in which artists engage with social ideals and historical realities. Before colonisation, art played an important role in Nigerian traditional societies. Whether through traditional media or moving images, abstraction or figuration, militancy or detached observation, the artworks in this exhibition will highlight aspects of the social reality in which they were made and try to generate a reaction and convey a more or less explicit message to their publics. Each of these exhibitions will be on display at the museum from October 2019 till September 2021.
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