The visual arts department of the University of Nigeria Nsukka is important in the history of contemporary art in Nigeria. The traveling exhibition titled Nkoli Ka (Great Recalling) lays credence to this claim. It was first shown in Nsukka, then in Abuja, and later at the former Lagos Business School complex, Victoria Island. This short review is about the Lagos event and a reflection on the contribution of the Nsukka art programme to the history of art in Nigeria.
When Uche Okeke (1933 – 2016) and his colleagues brought the Igbo linear design and motif known as “uli,” into formal art practice, they had forged a creative identity for the Nsukka Art School as the department came to be called. Decades after, that creative modernists seed grew into a kind of art movement through which many artists from across Eastern Nigeria would come to limelight. While uli stands for experimentation with form, a new kind of experimentation emerged in the last couple of decades, cohering around medium and technique. An example is the work of El Anatsui who has gained international recognition through his well-celebrated large-scale bottle tops sculpture series and his earlier work with wood.
Guests admiring one of the exhibits at the Nkoli ka Nsukka Art School, after 50 Years Exhibition in Lagos
The Ghanaian-born ‘Nigerian master’ and lecturer at UNN was not trained at the institution, but he brought his training and background to bear on his practice at Nsukka. His influence on the works of some younger artists trained at UNN such as Nnenna Okore and Eva Obodo cannot be denied. In fact, Anatsui’s influence has quietly transformed the conceptual ideology of other younger artists like Gerald Chukwuma, Victoria Udondian and others who did not even train directly under him.
Although Nkoli Ka exhibition should not be seen as a staging of Anatsui’s influence, the emphasis on material and technique, however faintly, would not disappear. So suggests the works on display in the Lagos exhibition. Again, given the importance of the Nsukka art school in the history of Nigerian art, the prospect of the future – the survival of the art tradition – lies in the hands of the younger artists. The Nkoli Ka exhibition displays the works of artists from two generations, revealing what the future holds.
At the opening of Nkoli Ka Nsukka Art School, after 50 Years Exhibition
Consider for instance the mixed media painting installations by Chinyere Odinukwe. A section of her installation titled “At the Heart of Sacred Clothes and Songs: Metaphor for Flags and Anthems” is subtly laced with green and white. Placing the work at the entrance of the exhibition space is a curatorial strategy to lead the audience into where the rest of the artworks by over 20 artists are displayed. Over 70 artists in all have shown at the Nsukka, Abuja and Lagos exhibitions. In her work, Odinukwe uses the flag as a metaphor to speak to national questions such as the hate-filled agitation for secession and “quit notice” in Nigeria. She is not interested in belonging to either side of the divide in her country of birth. She probes into the flag and anthem as national symbols, but also uses them to question the traditional pattern of display. In my conversation with her, she says that she has observed “a number of torn flags,” across nations. She notes that the political heritage of salute to the Union Jack suggests something more than national patriotism.
At the opening of Nkoli Ka Nsukka Art School, after 50 Years ExhibitionFurther into the exhibition space are twin busts of large dimension titled “Heavy Rain” by Iyke Okenyi. Others are Benjamin Akachukwu’s mixed media painting – “Forms from My Sky”, Sebastine Ugwuoke’s prize-winning installation, and many more. In all, the works reflect the profile of an art school that has given a lot to the art world.