Sunday 5 September 2021

Yusuf Grillo as 'Igi Araba' of Nigerian modern art

'My Taiye' (stained glass, 2003-2009,  192.5x116.5cm), by Yusuf Grillo. Pic: sources from  Arthouse auction catalogue of November 2016.

DESPITE having one of his public space art defaced, in his lifetime, Yusuf Grillo (1934-2021) still loomed as the 'Igi Araba' (big tree) of modern Nigerian art. Grillo died, August 23.

Titled Flight, a 5-piece frieze, by Grillo, mounted on each side of the arrival lounges at Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMA-1), Lagos, was damaged and reduced to one. The carnage, which was noticed during the renovation of the MMA-1 has not been corrected till date since July 2012 when The Guardian published a story on the damaged frieze. 

Perhaps, the death of Grillo, would give the concerned agency of government, specifically, National Gallery of Art (NGA) and National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) enough energy to correct the cultural injustice dealt on the late artist's frieze, Flight.

But elsewhere, the artist had an edifice named after him by a non-state individual. Perhaps, crowning his legacy, few years ago, was the artist's last solo art exhibition titled Igi Araba. 

Either in the number of works or exhibitions, Yusuf Grillo  was hardly in the realm of prolificity, but more of mastery texture that gave him  monumental legacy. 

Whatever art connoisseurs and other enthusiasts missed in Grillo's sparsely seen exhibitions seemed to have been compensated for in the artist's last outing. It was like a parting gift to the world of art when, Grillo, in 2015, had Igi-Araba. Said to have been his first major solo in many decades, Igi Araba lived up to its name in both literary meaning and visual culture context. 

Organised by Arthouse The Space and shown from October 10-31, 2015 at Kia Showroom, Victoria Island, Lagos, Igi Araba celebrated Grillo's iconic mastery, specifically, in the blue shades and hues that blossomed on his cubist identity.

The title Igi Araba, which in Yoruba means either an elaborate or massive plant (Oak tree?), proverbially, presented an artist whose modernist profile loomed over three generations of Nigeria's visual arts history.

In Igi Araba, Grillo, whose blue strokes had become legendary in art lexicon, refreshed the Lagos creative space with new canvas, as seen in some of his works that were just few years old. For Grillo to have been 'dragged' out of his studio for a solo exhibition, it took the proverbial strength of Igi Araba, in this context, watered by Arthouse-The Space. In fact, any art event that focused on Grillo meant so much to quite diverse shades of art enthusiasts, given the artist's background as a teacher of masters as well as dream collection of many art lovers. 

Grillo's stained glass works produced over the decades for private collection and religious worship places, were significant in his iconic career. However, such works have not enjoyed appropriate provenance; they were not made more visible to a wider viewing public. Correcting that grey spot, Igi Araba provided an opportunity, perhaps privilege too, to see Nigerian modernism at one of its very bests in the stained glass medium. Stressing that his brush movement still had control over the sleeking surface of stained glass was one of the exhibits titled Baraje (2012-2015), a painting that suggested extensive celebration in dancing. Again, Grillo's technique, in stained glass, got fresher, particularly with cubic style mated on the surface of the canvas, which radiated optical effect.

 Again, the artist's work as a sparsely kind, which deserved keen attention was showcased, coherently, and made his legendary blue strokes glow with some of the never-before-seen paintings. Still on the new works, were stained glass pieces, rendered in a medium of which Grillo, for several decades, asserted his great signature. For example, Kabiyesi and Olori (oil on canvas, 2010-2012) stressed the masterly rendition of Grillo's strokes. As a celebration of resilient Yoruba cultural value, the painting, which was about a royal couple captured the flowing elegance in the native iro/buba for the king's wife and buba/agbada for the king. However, there seemed to be a slight de-emphasis on the artist's cubist identity compared to most of his older works.

In rare works, most master artists surprise their followers. Grillo too had his fair spot in the space of rarity. In fact, the secondary art market has exposed that connoisseurs were 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 disclosed many provenances. The sharp contrast in colour from the blue of which the artist was well known also resurfaced in Igi Araba with a piece titled Oba Dauda, a triptych-like painting. With impressionistic texture in red dominance capture of what appeared 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 converged some of his oeuvre in one piece.

A Grillo signature in the art market was no doubt among the most attractive pieces. But for retrospection reason, the old works of the artist shown in the exhibition were on loans, and not going to attract the red tags. 

Art historians would hardly leave Grillo out at crucial point of Nigerian art trajectory. His work was featured in the historic exhibition of 2006, titled 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. 

Grillo, a founding president of the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) in the 1970s/80s, trained quite a number of fourth generation Nigerian masters such as Abiodun Olaku, Bunmi Babatunde, Edosa Ogiugo, olusegun Adejumo, among others. "You walked into the HND-1 painting class that unforgettable morning, in 1983, at Yaba College of Technology," Ogiugo, few days after Grillo's death  posted a tribute on his Instagram. "We were like boys who dreamed, you took a good look at my painting and said; "That's  a promising artist." Ogiugo, who is no doubt one of Nigeria's contemporary masters added that Grillo's  prediction "actually humbled me, but filled me with awe!" While lamenting the departure of his teacher, Ogiugo took solace  in "memories of how you taught us to see as artist!!!!"

He added: "What a fantastic father, teacher, mentor/coach, grandmaster! Good night legend!! Baba  Adebayo Cameron Grillo"

The Igi Araba in Grillo was actually celebrated six years ahead of the Arthouse-organiaed exhibition. In 2009, the robust relationship between an artist and a patron came to fore when collector, Chief Rasheed Gbadamoai launched Yusuf Grillo Pavilion, in Ikorodu, Lagos. 

"It is our desire at Grillo Pavilion to continue our search for the authentic intellectual underpinning of modern art in Nigeria and it is a thing of joy to hold this gathering periodically," Gbadamoai stated during one of the editions.

The Yusuf Grillo Pavilion is an edifice in the artist's honour and showed few of his old works, during the opening at the centre donated by Gbadamo who died in 2016. Before the death of Gbadamoai, the Grillo Pavilion celebrated other artists as a centre of convergence for exhibitions and critical engagements in visual arts.

Consciously, all the four artists celebrated such as Grillo, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Demas Nwoko and Prof Uche Okeke, during the five to six years after the  Pavilion was launched are of the former College of Arts, Science and Technology (now Ahmadu Bello University) Zaria. 

 In 2010, another of the 'Zarian Rebel', Dr Bruce Onobrakpeya was the celebrant at an event, which had Prof dele jegede delivered a lecture tagged Onobrakpeya: The Legacy.

Next in 2011 was 'Nwoko: Painter Sculptor Architect Designer'  as the Grillo PavIlion had the lecture, by Prof John Godwin, tagged Celebrating Demas Nwoko  as a focus. For the fourth edition of Grillo Pavilion, the lecture titled Uche Okeke: An Endearing Embodiment of Art Revolution in Nigeria, art historian, was delivered by Prof. Ola Oloidi.

And when the Grillo Pavilion went outside the generation of the Zaria Rebels, the radar was still with the same school. David Dale, who survived stroke attack, (though later died in ) also honoured by Grillo Pavilion with an art soiree.

 -Tajudeen Sowole is a Lagos-based Art Advisor and Writer on Visual Arts.


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