By Dele Jegede
There could hardly have been a more lugubrious day for me and, I guess, countless others, than August 23rd, when I learned of the passing of Mr. Yusuf Adebayo Cameron Grillo at the blessed age of 86. In accordance with Islamic practice, his body was interred on the same day at Ebony Vaults, Atan Cemetery Yaba.
Meeting Grillo is different from knowing him. The former implies a casualness that is an inevitable part of his job as a teacher artist, and public figure. The latter gestures at having or earning a privileged status. To meet him is to be in the presence of an enigma; to know him is to be granted a favour; to be admitted into a loosely constructed circle of trusted friends. including former colleagues and students. Meeting him demystifies all the manufactured shibboleth that supposedly marks the artist as this enigmatic, right-brained persona, easily distinguishable in any community by his appearance, even behavior. Presumed to be queer before that word became a politesse for nonbinary identity, the artist was this piece of work with a zany sartorial taste and a haircut that leaned on, or anticipated rastafarianism long before it became hip in Nigeria. Grillo’s persona evinces none of these quixotries. Always regal in his white or off-white top and pants casual suit, he was the epitome of class, subtlety, carriage, poise, and dignity. Not one to raise his voice in public, he was a positive force. He spoke with apodictic authority on matters pertaining to tertiary education, broadly; he was oracular on matters relating to the practice and teaching of art. And in the reach and import of his work, sculpture, painting, and murals, no less than stained-glass, Grillo was peerless. He despised publicity and was never one to toot his own horn. Instead, he left a legacy for humanity that will remain indelible across time and space.
But you may not sense any of these attributes until you have known him. He was at ease with spinning one mischievous joke after another, often at your expense. Those who are in the trade of weaponizing jokes know that there is a variety of jokes. There are jokes that are mere stubs—without a punchline. There are jokes that you throw a cheap smile at, merely to humour the source. There are jokes that you chuckle at, perhaps because of the space you are in. Grillo’s jokes, which he would tell only to those who are privileged to know him, provoked guffaws.
I met Grillo when I enrolled as a student at the Yaba College of Technology (YCT) in the mid-60s. As a teacher, he was an affecting presence: calm but forceful, methodical, inspiring, and detail-oriented. If you were unable to go out and work on an assignment that called for the study of an actual scenery but cooked up something anyway, you would be hoisted by your own petard. Grillo was known to take dissembling students (in his Ford Zephyr) to supposed sites simply to prove that the students’ sketches were fictional. And he was always right. I knew Grillo much later. I was an honored recipient of the Y. Grillo Prize for the Best All-Round Final Year Student in 1973 when I graduated from ABU. I was delirious with joy when this revered icon bought one of my paintings—my self-portrait—at my first solo exhibition in 1974. The painting was one of a few, including that of Kolade Oshinowo, that hung in his living room in Ikeja. Of course, the decision to invite him to formally open my 1977 exhibition was simply a no-brainer.
Certainly, his teaching methodology evolved just as did his perspectives and vision for tertiary art education in a newly independent Nigeria. At the completion of his education at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, (NCAST) (now Ahmadu Bello University, ABU), Zaria in 1956, he headed for King’s College, Lagos. He knew he was going to be an art teacher. His education at ABU was on federal government scholarship. Hardly had he settled at King’s College than he was sent to the then the department of art at the Yaba Institute of Technology, a department that was then under the suzerainty of Paul Mount from 1955 to 1961.
The critical word that encapsulates Grillo’s mission and legacy is structure. Quietly, methodically, but determinedly, Grillo embarked on his diocesan task of giving structure to his vision of a future in which artists would not have to accept their confinement to a subaltern status in their respective communities. During the quarter of a century that Grillo spent at YCT, starting in 1962 and culminating in his retirement in 1987 at a very old age of—wait for it—53—he bequeathed to the college the comely architectural edifice that now exteriorizes the college: the School of Art, Design, and Printing. But Grillo did more than erect an edifice to the future at Yaba. He gutted the system that Mount handed over to him. In place of a laissez-faire approach that dated back to the years of Yaba Technical Institute, Grillo re-structured the department of art in ways that would meet the aspiration of a growing population of budding artists.
