Uche Okeke hit the Nigerian visual-art scene like a tornado but throughout a prolific career that spanned nearly sixty years, his only known victim was primal complacency with Western-style education. The innovating professor of Fine Art reconstructed more than he destroyed. It all began in 1958 when anti-colonial campaigns by nationalists were at their peak. Before young Uche Okeke and his far-sighted colleagues got in on the act, the more familiar names in the campaigns were naturally those of political or labour leaders. Okeke’s was a group of nine students. The team chose to fight with the unlikeliest of weapons-art. Their logic was that part of what Western-style education had done was to socialise Africans into rejection of their indigenous intellectual products, including arts, as inferior or even undesirable. African arts were not taught in Western-style schools in Nigeria up until then. The fighting nine kicked against that. If the colonial curriculum would not recognise African home-grown genres, the activists could at least start raising awareness about them, promoting them by producing them and carrying out enlightenment about them. Like every truly innovative movement, the campaign was misunderstood. Till date, in the history of Nigerian modern art, Okeke and his small group of path-finders are referred to as the Zaria Rebels, although the group, officially, was the Zaria Art Society. “Rebel” in their case came to acquire a laudatory nuance, though. Everyone in that group took an uncharted territory of his own in the new-found post-contact Nigerian visual art. They include, apart from Okeke and a few others, such names as Yusuf Grillo, Bruce Onobrakpeya, and Demas Nwoko. They helped define the visual art landscape of the newly independent nation-state. It all started two years before Nigeria’s independence in 1960. It was Okeke’s first week in what was then Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology; (now Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria). As Nigeria got ready for independence from Britain, the young hotheads felt that it wasn’t only the actors in government offices that should change. Change in knowledge that would drive governance and indeed the entire social life was just as important. So, when he and his small circle of friends arrived Zaria, the college was in ferment, for a different reason. The student leaders wanted their college to be affiliated to the University of London, something they said would make their certificates more prestigious.
Okeke went to the rally that was called to mobilise the student body for the pressure that would force the hand of the authorities in that direction. Such a relationship with the British university was already in place in Ibadan in the south-western districts, and elsewhere on the continent in Legon in Ghana and Makarere in Uganda. But Okeke and his friend at the meeting, Demas Nwoko, opposed the proposal. It seemed too late in the day for a people demanding for independence. Such a people needed rather to look inwards and re-discover themselves. Okeke argued that a student in a Nigerian institution of learning at that point should be proud of home-grown knowledge that would help bring something truly African to the global space. In an interview before a severe stroke that proved to be terminal brought him down, he recalled that epoch-making event. “I told them, ‘I am happier going out and answering Nigerian artist … Let us know how to do things well in our country.’” He called the knowledge-production strategy that he proposed, “natural synthesis” and said that in a changed world such was the only way that the former colonies could carry on meaningfully. If colonisation robbed them of their pre-contact savvy and techniques, natural synthesis would help them to rediscover and reconstruct those, and integrate them with whatever might be useful to compete in the new order. Years later after Okeke had attained renown as both an artist and a foremost university professor in his discipline and I was editing a magazine in Nigeria, I sent a reporter to interview him. In the interview, the reporter accused him of borrowing from the same exogenous system that he elected to fight, and the lecturer put his rhetorical arsenal to good use. “I don’t call it borrowing” he began. “It is like this. It is possible you come from another part of the country,” the professor told his Nigerian interviewer. “You are breathing the air here. If there are viruses in the air, you can’t say you won’t breathe in the air. It is natural as you grow, as you move around, you gather experiences. You don’t separate what you learned yesterday from what you are yet to learn today by staying in the environment.“What I will term borrowing is somebody who takes the head of this, put the tail there, you know, trying to adapt. But when it is creative, you allow all these influences to affect you.” Not a talking man only, Okeke, twenty-five in his fresh-man year, went on to set up a cultural centre outside his college and tried also to link up with other Nigerians who were working to promote other art genres, such as drama and literature. It was those efforts that connected him with such art personages as Wole Soyinka, the would-be Nobel laureate in literature; Chinua Achebe, Africa’s greatest novelist; Christopher Okigbo, foremost poet that died fighting for Biafra during the Nigerian civil war of later years, Abdulazeez Udeh, President Nnamdi Azikiwe’s press secretary after independence; and many others.
