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Art is my life, it’s what I will do till I die — Yusuf Grillo

Prof. Adebayo Yusuf Cameron Grillo is one of the founding fathers of contemporary Visual Art in Nigeria. A visit to his Ikeja, Lagos home and studio indicates that the octogenarian and famous Master of Masters is still very much agile, full of life and ready at all times to discuss contemporary art.

Yusuf-Grillo
Yusuf-Grillo

Grillo is one of the most influential figures in Nigerian art, a member of the Zaria School, better kniown as the Zaria Rebels and the founding president of Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA). He is one man whose love for art has not wane.

He draws, paints, executes commissioned works and projects including stained glass work. The former Head of the Department of Art and Printing at Yaba College of Technology, still works like a young studio artist.

When many people could have retired from active practice, at 80, Grillo exudes certain strength of an artist who seems not to have gotten enough just for the love of art. The household name who has inspired the very best in visual art in the country today, talks about how it started, governments role and in all says that Art is his life and that’s what he will do till ….

By Chris Onuoha

LOOKING at the growth of Contemporary Art in Nigeria from your time till date, what is it like?

If you try to compare art in my time to now, there’s absolutely nothing one should say. In the late 1950s to early 1960s around independence, it didn’t exist. You can only talk about Aina Onabolu, Ben Enwonwu, Akin Olalesekan in the periphery and there’s hardly any other. There were some talented people who exercised their God given talents then, but if you are talking about serious practice of visual art, there was practically nothing when we started.

So there’s no basis for comparison, but we can talk about the tremendous growth over the time, because without claiming any undue position, those of us who started art practice in the sixties could be regarded as the fore-runners of contemporary visual art in the country.

Back then art was not being taught in schools, it was through some of us from Zaria, that even Government colleges, like kings college and so on, began to have art teachers in their staff list. Aina Onabolu was like an itinerant teacher teaching from one school to another.

Itinerant teacher

In the morning he will be at Baptist Boy’s High School, in the afternoon at Kings College and we were like that. Hardly did any of the pupils in schools then offer art in the Cambridge school certificate examination. It was just like something to expand their scope and for us as art teachers, we really enjoyed it.

Currently, so many universities in the country offer art, Zaria is there, University of Lagos, Nsukka, Benin, Ife and even in Ibadan that has something which is like ancillary to visual art in the institute of African Studies, not to talk of Yaba college of Technology which was one of the first tertiary institution that offer art. It’s so glaring that we have thousands of art graduates in the country today.

You have never welcomed the word Master of Masters by your protégés despite published books and journals to that credit?

It is their prerogative. They take responsibility for it. There’s nothing wrong placing you in high esteem but another group of people can counter that and call you rubbish. It is subjective. Unless there are criteria to measuring that which I know does not exist in art. The university evaluates you as having satisfied their requirements to be awarded a degree or Ph.D in art through your research, contributions and other creative works but not so in art assessment. So the question of been called a master rest on an individual.

I don’t think you can talk about being strong or weak when you are talking about an artist. An artist is an artist. It is subjective and not objective, you cannot analysis art the way you analysis mathematical problem or equation. Art, which come from the soul of the artist, is him as a person. Ben Enwonwu is Ben Enwonwu and that’s him. You cannot say somebody is a stronger artist or weaker artist. To me, I say you cannot be a master where there’s no evaluating authority which can pontificate on it. In art who pontificates, who says one artist is better than the other. Every artist is unique in his own style and content.

At 80, what is it like after retirement?

I retired from teaching and not from visual artist. I am an artist and will die an artist. I still paint, I still do glass works, I don’t do much sculpture now because of physical demands of the job, but I still do what I do as an artist. Can anything stop Wole Soyinka from writing? You can stop teaching but a serious writer will come from inside you. You have to define yourself. I thank God for my life today having sustained and seen me through my achievements which is the essence of life.

Does govt place material considerations over and above art?

Yes they do. But it depends on the greater material benefit that accrues from it.

When it comes to the visual art, we talk about the spiritual and intrinsic benefits which government overlooks. There’s a poor artist in the studio, either sculpting or painting, and what does he do with it, just to have an exhibition, art patrons comes around to purchase some of his works or maybe get occasional write up about him in the journals and he is happy, but what material benefit comes in is the question.

Popular level

Obviously, as art has improved in the country today, we still have not gotten to the realm of reproducing work of artists which could be sold on the popular level and if the work is famous like Monalisa or some works of Van Gogh, Da Vinci, et cetera, people all over the world will buy. At that, we will have a print version of those works. We haven’t gotten to that but even if, the total revenue accrued to it is still very limited in comparison with the entertainment industry. So that’s the reason. It’s a question of material consideration over and above spiritual or intrinsic considerations.

And what can government do to encourage Art ?

Government can do a lot by taking a leaf from what countries in Europe and America who have diversified are doing or have done to encourage this spiritual art. First of all, having competent people at the helm of affairs who recognise the different between the serious art and other revenue generating craft or entertainment can change things because art goes deep into all these different areas. Take for example, cartoon which you see on televisions and cinemas, greeting cards, decoration arts and graphic designs are done by artists.

A strip of cartoon can be very lucrative. It is a question of having somebody who will recognise that these ones should be promoted because they can bring revenue to increase the economy of the nation.

A visual artist is not working to amuse or entertain anybody. He is bringing out his spirit through his work. If we go into the literary art, Wole Soyinka writes not to amuse, but write true stories which will sell very quickly, it is the same with Chinua Achebe and alike. You can’t compare them to someone who writes funny cheap stories that tell us about man and woman in romantic ordeal. You know they are all writers but in different categories.

Now, coming to government appointments, it is difficult to talk about government because it is politics. I will say no because there are not proper appointments to manage art. Some appointments to important positions today are by political considerations. A lot of intrigues and lobbying by political jobbers mares this effort coupled with quota system which they use in considering anybody slightly knowledgeable in art to be in that position. Some appointments should be taken out of politics completely.

 


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