Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art: The beauties that represent our enigmatic continent, By Toyin Falola

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People have different qualifications for art: some say it is therapeutic; others say it is inspirational; there are, of course, those who see it as educational. To Prince Shyllon, art is indeed all of these things, as documented in the impressive Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art based in Pan-Atlantic University (https://museum.pau.edu.ng). However, art’s ability to heal, educate, and inspire is summed up in one of its biggest qualities—the ability to trigger, foster, and sustain peace and amity. Art has a historical precedence of rebuilding smoldering rubbles and reaffirming commitments to world peace. France’s gracious gifting of the Statue of Liberty to the United States is a testament to peace and friendship. From 2022, Nigeria will receive its looted Benin bronze artworks from Germany to demonstrate the latter’s realization of wrongdoing, restitution, and an implied plea for forgiveness.

Despite its abundance of human and natural resources, the African continent has suffered so much, and it is still suffering to date. Africa’s woes transcend the colonizers’ warped perception of the peoples and cultures of the continent. It extends from the daylight robbery of shipping African prized artworks off to European countries to robbing the continent of valuable human resources through the trans-Atlantic slave trade. When the Europeans could not comprehend the culture and civilization of a mysterious continent like Africa, they called it a land of barbaric people. On the contrary, Africa had its civilization then, with complex societies and sophisticated systems existing for eons–from Egypt to Mali to Nok.

However, the continent suffers today because its people have post-colonization baggage around their necks. The former French colonies, known as francophone Africa, have not witnessed big transformational changes beyond switching from the garment of colonialism to that of subtly implied neocolonialism, the result of well-planned policies of assimilation and association that leaves the average francophone believing that fulfilment is painted in blue, white, and red, years after their independence from France. The former English colonies are hardly any better–Nigeria is still largely plagued by a haphazard amalgamation; Ghana is surviving but not thriving. What shall we say of Ethiopia? Using the terms Anglophone, Francophone, and Lusophone to qualify Africans is just another dreg from colonialism shrouded by the claim that it is for more straightforward classification and identification of countries.

Africa was, and perhaps still is, marginalized. Africa was stolen from; Africans were marginalized. In the face of these injustices, art has been a means of expression, confrontation, and reparation. Once Africans got equipped with writing skills, they began to rewrite history, correct wrong perceptions, and stand up to the continent’s brazen degradation. Now more than ever, these revolutionary Africans take the call seriously. They found a use for music, paintings, sculpture, and digital artworks to express the true nature of the African continent and the representation of Africans’ sufferings at the hands of colonizers and trans-Atlantic slave traders. This is done so that generations to come—of the colonizers and the colonized—may have unmanipulated knowledge of what happened when a continent descended on the lushness of Africa to exploit it.

Shyllon’s efforts in collecting artworks from across the world are commendable, and our continent, Africa, is well-represented by thirty-seven art pieces, all collected from different parts of the continent and across varied periods. A careful study of these art pieces shows the different dimensions of the continent. The interpretation of art is generally considered to be subjective. Nonetheless, some artworks have a sharp and poignant message that it would be so hard for anyone to interpret the message otherwise. Some of the concepts popular among the thirty-seven representing arts include the beauty of Africa, African traditions, injustices against women, slavery, unity, and pride in African cultures. The Shyllon African art collection is a careful selection of artworks that portray the good and the bad about Africa; it also includes artworks that can trigger remembrance and spark discussions and debates.

In the Shyllon collections are pieces that depict the realities of many African women. Virginity is an honor to self and family. What then happens when a woman is raped and violated? Instead of giving maximum support to the victim, which would most likely not be enough to make them forget the traumatic experience, society turns on the victim and discriminates against them. A rape victim already feels impure and violated; why should society compound their problems by discriminating against the victim? One of the earliest pieces of knowledge of African women is how they blend with the communalist nature of the average African society—tending to children, contributing their quota to family or communal ceremonies, and being mother and wife. Beyond these, Africa’s resilient women are equally significant contributors to the income of their households as they have always been—farmers or traders in the past and as career women with the advent of formal education. Regardless of the evolving nature of Africa and the exponential growth rate of the number of career women, African women share a special connection with their children. What is a better way to communicate this unique relationship between the African mother and her child than many pieces on Womanhood?

One of the best ways to seek closure from the evils meted out against Africa during the trans-Atlantic slave trade and colonial eras is to stop shying away from telling our stories, sparking debates, and expressing our anger, pain, and grief in whatever way we can. The slave masters never blinked an eye as they sought to make Africans—kidnapped or bought from different parts of the west of the continent—forget their history, people, beliefs, and culture. It was beyond physical slavery; these Africans were emotionally, spiritually, and mentally captured and manipulated. In the heat of the slave-trade era, there were mentally freed slaves who would not bow to the whims of slave masters, who saw no wrong in their personal beliefs, and who would rather die than be transported to the Americas as slaves.

Art is unifying; art is illuminating and enlightening. Shyllon’s collection of African artworks is commendable. There is hope and belief that the Shyllon Museum of Art will stay committed to protecting these prized possessions of Africa. This piece is also a call on the leadership of other African countries to consider representing their histories on the global map through artworks created by their people. The best way to avoid a warped history of your people and culture is by writing, drawing, or expressing your history and making it accessible. That way, people would hardly be tempted to consider populating a misperception of who and what you are.

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