A collection of drawings based on the folklore of his native Igbo people was the first publication of the Mbari Club of Ibadan which in those days was in the forefront of encouraging African creative writers desiring to cut their teeth on the vocation. But it was the revival and intellectualisation of an indigenous visual art genre of the Igbo, something called uli or uri – depending on which of the 300 odd dialects of the language of this group one speaks, that Professor Okeke came to be best known for. Traditionally, uli painting was practised by Igbo women, who did so in two main forms; somatic and mural. The somatic variants were used more or less as cosmetics in special occasions when such beautification was needed. The mural variants were used in decorating walls of houses or shrines for profane or sacred reasons. In either form, dyes were obtained from berries of several species of plant. Somatic uli was monochromic; only one colour was used. This might be black or bluish green, depending on the source of the dye and its treatment. The choice was wider for the mural variants. Krydz Ikwuemesi, one of the best known academic practitioners and a third-generation descendant from Professor Okeke’s aesthetic lineage, describes the genre: “Wall painting is bolder, more vigorous and based on a palette of four colours: white, yellow, reddish brown, and black,” he says. “It is rarely the exertion of one woman and often celebrates the central myth of the community.” Okeke began an innovation that did four basic things to reform the art forms. He removed the gender barrier, bringing in male practitioners. He extended it beyond the Igbo ethnic boundaries, internationalising it. Following from the first two innovations, he showed that supra-ethnic motifs could be introduced, and that the new form could be used to make potent statements regarding any topic concerning the human condition irrespective of ethnicity. In its repackaged form, uli became a respectable academic field, besides its practical values that were already well known. By the time Professor Okeke retired as the Dean of Faculty of Arts in University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), the visual art department of the West African country’s first indigenous university, had become synonymous with the uli scholarship. When people say “Nsukka School” they mean the group of academic artists who are exponents of the uli genres. Many of these have attained international renown of their own; some teaching the forms beyond Nigerian borders and bringing in innovations and views of their own. Without attempting anything close to a full list, names such as Chike Aniakor, Obiora Udechukwu, Tayo Adenaike, El Anatsui, and the present
Head of the Department, Krydz Ikwuemesi, come to mind. One of the experiments by the Ghanaian El Anatsui who has spent his remarkably productive career in UNN is to blend two other West African indigenous forms with uli-his native adinkara and the nsibidi of speakers of the Benue-Congo languages in Nigeria’s southern-most eastern districts. From that emerged what Professor Anatsui named adinsibuli, which has been a subject of serious studies of its own. Krydz Ikwuemesi has spent years of research among the Ainu comparing the autochthonous art forms of this Japanese group and the uli genres. I remember going to the British Council in Enugu years back, to view an exhibition by the German painter, Doris Weller, who had chosen to study uli in its pre-scholarly forms after the works of Okeke and his disciples had drawn her attention to them. Professor Okeke died the other day at 83 in his home town of Nimo, Anambra State, in Nigeria’s central south-eastern district, after a long struggle with stroke. Chuka Nnabuife, an art scholar who was one of the first to write an obituary, said, “Professor Okeke was a father figure in [the] history of Nigerian art modernism.” Cliff Nwanna, Head of Department of Fine and Applied Arts in Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, in Okeke’s native Anambra State, was quoted as saying, “Uche Okeke was arguably one of the most notable artists in Africa and a cultural nationalist.” Innovators and pioneers like Professor Uche Okeke may die but their names usually don’t. He may always be remembered whenever post-contact Nigerian visual art is the subject.