As one who had participated in the now much celebrated art students’ subversion in Zaria (with other Zarianists such as the late Uche Okeke, Demas Nwoko, and Bruce Onobrakpeya) Grillo knew that the Mount model was too loose to succeed in his envisioned new nation. Mount had thrown the art programme open to anyone who was interested in studying art to do so on their own terms. Fresh from Zaria, he carried the philosophical principles that birthed the Art Society in Zaria to the establishment of the Society of Nigerian Artists, SNA, in 1963. As the first president of the SNA, he provided artists a structure for professional artists to effectively contribute to national growth.
The Yaba that Grillo inherited comprised a smorgasbord of students: civil servants, youths, spouses of diplomats, and anyone else, all of whom chose what they wanted to study. Grillo streamlined the programme. Instead of the prevailing open sesame, he introduced basic qualifications for prescribed courses leading to specified diplomas. Growth had finally begun at YCT. From the ordinary diploma to the higher national diploma, from establishing a robust pedagogy appropriate for the newly introduced classification, to the construction of an imposing, functional structure, one that anticipated growth and the pliancy necessary for expansion, Grillo was the incomparable mastermind, the quiet but zealous power that did not only dream, but also willed his dream to actuality.
As a painter, sculptor, and mosaicist, Grillo’s work is imbued with an organic structure that may or may not be visible to the ordinary eye, but which is responsible for the tensility that gives his work its springiness; its allure. Grillo’s structurally configured mannerism is most manifest in his paintings. Often swathed in enchanting fields of soothing blues, magentas, greens, and pinks, the enduring feature and the matrix upon which his paintings are built, is composition. In single paintings, often of seductive Yoruba women, it is the structured faces that are most revelatory of the working of Grillo’s mind. The faces become the frontier where his fondness for mathematics and science gives creative force to his love for minimalist deployment of colors. In his paintings, the master artist’s channeling of an assortment of masks from Gabon, specifically of the Punu and Fang variety, comes to the fore. The coquettishness of Grillo’s women is accentuated by the artist’s stylistic gesture, by which the women’s gaze is down; they hardly make eye contact with their admirers.
Perhaps it is Grillo’s mosaic murals and stained-glass works for churches that most apparently display the artist’s penchant for structure. When members of the Zaria Art Society made their debut in the early 1960s, it was a case of sheer serendipity. The emergence of a new breed of young, proud, articulate, and enthusiastic professional artists in the year of Nigeria’s independence provided the fillip that Grillo and others needed. Grillo received advise from, and patronage of architects, expatriates, diplomats, other professionals, and a few upper-class Nigerians, all of whom collected his paintings. Early in his career, Grillo branched out into other novel areas of art production. With commissions coming from architects such as Robin Atkinson, Grillo went into designing huge murals for public buildings. It started in Lagos with the Independence Building in Tafawa Balewa Square in 1963, but soon his mosaic murals spread across the nation, including the New Nigerian Newspapers building in Kaduna.
Again, it was Atkinson that lured Grillo into designing stained glasses for church windows. Today, his stained-glass designs, which started with the Presbyterian Church, Yaba, can be seen in numerous churches across the nation, from St Dominic’s at Yaba to church, to Oko in Anambra State. I once asked him how as a Muslim, he was able to interpret the Bible so perspicuously, more so since his design would have to dig into the Bible and Christian liturgy. Grillo displayed his fond knowledge of the two great religions by distilling their epistemic canons into two: worship and love, You should worship God, who is the same in the two religions, and then love your fellow man as yourself. In pursuit of these two decrees, Grillo would convoke an assembly of his colleagues and friends, Christians and Muslims, during the annual Eid-el-Kabir, for his famous Chrislam feast. Perhaps in adherence to his religious principles, Grillo did all he could to shun publicity. He was not one to celebrate December 16, which is his birthday.
Here was a man at once public but elusive. His legacy would have been phenomenal if it had been limited simply to the thousands of students whose lives he touched directly or vicariously. But there is more, much more, to Grillo than the number of those whose career he designed. Grillo designed houses, large murals, and stained-glass windows for churches. He was a colossus in word and deed. Grillo gave much more than he took. He bequeathed to the nation and mankind an art that is evocative and cathartic. Grillo bestrode the Nigerian art field as a visionary. He became the golden standard by which delectability and constructive synergy in art are measured. I most certainly am bereaved. But the nation and, indeed, the world, are the poorer for his exit. For a man who stood tall and straight in the exercise of principles no less than the demonstration of his creative temper and administrative savvy, Grillo will forever remain a looming presence.
Jegede is Professor Emeritus at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, United States of America.