Yusuf Grillo Nigeria, 1934-2021


Emerging to prominence and international recognition in the 1960s and 1970s, YUSUF GRILLO is deeply influenced by the characteristics of traditional Yoruba philosophy and sculpture.

Widely regarded as one of Nigeria's most celebrated contemporary artists, Yusuf Grillo has led a prolific career that has shaped the discourse of modern art in the country. As a member of the Zaria Arts Society, popularly known as the Zaria Rebels, Grillo combined training in the Western-representational style with a focus on Nigeria's cultural history. He is particularly known for the specific use of the color blue in his paintings, a reference to adire and resist-dye textiles used in Nigeria.


After extensive education in Nigeria and the UK, Grillo served as Head of the Department of Art and Printing at Yaba College of Technology for over twenty five years. His iconic stained glass and mosaic works have been commissioned for a number of public buildings in Nigeria including churches, universities, government buildings, and the Murtala Mohammed International Airport. Grillo has also served as the founding president of the Society of Nigerian Artists, the professional body for all practicing artists in Nigeria.


Yusuf Grillo was born in 1934 in the Brazilian Quarters of Lagos. Grillo received his early education in Lagos. In 1955, he proceeded to the Nigerian College of Art, Science and Technology, Zaria. 

Grillo completed his Diploma course in Fine Art in 1960 and took an art education course that led to the award of post-graduate art education courses and education tour in Britain at the University of Cambridge. During this time, he was introduced to the use of polyester resin in sculpture in London.


Grilllo visited the College of Art and Printing in the United States in 1969. In 1972, he won the All African Competition in Painting held in London. In 1979, he visited the U.S.S.R. and studied Industrial Education in West Germany and Britain.


Grillo has exhibited in Africa, Europe, America and Australia. As an educator and administrator, he was the Head of the Department of Art and Printing at Yaba College of Technology. He has on occasions acted as Rector of the College. He also served as the Chairman of Lagos State Art Council (1978) as well as President of the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA).


Grillo takes his subject matter from human activity in the world around him, particularly the Yoruba world. His paintings are distinguished by a refined and subtle use of colour and the mathematical structure of the picture surface. He created cool colour harmonies with a sensitive brush, avoiding stridency and discord. His use of blue and violet is reminiscent of stained glass. The generous folds of drapery of Yoruba dress become carefully balanced geometric shapes. Grillo’s treatment of the head sometimes makes direct reference to Africa mask forms. Many of his figures are stylized almost to the point of abstraction, yet they never lose their humanity.




* Published in the catalogue for the Zaria Art Society: Celebration of Legacies exhibition, 26 October-15 November 2019, Lagos, Nigeria. Extracted from “ The Zaria Art Society: A New Consciousness”. Published by National Gallery of Art Nigeria.