Contemporary Nigerian visual artist and scholar Yusuf Grillo passed away on August 23, 2021, aged 87. Art scholar Sule James explains Grillo’s influence and impact on art on the continent.
Who was Yusuf Grillo?
Yusuf Grillo was not only an artist, but also an administrator, educator and mentor for other artists. He was born in 1934 in the family of Yinus Ventura Grillo and Kalia Grillo in Lagos. His grandfather had returned from Brazil to his African homeland after the abolition of the slave trade. Grillo has been identified in Yoruba culture as Omo Arugbo (Child of Old Age) because he was the last of 11 children.
He attended Saint Andrew’s Primary School, Oke Popo, Lagos; Saint-Pierre primary school, Faji; and the Anglican School of Christ Church Cathedral, where Aina Onabolu, the father of modern Nigerian art, was a visiting art teacher. He also attended the secondary school of Yaba Technical Institute (now Yaba College of Technology). He learned and benefited from the artistic practices of other pioneers of modern art in Nigeria, including Akinola Lasekan and JK Oye. (The two were contemporaries of Aina Onabolu).
In 1956, he enrolled to study fine arts at the Nigerian College of Art, Science and Technology, Zaria, now Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. He obtained a Fine Arts diploma in 1961, specializing in painting.
What role did he play in the advancement of art in Nigeria?
During his long artistic career, spanning six decades, Grillo has played an important role in the advancement of contemporary art and arts education in Nigeria. He was a prominent member of the Zaria Art Society, formed by the students of his college. Their creative activism has left an indelible mark on the artistic terrain of Nigeria. The first three groups of students who graduated in 1959, 1960 and 1961 were not all opposed to the imported curriculum, filled with colonial imprints of the Royal Art School. But they were opposed to their British lecturers’ aversion to any African artistic training in their works. The students saw this as culturally servile and unrelated to their artistic heritage.
This gave birth to the artistic ideology of “Natural Synthesis”, which defined modern African art as a synthesis of the old and the new. The old was the indigenous cultural artistic practices of Africa, while the new was the Eurocentric stylistic variables promoted by the West, especially during the colonial years of the 20th century. The students of Zaria declared in their manifesto that they have a duty to “promote, through art, Nigerian cultural values with the utmost dedication, love and will”. They passionately pursued this ideology and explored Indigenous themes in their art.
These pioneer members of the Zaria Art School may be seen as classmates, but they were not. Their formative years at Zaria simply overlapped. Grillo personified the spirit of “Zarianism” because he was sensitive to Yoruba traditions and was inspired by this culture for his works. In doing so, he portrayed images from Yoruba traditions that echo the lived experiences of people dressed in fashionable Yoruba cultural dress forms.
Another major role Grillo and other “Zarianists” played in the advancement of art in Nigeria has been the establishment and growth of other art institutions in the country. Grillo laid the artistic foundation for Yaba College of Technology, Lagos, where he taught art for several years starting in the early 1960s and was department head for 26 years.
What was the heart of his work?
The bulk of Grillo’s works show the influence of Yoruba culture, through which he forged his interest in the creation of African cultural identity. Its subject has been influenced by human activity. His themes are derived from daily life events around him, rooted in the indigenous Yoruba context. Although a devout Muslim, Grillo installed many magnificent stained glass windows in churches in Nigeria. He has participated in several group and individual exhibitions and has produced large sets of paintings in public and private collections.
What techniques was he famous for?
Although Grillo is famous for his Western naturalistic style, the technique for which he is known is the use of plane shapes and angular structures which have found a suitable correlation in the Yoruba woodcarving style. His works highlight a more vigorous engagement with blue, purple and green palettes. The formal features of his paintings show stylized and elongated figures. They are easily identified by their thinness, elegance and grace, which represent the contemporary ideal of beauty in the Lagos of its youth.
The style and techniques of Grillo’s works must also have been influenced by his interest in mathematics and his experiments with cubist forms, using more daring geometric forms. In addition, his interaction with architects and the workshop training he took in Bradford, Britain taught him stained glass techniques. It also spurred his interest in mosaic, santex, and other materials that could be used to beautify buildings on monumental scales.
What legacy does he leave?
It could be argued that the most enduring legacy that Grillo has bestowed is his loyalty to Yoruba culture without ossifying traditions. It represents a creative bridge that bridged the transitional gap between the vibrant traditions of Yoruba woodcarving and contemporary Yoruba art.
He will be remembered for the gaps he filled, the many artists he mentored, his creative works, and for laying the foundation for modern art at Yaba College of Technology, Lagos.