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African Art – A Portrait of Nigerian Artist Yusuf Grillo

Recognized throughout Africa for his contemporary artworks, Yusuf Grillo has clearly made strides in the world art scene throughout his extensive career. As one of Nigeria’s most distinguished artists, his international recognition came during the 1960s and 1970s as he exhibited a collection of early works that would later become his legacy. Demonstrating his long-held commitment to education, Grillo served as the Head of Yaba College of Technology’s Department of Art and Printing for more than 25 years. An enthusiast of contemporary African art, Tunde Folawiyo is amongst the many fans of Grillo’s African-inspired works. Tunde’s website contains more information about his enjoyment for artwork and his other interests. These works continue to inspire art lovers throughout the African continent and well beyond.

Dubbed one of the founding fathers of visual contemporary art in Nigeria, Grillo experienced with a variety of techniques until he found those that best fit his artistic perspective. His mosaic and stained glass creations grace the walls of several important buildings throughout the country of Nigeria, including universities, churches, an International airport and government buildings. Grillo’s ties to Nigeria are deep-rooted. He is a member of the Zaria School, most commonly known as the Zaria Rebels. Here, he joined others to form a style of art previously obscure.

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Born in the Nigerian city of Lagos, Grillo attended the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, Zaria. Here, he earned a diploma in Fine Arts, in addition to a post-graduate diploma in the field of education. In 1966, Grillo left Zaria to begin study at the Cambridge University academic hall. Later, he traveled to the United States and Germany, where he acquired new techniques that would later play a significant role in his works.

Grillo’s training in western art can be seen in many of his paintings, which combine western techniques and Yoruba sculpture. Amongst the most distinguishable characteristics in Grillo’s artworks is his frequent use of the color blue throughout his natural settings works. Their prominence has been likened to the resist-dye textiles utilised in Nigeria.

Nigeria experienced a great revolution of visual art during the decades of the 1950s and 1960s. During this period, Nigerian art styles made a transition from ancient traditions to new concepts utilising western-style techniques. This new, exciting time in African art was dubbed “New African” and represented a mixture of modernism and tradition. Later, this concept developed into one called “Natural Synthesis” that became the philosophy by which Nigeria’s Art School was based. It was later renamed Ahmadu Bello University. The school’s students included popular artists such as Yusuf Grillo, Demas Nwoko, Jimoh Akoho and Uche Okeke, who later spread out to various schools upon graduation. They established what is now known as the Zaria Art Society.

Meticulous in his craft, Grillo has been known to take months, even years to complete a painting to his satisfaction. Whilst the subject matter of many of his creative works are based on human activity, Grillo also drew inspiration from the Yoruba world. The artist was also said to draw inspiration from famed sculptor Paul Mount, who specialised in large, wooden sculptures during the late 1950s, then moved on to abstract, bronze and cast-iron works during the 1960s and beyond. A respected art teacher, Mount accepted a position in Lagos, Nigeria in 1955, where he was in charge of establishing an art department at Yaba’s technical institute.

Inspired by various genres of art, Grillo formed a style of technique that proved to be distinctive, so much so that it was copied upon the growth of his success. The figures in his paintings are often elongated – a representation of the artist’s contemporary ideals of beauty in urban settings. As such, the figures are easily identifiable, evoking grace and elegance. With African motifs and a prominence of the color blue, Grillo’s paintings evoke his personal qualities, as he is often referred to a man of great character – a leader, a teacher, an inspiration.

A man of humble beginnings, Grillo’s contributions to contemporary art in Nigeria and Africa as a whole are recognised throughout the country, but less widespread internationally. One writer, T. A. Fasuyi, described “Grilloism” as an art style that has influenced a number of artists in Nigeria. Perhaps more notable than his various artistic talents has been his unwavering commitment to education, one that has impacted countless students during his time as an esteemed teacher.

Whilst Grillo is now retired from teaching, an artist’s work is never done. The 80-year-old continues painting, though he has had to cease sculptures due to the physical demands of such work. His art continues to inspire new generations of African artists and collectors alike. Tunde Folawiyo is amongst those with an appreciation for the creative works of Grillo. With his paintings and sculptures scattered throughout museums and other institutions throughout Africa, Grillo’s distinctive creative characteristics will live on for centuries to come.


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