We remember Yusuf Adebayo Cameron Grillo, who passed away on August 23, 2021 at the age of 86 after a brief illness. A foremost artist, administrator, and educator, he leaves behind an indelible imprint on the landscape of contemporary Nigerian art.
Born in the Brazilian Quarter of Lagos in 1934, Grillo had an early interest in art and mathematics in school. He continued these activities into his university education at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science, and Technology (now Ahmadu Bello University) in Zaria. While there, he and a group of fellow students including Uche Okeke, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Demas Nwoko, and Simon Okeke formed the Zaria Art Society in 1958. Art Society members challenged their Eurocentric education and sought to establish an artistic mode more fitting for a nation on the eve of its independence. They developed an artistic philosophy they called “Natural Synthesis,” which advocated merging indigenous Nigerian subject matter and forms with select European techniques.
Grillo took this synthesis as a foundation to develop a painting practice that presented Nigerian life through a palette of rich hues and fractalized compositions. He was a renowned colorist, and his canvases are often characterized by their different tonalities of blue. Grillo found inspiration for his artistic subject matter in people he knew, scenes he encountered on the streets of Lagos, Yoruba spiritual beliefs, and oriki. His artwork, for the most part, centered on the human figure and he is perhaps most well-known for his portrayals of Yoruba women and musicians. Indeed, these predominant themes reflected his compositional concerns. While Grillo greatly admired European Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, the influence of which can be seen in his thick brushstrokes and expressive use of color, he also seemed to have found equal inspiration in Yoruba dress and music. The linear and geometric qualities of the flowing folds of his figures’ garments often extended into the rest of the composition, and the layered angular divisions in his canvases imbued them with a certain rhythm.
Grillo would famously spend years creating his paintings. He worked on several works at once, stopping, starting, and returning to the canvases over long periods of time. In fact, he was in the habit of not signing his paintings because he never saw them as completed. For Grillo, the painting process involved a back-and-forth between the artist and the canvas that merged the conscious with the unconscious and unfolded organically. Rather than deeming a painting “finished,” he decided to move on only after he finally felt he could let go of it.
In addition to his painting practice, Grillo created stained glass pieces and a number of sculptural public artworks. The medium of stained glass particularly lent itself to Grillo’s interest in mathematics and the geometric division of his compositions. Perhaps his most well-known public artworks are his mosaic mural at Lagos’s City Hall and his cement murals at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport. With these works, Grillo contributed to the city he called home throughout his life.
Grillo has also been an important presence in the professionalization of the Nigerian art world. He was a founding member of the Nigerian Society of Artists (SNA) in 1963, and in 1964, he was elected the organization’s first president. Under his tenure, the SNA participated in yearly independence celebration exhibitions. He also brought the SNA into the UNESCO-affiliated International Association of Art, which led to opportunities for him and SNA representatives to travel and exhibit internationally.
Grillo received his post-graduate diploma in education in 1961 and also studied arts education at the University of Cambridge in 1966. His role as an educator has had a lasting impact on Nigerian art. He taught at Yaba College of Technology for decades, at times serving as Head of the Department of Art, Design & Printing and Rector for the entire institution until his retirement. Grillo was passionate about teaching his students the foundational methods of art-making as the building blocks to develop their own artistic language. Although he was a towering pillar in the Nigerian art world, he did not encourage followers. Instead, he pushed his students to move beyond his and his fellow pioneers’ influences to find their own visual modes and approaches. Today, the art gallery on campus bears his name.
Grillo was celebrated as one of Nigeria’s leading contemporary artists throughout his lifetime, receiving recognition through numerous honors and awards. These included first prize at the All African Competition in Painting in 1972, the laudatory retrospective “Master of Masters: Yusuf Grillo” at Nigeria’s National Gallery of Art in 2006, and becoming the namesake for the Yusuf Grillo Pavilion, an exhibition space in Ikorodu, Lagos that exhibits many of Nigeria’s foremost artists.
Grillo’s life and work leaves us with a lasting presence: his name is quite literally etched into the cultural infrastructure of Nigeria. His memory will be continued by his family, his students, his peers in the Nigerian art world, and those in the ACASA community who had the privilege to meet and know him.
By Rebecca Wolff