Searching for clarity at a Nigerian art museum

LUFASI Nature Park - Lagos

Searching for clarity at a Nigerian art museum

Art critic Emmanuel Iduma finds his way out of a pandemic rut with a visit to the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art in 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 the city that were ordinarily cacophonous with the honks of impatient drivers and the bustle of shoppers, settled into an uneasy silence. Food could only be ordered in; at restaurants across the city, tables were stacked in dark corners. Even the never-ending stream of construction workers vanished, making the empty, unroofed buildings seem haunted.

In those months, I often recalled the pleasures I had taken for granted as a writer and adjunct professor at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, namely the frequent visits to museums and galleries. I felt the distinct sense of living in a time outside time, as though the version of myself that was suddenly in Lagos was irreconcilable with who I had been elsewhere.

The ArtX annual art fair's reopening in late 2021

The ArtX annual art fair’s reopening in late 2021 at the Federal Palace Hotel Lagos © BENSON IBEABUCHI / AFP / Getty Images


The art scene that went digital in Lagos

Yet, soon enough, I grew content to be in Lagos without seeing art, an activity that felt suddenly unnecessary during a time of existential, viral threats. Even when things started returning to normal, and galleries and art shows allowed for access again, I limited my experience to browsing from my computer screen. I spent hours clicking through the 2020 editions of ART X Lagos and the LagosPhoto Festival, both of which, although continental in scope, were fully virtual.

Then, on a day in early October 2021, I found myself browsing the website of the Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art, a new private museum in the outskirts of Lagos. I wondered if its collection – a wide array of pieces spanning multiple eras of Nigerian art – could 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 exterior of an apartment building in Lagos, quiet during the many months of COVID-19 lockdowns

Lagos, usually overflowing with life and noise, grew quiet during the many months of COVID-19 lockdowns © Joshua Oluwagbemiga


The winding route to Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art

Twenty minutes into my ninety-minute journey, as I made my way to the edge of the city, the traffic lights disappeared, giving way to free-for-all intersections that took equal parts patience and daring to pass. These suburbs were dominated by fenced-in communities. Grand gated entryways bore the names of sprawling mini-estates: Diamond Estate, Crest Estate, Beachwood Estate. Elsewhere, giant billboards advertised the gated communities to come, as well as the outrageous sums required as deposits for buy-ins. Pedestrians carried on, hurrying across the street ahead of oncoming traffic. I was overwhelmed, given all the time I had spent inside. But it was also a delight to drive farther through Lagos than I had since I returned. Each inch of the 40-plus kilometers felt like a reward for the agonizing seclusion of the previous year.

And then, my navigation app said I was fifteen minutes away from Pan-Atlantic University, where the Yemisi Shyllon Museum is located. The map indicated that I had to make a U-turn at some point ahead, but everywhere I looked appeared to be under construction – Lagos is a city perpetually being built. A man wearing a construction vest suggested I make my way on foot, since, from where we stood, and given the state of the road, it was impossible to drive into the university.


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LUFASI Nature Park - Lagos

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