At 86, Yusuf Grillo, Nigeria’s foremost visual artist, had seen it all. The ace painter died of COVID-19 complications in the early hours of Monday. A literary aficionado and man of great repute, Grillo revolutionised the art landscape in Nigeria with his breathtaking inventive works.
He died a legend.
GRILLO: BIRTH AND EDUCATION
He was born in the Brazilian quarters of Lagos in 1934. Unlike most kids who craved to become a doctor or lawyer, he chose an entirely different field.
Grillo only wanted one thing: to become a decorated visual artist. In spite of the complexities that come with art and the attendant bone of contention over its low pay, it was something the precocious kid was passionate about.
For him, art meant everything.
“I retired from teaching and not from visual artist. I am an artist and will die an artist,” he said in a 2015 interview.
His first influence as a budding artist was his place of birth. At the time, Brazilian quarters was renowned for hosting artistes and live bands who often thrill music and art lovers with spectacular performances of culture-themed songs.
It was the right environment for Grillo. In the company of his friends, he would sit with keen attention behind bands at birthdays, marriages, and naming ceremonies to study each of the performers. They were moments that further piqued his interest in art and enhanced his visualisation of the various performers.
The renowned painter later got admission into the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, Zaria, where he received a diploma in fine arts and a post-graduate diploma in education.
After his stint in Zaria, Grillo departed Nigeria for Cambridge University in the United Kingdom to further his studies. He also travelled to Germany and United States to improve his craft.
GRILLO’S UNIQUE ART WORKS
Grillo came into the global limelight in the 1960s and 1970s when he dazzled the art world with several of his works at exhibitions. As an artist with vast exposure and deep insight into African culture, he combined western art techniques with traditional Yoruba sculpture characteristics effortlessly.
Like many artists, his subject matter usually emanates from happenings around him. His major focus was on the Yoruba people and their culture. Grillo modernised the contemporary Yoruba art, showcasing the distinctiveness and various aspects of the culture by providing insightful contexts to his subjects.
His works, mostly done in blue, which was his preferred colour for paintings, examined areas such as royal life, rituals, religious and ceremonial dresses in the Yoruba culture.
Grillo became popular for his stained glass paintings, which are the most distinctive accessory in Christian ecclesiastic spaces. His stained glass designs and mosaic works are commonplace in several churches in Nigeria and public institutions such as the National Arts Theater in Lagos and the Murtala Mohammed International Airport.
Some of his famous works include ‘Drummer and Apprentice’, ‘Quartet’, ‘Trio’, ‘Drummer’s Return’, ‘Girl in Blue’, and ‘The Duet’.
In 2017, his two rare paintings, ‘The Dust,’ a 1972 non-bluish cubism style, and ‘Can It Be True’ were among African artworks with most sales at the Bonhams Africa Now auction held in London.
In the book, ‘Yusuf Grillo: Painting. Lagos. Life’; Chika Okeke-Agulu, the Nigerian art historian and critic, reflected on the significance of Grillo and his works in the emancipation of the country’s contemporary art.
“For a member of the legendary Art Society, the group of young artists who at the dawn of political independence in the late 1950s and early 1960s, called for the decolonisation of the art academy and establishment of national culture, Grillo’s steadfast, painterly formalism is remarkable,” it read.
“His insistence on artistic sincerity, which for him meant locating painting’s worth and significance in the relentless need to resolve the always-changing problems posed by colour, rather than in its ideological and cultural signification, exemplifies a pertinent vision and critical stance within the discourse and history of postcolonial modernism in Africa.”
TEACHER AND LEADER PAR EXCELLENCE
Just like his paintings, Grillo also left indelible legacies as a teacher and leader. Having garnered extensive knowledge as a visual artist, he returned to the country to inspire the teaching and learning of art in Nigerian institutions.
Grillo taught several students during his 25-year stint as the head of the department of art and painting at the Yaba College of Technology (YABATECH).
In an interview in 2015, Grillo reflected on how he and other of his colleagues pioneered the learning and teaching of art in Nigerian institutions.
“If you try to compare art in my time to now, there’s absolutely nothing one should say. In the late 1950s to early 1960s around independence, it didn’t exist. You can only talk about Aina Onabolu, Ben Enwonwu, Akin Olalesekan in the periphery and there’s hardly any other,” he had said.
“There were some talented people who exercised their God-given talents then, but if you are talking about the serious practice of visual art, there was practically nothing when we started.
“Back then art was not being taught in schools, it was through some of us from Zaria, that even Government colleges, like kings college and so on, began to have art teachers in their staff list.”
Grillo was also the founding president of the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA). Under his watch, he inspired various initiatives aimed at promoting art in Nigeria.
WHY I DIDN’T ACKNOWLEDGE THE ‘MASTER OF MASTERS’ TAG
Due to his heroics in the art landscape, Grillo was dubbed the ‘Master of Masters’ by many in the field. The phrase was used to describe him in several popular journals. But it was a tag that he refused to welcome.
Speaking in 2015, the renowned artist said he didn’t acknowledge the recognition because such a tag was not endorsed by any authorised body.
“To me, I say you cannot be a master where there’s no evaluating authority which can pontificate on it. In art who pontificates, who says one artist is better than the other. Every artist is unique in his own style and content,” he had said.
NIGERIA NEEDS COMPETENT HANDS TO DEVELOP ARTS — NOT POLITICS
As one of the pioneer visual artists in Nigeria, Grillo was vocal about how the country can bring about positive change in its art industry until he breathed his last.
“Government can do a lot by taking a leaf from what countries in Europe and America who have diversified are doing or have done to encourage this spiritual art,” he said in an interview.
“First of all, having competent people at the helm of affairs who recognise the difference between serious art and other revenue-generating craft or entertainment can change things because art goes deep into all these different areas.
“Now, coming to government appointments, it is difficult to talk about government because it is politics. I will say no because there are not proper appointments to manage art. Some appointments to important positions today are by political considerations.
“A lot of intrigues and lobbying by political jobbers mares this effort coupled with quota system which they use in considering anybody slightly knowledgeable in the art to be in that position. Some appointments should be taken out of politics completely.”
‘LIBERAL FATHER’ AND LOVER OF FUN
Grillo’s illustrious stint on earth would not be complete without a mention of his family. While he rose to the pinnacle of his career and established himself as a household name, the deceased also managed his family successfully.
In a 2016 interview, Morayo Anthonio, the deceased’s daughter, described him as a liberal father who influenced his family positively.
“I would describe him as a liberal father. Growing up, he was often fun to be with. He was not a domineering father and he let us (his children) make our own choices and face the consequences of those choices,” she had said.
“He took time out to do a lot of fun things with us as children. He used to take us swimming, to shows and theatres. I would say the single most important value learnt from him is honesty and integrity. I stated earlier about learning from a very early age to always speak the truth regardless of the consequences. Truth is very highly cherished in our family.
“I also learned from him a high sense of responsibility and duty along with humility. He gets along very well with subordinates and he is not highhanded with them.”
Morayo also talked about her father’s love for fun despite his hectic schedule as an artist.
“He likes watching TV, music, reading, chatting and relaxing with his friends at the club, getting into discussions and arguments about matters of religion and governance,” she had added.
“His taste in music is very eclectic, cutting across almost every genre (other than classical and maybe country and western). From Haruna Ishola’s apala through juju, highlife to the more recent young artistes.
“Internationally, the old school music of his youth he enjoys listening to again; artistes like Englebert Humperdink, Nana Mouskouri, Ralph Harris, James Last, and Nat King Cole.”
Grillo may have died, but in years to come, he would be remembered for his towering legacies in the development of art in Nigeria.
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