Even renowned for his lustrous achievements as he was in the art scene, Yusuf Grillo, who passed away four months shy of his 87th birthday, was a model of discipline and modesty, says Okechukwu Uwaezuoke
Some called him a master. Many even eulogised him as a “master of masters”. But the man, who would have turned 87 in December, would have none of that. To the very end, Yusuf Adebayo Cameron Grillo stuck to his life’s principles. To these, he remained steadfast up to the time he drew his last breath – “after a brief illness” – on Monday, August 23 at the Gbagada General Hospital in Lagos. Like a monolith, he stood in a moral wasteland, refusing to bow before the Golden Calf of earthly transience and eschewing all grandiose titles.
“This is what I have been telling most people I know – we must suppress our EGO if we cannot mortify it!” the acclaimed luminary of the art scene was quoted to have said. “Some call me contrary, crazy, unconventional. Call me anything: as far as I am concerned, we are all different. We have come into the world with different purposes, attitudes and beliefs. I cherish my individuality.”
Years back, as the year 2004 neared its end, the National Gallery of Art had sought his permission to commemorate his 70th birthday with a book. Grillo predictably – albeit politely – declined the offer, reiterating: “I do not believe in celebrating my birthday, my person or name or whatever, but I have no objection to celebrating significant achievements. I once told a friend that I do not like celebrating what I am not responsible for achieving: it is not a victory! If I overcome challenges, I can celebrate, but a birthday? I am the last person responsible for it… If anybody deserves to be celebrated, it should be God.”
At the insistence of the then Dr Paul Dike-led parastatal, he eventually gave his consent. But this was on the condition that the book would be based on his paintings and drawings or his ideas on art and art education. “It must have to do with the various aspects of my activities in the art world, in drawing, painting, mosaic, mural and recently stained glass which I am still busy doing,” he said.
Could this be why Grillo – even as one of the revered trendsetters of contemporary Nigerian art – remained not only the most reclusive and self-effacing but also the least documented among his peers? And to think that this same man celebrated birthdays with others, who chose to celebrate theirs, and was known to have deployed his resources to the promotion of the works of other artists!
Besides, wasn’t the Brazilian Quarters of Lagos, where he was born in 1934 – and subsequently raised – as the last of his Brazilian-returnee parents’ 11 children, legendary for its lavish revelries? Yet, he would rather adhere to the precepts of his parents, which harped on both humility and uprightness as well as on the fulfilment of his duties to his fellow men.
A quirk of Fate steered his paths towards Aina Onabolu. Then, he was at the Christ Church Cathedral School in Lagos and Onabolu – the acclaimed father of Nigerian modern art – used to be an itinerant teacher, who not only volunteered his services at the primary school but also in such renowned Lagos secondary schools as the King’s College, Methodist Boys’ High School and Baptist Academy.
It was Onabolu, who initiated Grillo into the mysteries of perspectives and three-dimensional art. Shortly afterwards, Akinola Lasekan, the renowned cartoonist with Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe’s Daily Pilot, stepped in with his influences. Then, he would also later learn from Jacob Kolawole Oye, a London-trained editor of a government paper for children, called Dawottery.
Thus equipped, he became a steadfast lifelong devotee of art, who believed that those he called “picture makers or carvers” have no business in the profession. “I hold the view that if you cannot draw what is placed before you, you cannot draw what you imagine, no matter how fertile your imagination is,” he wrote in his contribution to the book Issues in Modern Art in Nigeria: NGA Resource Materials Vol. 1 (edited by Simon Ikpakronyi). “Freedom comes only after rigorous discipline and students will be shown that they do not all have to be exhibition artists; there are many other areas of well rewarding occupations where a competent artist can go.”
But Grillo’s real path to both local and international recognition started when he became a student of the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology – often known as NCAST – when the institution was moved from Ibadan to Zaria. It was while at NCAST in Zaria that he became one of the trendsetting members of the Zaria Art Society, which paved the aesthetic direction for contemporary Nigerian art with the espousal of an ideology or concept it called “Natural Synthesis”.
No, the society did not invent the concept. This, Grillo once stressed in an interview. It only went along with the flow. “It more or less provided the packaging,” the man who was the pioneer president of the Society of Nigerian Art explained. “Everybody… agreed that if you were a Yoruba, you didn’t have to throw away your Yoruba background. We envisioned a kind of synthesis that would bring out the art from our ‘tribal’ enclaves and put them on the platform of national significance.”
Natural Synthesis, he added, “is so natural that one doesn’t need to talk about it. It is something that comes naturally with any sincere artist, any artist who is self-examining, any artist trying to discover himself. It has to be ‘Natural Synthesis’ if it has to be sincere.”
To further explain the concept, he had likened it to a well laid-out buffet table. From this table, the connoisseur would always take what appealed to him. “Your body process digests all [that you have eaten] and eliminates so much it doesn’t need.”
In the same vein, an artist could become so integrated with his work that it becomes easily identifiable as his. Of course, there was also the fact that people could assimilate the same artworks differently according to their nature. “It is your spirit. What you reject could be what another person assimilates.”
Beyond the years in Zaria, where he received a diploma in fine arts and a post-graduate diploma in education, Grillo also attended informal classes under Paul Mount at the Yaba Technical Institute in Lagos and later went further studies outside Nigeria in the UK, Germany and the US.
Nonetheless, the “Natural Synthesis” principle remained the theme song of his decades-long studio practice. This fact was corroborated by an essay – published in the exhibition catalogue of Igi Araba (a retrospective of his works organised by Arthouse, The Space) – written by the artist, critic and art historian Dr Kunle Filani. “Grillo’s creative adaptation of themes situates the universal in the local, while the indigenous is also made global,” Dr Filani wrote. “He espouses a humanistic philosophy that recognises human beings as social animals with a generic attitude to life. Grillo uses Yoruba culture as a humanising pedestal to unify divergent races, religions and societies.”
Perhaps, one of the most easily recognisable features of Grillo’s paintings was the use of blue colours – as a nod to the Yoruba textile tie-dye pigments – which is complemented by tints of blue and violet. There was also the generous use of perspective lines, which Grillo himself said was “a salute to Pa Aina Onabolu, whose main subject when he was teaching was PERSPECTIVE-ONE POINT (Parallel Perspective) and TWO POINTS (Angular Perspective).” And despite his Islamic faith, he was famous for his stained-glass paintings, which are based on biblical narratives, and adorn several churches.
Even after he departed from this earth-life – and the subsequent burial of his physical body the same day following the dictates of Islamic rites – the impressions of his exemplary honesty, integrity and sartorial preference for white short-sleeved suits would remain indelible in the consciousness of many.