Sunday 11 October 2015

Igi Araba of Grillo... Masterly Refreshing

By Tajudeen Sowole
Yusuf Grillo in his studio. PHOTO: BY MEDINA DUGGER.
 One of Africa's living modernist masters, Yusuf Grillo, whose blue strokes have become legendary in art lexicon, refreshes the Lagos creative space with new canvas, so explains some of his works that are just few years old. 

Displaying new works of living masters of Grillo's generation, as seen in a solo exhibition titled Igi Araba, currently ongoing till October 31, 2015, at Kia Showroom Victoria Island, Lagos, is a rare event.  Apart from of an edifice in his honour, which also showed very few of his old works in 2009, during the opening of Yusuf Grillo Pavilion, in Ikorodu, Lagos - a centre donated by art patron Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi - the artist's works have not been exhibited at any solo outing for several decades.

 Grillo, b.1934, is a clear distance from a prolific career just as his presence: personality and work are hardly seen at events, despite being a legend whose career traverses decades in the academia and studio practice. For Grillo to have been dragged out of his studio for a solo exhibition, it took the proverbial strength of Yoruba Igi Araba (special tree), in this context, planted by Arthouse -The Space, a new platform for promoting Nigerian artists. In fact, any art event that focuses Grillo means so much to quite diverse shades of art enthusiasts, given the artist's background as teacher of masters as well as dream collection of many art lovers. 

Again, the artist's work as a sparsely kind, which deserves keen attention is being showcased, coherently, in a body of work that make his legendary night blue strokes glow with some of the never-before-seen paintings. Also among the new works are stained glass pieces, rendered in a medium of which Grillo, for several decades, asserts his great signature. For example, Kabiyesi and Olori (oil on canvas, 2010-2012) stresses the masterly rendition of Grillo's strokes. As a celebration of resilient Yoruba cultural value, the painting, which is about royal couple captures the flowing elegance in the native iro / buba for the queen and buba/agbada for the king. However, there seems to be a slight de-emphasis on the artist's cubist identity compared to most of his older works.
Yusuf Grillo (right), Deputy Governor, Lagos State, Dr Idiat Adebule and Mrs Kavita Chellaram of Arthouse Contemporary during the opening of Lagos, yesterday.

Arthouse- The Space notes the artist's passion for his native Yoruba root from which inspiration is derived for his choice of themes. "Grillo’s work is deeply influenced by the characteristics of traditional Yoruba philosophy and sculpture," the promoters write in a curatorial note.

In recent years, the secondary art market has disclosed that connoisseurs are not exactly perfect in tracking Grillo's periods. Quite a few Grillos sold at auctions in recent years have suddenly revealed red canvases of the artist, some as old as the 1960s, so suggest many provenances. The sharp contrast in colour from the blue of which the artist is well known also resurfaces in Igi Araba with a piece titled Oba Dauda, a triptych-like painting. With impressionistic texture in red dominance capture of what looks like the Oba (king) in the foreground, looming over his subjects and two small compartment of the paintings in mix of blue and green tones, Grillo converges some of his oeuvre in one piece.

Given the richness of Grillo's stained glass works produced over the decades for private collection and religious worship places, which are not appropriately provenance and made more visible to a wider viewing public, Igi-Araba provides an opportunity, perhaps privilege too, to see Nigerian modernism at one of its very bests. Stressing that his brush movement still has control over the sleeking surface of stained glass is Baraje (2012-2015), a painting that suggests extensive celebration in dancing. Again, Grillo's technique gets fresher here, particularly with cubes mated on the surface of the canvas, which radiates optical effect against the paintings.

A Grillo signature in the art market is no doubt among the most attractive. But for retrospection reason, the old works of the artist on display in the exhibition are on loans, and not going to attract the red tags. And that Igi Araba is closing few weeks before the expected second auction of Arthouse -The Space's parent company, Arthouse Contemporary, perhaps, offers keen observers of the Nigerian art scene to probe collectors’ behaviours towards the primary and secondary art markets. With the pedigree of setting the pace for Nigerian secondary art market, and currently taking art exhibition to a higher space, the Kavita Chellaram-led Arthouse family chains might have something up its sleeve, in the November auction, having shown a master artist shortly before the hammer sales. However, there are indications that no Grillo work will feature in the next auction. Arthouse Contemporary, in 2008, sold Blue Moon for N8 million naira hammer price, giving Grillo what was probably his auction record as at then.  

In a curatorial note to Igi Araba, Arthouse-The Space traces Grillo's blue identity to "a reference to adire and resist-dye textiles used in Nigeria."

Kabiyesi and Olori by Grillo. PHOTO BY GEORGE OSODI.
Art historians would hardly leave out Grillo at crucial point of Nigerian art trajectory. His work was featured in the historic exhibition of 2006, Living Masters organised by Mydrim Gallery, at Terra Kulture, Victoria Island, Lagos. The exhibition showed the works of Onobrakpeya, Isiaka Osunde, El Anatsui, Muraina Oyelami, Bisi Fakeye, David Dale and  Kolade Oshinowo. Also, in the month that Grillo was 74, the team of Olu Ajayi-led Living Legend had the master as a sitter for the portrait documentary project. Under the supervision of another creative luminary and architect, Prof. David Aradeon, the artists that captured Grillo across medium included Ajayi, Sam Ovraiti, Odun Orimolade, Tom Agose, Wallace Ejoh, Osazuwa Osagie, Kelechi Amadi-Obi, Ibe Ananaba, Kingsley Braimoh, Joshua Nmesirionye, Awoyemi Ajibade and Edward Samuel.

As an art educationist, Grillo was Head of the Department at School of Art, Printing and Design, Yaba College of Technology (Yabatech), Lagos. Among his works in public spaces are mosaic, frieze and stained glass.

Grillo, a founding president of the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) in the 1960s, trained quite a number of fourth generation Nigerian masters such as Abiodun Olaku, Bunmi Babatunde, Edosa Ogiugo, olusegun Adejumo, among others. 

Sponsored by Access Bank, Kia Motors and Veuve Clicquot, Igi Araba also features a video documentary produced by the Foundation for Contemporary & Modern Visual Arts. Arthouse Contemporary is an international auction house that focuses on modern and contemporary art from West Africa. With auctions held twice a year in Lagos, Nigeria.
Mrs Kavita Chellaram (left) and Yusuf Grillo, during preparation for the exhibition

Since inception two years ago, Arthouse-The Space, has organised solo exhibitions for Bruce Onobrakpeya, George Osodi, Emeka Udemba and Eva Obodo. Last year, the new platform showed Victor Ekpuk, Victoria Udondian, Kainebi Osahenye, and Sokari Douglas Camp as R-evolution, the Arthouse stands during a global art fair, Art14, at Olympia Grand, in London, U.K.

This year, a Nsukka-based artist, Eva Obodo's new body of work titled Line by Line, was shown at Renault Showroom,  still under Arthouse-The Space. The Renault Showroom as an alternative art space for Arthouse started with a photography show TransgreXion by George Osodi in 2014 and followed with Emeka Udemba's Tools of Conflicts in March.

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