In the early hours of August 23, 2021, Nigeria lost a master in the art world. Yusuf Grillo was a teacher that gave more than was required. He loved to share his knowledge and skills with people, many times for little to no financial gain. Since the news of his death reached me, I have been mulling over his contributions to the art scene in Nigeria and the industry as a whole.
I once visited the British Museum, something I have done a number of times, but on this occasion, as I was taking on a tour, I was told of an incident that occurred during the Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi’s visit to the museum.
You see, the British Museum is a treasure of historical works; a number of these works came from Nigeria. They are beautifully displayed and well represented. One of such works is the original gate of the Palace’s Shrine that was taken many decades ago with the permission of the then Ooni of Ife and replaced with a golden gate by the British. The golden gate is still at the entrance to the shrine till now. After seeing the original gate displayed at the British Museum during his visit, the present Ooni of Ife was said to have joked that the museum should take back their golden gate and return original gate to the palace. I saw the humour in the story but it also made me think that we really need to start appreciating what we have and stop waiting for the outside world to do it for us.
This was a funny story but one that remained with me as I wondered just how many of our iconic works of are out there. Works that tell our history and culture, things we don’t have properly documented. We have stories of great artists who used different media to express our way of life. Sadly, they are only now great outside the shores of their own country. Picasso famously said that his works were influenced by African arts, particularly Nigeria, yet many will disregard our art for the foreign.
Grillo was one of such great artists. He was famous for his stained glass paintings and popularly known as the Master of Masters. He was a father figure in the contemporary visual art world in Nigeria and also a founding member of the ‘Zaria Rebels’ at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, a body of artists. He was the founding president of the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) and was also the brain behind the creation of the art school at Yabatech, Lagos, that has trained some of the very best of visual artists in the country and beyond.
One of the most unpopular facts about Grillo is that he is responsible for some of the biggest art forms seen in some of the older churches today. Apart from architecture, paintings are pretty much the only forms of visual art allowed in the church. Grillo’s stained glass and mosaic works have been commissioned for a number of public buildings, including churches, universities, government buildings and the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos. Yet this is not popularly known or taught in our art schools.
In my opinion, this is result of the lack of adequate documentation of what is referred to as Nigerian art. By documentation, I am referring to the history, meaning and relevance of our works in the different stages of our civilization. This I believe has contributed to the low level of appreciation that Nigerians have for Nigerian art, giving reason to why Nigeria remains the third largest owner of Nigerian art.
You see, I used to be an avid supporter of the return of our works but now, seeing the state of many of our iconic pieces, I am inclined to agree with those who believe our works aboard are better off where they are.
Nigeria has been proving beyond doubt that it cannot manage its affairs. Museums set up in virtually every region are dying from neglect, poor staffing, low wages, low morale, poor climate condition for the works and poor funding. The problem of poor management can still be seen in the poor documentation of our art treasures and resources till date. The British burned down the city of Benin in 1897 and so erased most of the records held in the kingdom. What they didn’t burn down, they carted away or systematically destroyed. But those wanton acts have not stopped the British from reasoning that we are incapable of taking care of what is ours.
I run a private museum in Lagos, and have my works properly documented digitally and in print. This is constantly updated as I acquire more works. The irony is that I did this with the help of curators from the National Museum. So, we do have the talents. In 2001, there was a project between my museum, DIDI Museum, and the National Museum to digitalize their records and update them regularly. Due to lack of funding, that collaboration did not come to fruition. If we could not write in the 17th and 18th centuries, how can we defend our inability to manage our resources, our treasures, and document our history today, for we are making history every day of our lives? As I write, our present artists, sculptures and metal workers are creating contemporary arts some of which are truly iconic. Are we documenting these? Some of these works are in private hands and the National Museum Commission may not have records of them. Elsewhere, it is not uncommon for Museums to acquire iconic works for historical purposes or lease them for exhibition permanently or from time to time. Who is documenting the works of our activist artists over time?
We may have lost Grillo but we should not lose his legacy. This applies to many of our great artists and upcoming artist as well. Our artists shouldn’t need to travel out of the country to get great value for their works. Nigerian art demands the attention of Nigeria and Nigerians.