In honour of its pioneer Head of Department, late Prof. Uche Okeke (1933-2016), for his contributions to Modern Nigerian art, the Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, held a one-day colloquium titled “Art and the Politics of Immortality: Re-Reading Uche Okeke in the Post-Zarianist Zeitgeist,” on June 24, 2016. Foremost Nigerian artists, scholars and art institutions were in attendance to re-examine the artist’s role in the shaping of Nigerian modernism.
The aim of the colloquium was to revisit Uche Okeke’s critical role as an art teacher, a studio artist, his wider national and international artistic engagements and how all these have contributed to reshaping the Nsukka Art School in particular and Nigerian Contemporary art in general. While Okeke’s influence as a teacher at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka was a major subject among other lifetime engagements, his work of foresight as a student at the National College of Arts, Science and Technology, Zaria (now Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria) when he and his contemporaries propounded the philosophy of Natural Synthesis, which in a revisionist approach explored the intrinsic values in our indigenous ideas without the repudiation of foreign influences, is also an important signpost in the historical narrative on modern Nigerian art.
According to the guest speaker, Jess Castellote, “Okeke’s seminal intuition needs to be studied more thoroughly,” especially against the background of the conflicting binaries of independence struggle and overbearing foreign influences in the years before Nigeria’s independence. These factors greatly shaped the thinking of Uche Okeke and his contemporaries who became known as Zaria rebels. The group disbanded at their graduation which coincided with Nigeria’s year of independence. Like some other African states, Nigeria’s few years after independence soon threw up a crosshatching of issues that erupted into a major civil war that started in1967 and ended in 1970. At the end of the war, Okeke was appointed into the faculty of University of Nigeria, Nsukka. This became an opportunity for him to extend his creative philosophy and a pedagogical paradigm that not only shaped but would influence what was taught and how it was taught in the budding institution.
In the Niger Hall venue of the colloquium, a traditional òjà flutist intermittently intoned some traditional Igbo praises for the art colossus. The òjà called out Uche Okeke’s achievements while alive. The sharp definition of the tunes reminded one of the clarity of uli strokes and patterns with which he espoused his culture. While making his keynote speech, Castellote notes that:
The movement Uche Okeke helped start in Zaria was as important as what he developed in Nsukka. Although his contemporaries were part of the natural synthesis movement, Okeke was the intellectual engine of this crucial aspect of Nigerian art history which has been used, appropriated and misappropriated in the five decades since it was first introduced. …Okeke started the re-examination of the history of an idea which is not so much about his introduction of a new way of understanding art, but the establishment of a framework that will sustain that idea and make their mark on the way art has been taught in the last five decades.
Okpan Oyeoku, was taught by Uche Okeke during his undergraduate days in the early 1970s. Now a professor of Fine and Applied art in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Oyeoku as one of the speakers, relived his encounters with the great teacher of art in a presentation titled “Relieving the whispers of Uche Okeke.” He described his meeting with Uche Okeke before his University education as a remarkable incident that influenced his career choice. Winning the first prize in the Eastern Nigeria Annual Zonal Arts Festival held in 1971, of creative thinking: “He asked us to write 15 uses of the matchbox in 5 minutes. This required out-of-the-box thinking and as we would realize later, it was to challenge our abilities to come up with quick solutions as artists.” Oyeoku’s recollections of Uche Okeke were his being Head of Department throughout his 5-year undergraduate programme. He also taught drawing, painting and art history, while maintaining a studio in his campus residence. “We were inspired by Okeke’s zeal, the frequency and consistency with which he produced and exhibited his work and like most visionaries and people of talent, Okeke’s will to pursue his vision sometimes made him appear domineering among some of his colleagues and this led to occasional confrontations.” Oyeoku says that Uche Okeke would speak in calm voice during art classes. He whispered his instructions. This idiosyncrasy inspired Oyeoku’s poem which he recited as both tribute and the summary of his presentation.
Uche Okeke’s search for creative excellence reflected in how he recruited the staff that would help him drive his artistic vision. By broadening his search for the best hands across geographies, he recruited Chike Aniakor, El Anatsui, Papa Adams, Obiora Udechukwu, Benjo Igwilo and Ola Oloidi (all retired as professors from the department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka). Looking back, Okeke’s creative work and postulations are greatly relevant to not only the traditions and the acquired modernity of his people but to the diversity and circumambiency of the contemporary art world in thisera of globalization.In over five decades, Uli style of expression has witnessed local and international visibility as it has been shown in many places such as Skoto Gallery and the Smithsonian Institute in 1995 and 1997 respectively. At various levels, the names mentioned above and later entrants like Krydz Ikwuemesi and others have expanded the style and spirit of uli through their work and publications, thereby giving more life to what Okeke started and a unique voice to the Nsukka Art School.
In his speech, the director of National Gallery of Art (NGA), Abdulahi Muku recognized the place of Prof. Uche Okeke as a national treasure and explained the steps taken by the NGA to document his life and work. Two book publications on Uche Okeke under the titles, “Nku di na mba: Uche Okeke, a Modern Nigerian Artist,” and “A Special tribute to Professor Uche Okeke,” Muku says are NGA’s contribution to immortalizing him. In similar presentations, Prof. Clifford Nwanna and Dr. Okechukwu Nwafor of Nnamdi Azikiwe University extoled Uche Okeke’s visceral and intellectual roles in the development of Nigerian art. Nwanna spoke on a PhD research he did on Uche Okeke, describing him “as a consummate whole because of the wide-angle perspective from which he approached Nigerian art”. He said that from theory to practice, tradition to modernity, intuition to intellect, his vision has remained relevant. Nwafor in a review presentation on a recent book publication by Duke Press, titled Post-Colonial Modernism:Art and Decolonization in the Twentieth Century, written by Chika Okeke, Princeton University professor and an alumnus and lecturer of the Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, harped on Okeke’s critical role in the development of Art in Nigeria alongside his colleagues such as Demas Nwoko, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Yusuf Grillo and others. Nwafor’s review noted some relevant artists left out in the book’s account of the development of uli tradition into mainstream contemporary art, but it is a good example among other efforts to document the work of Uche Okeke. Despite these efforts to immortalize him, the Head of Department of Fine and Applied Art, Krydz Ikwuemesi and Chuka Nnabuife, an art critic and Newspaper propietor, in their presentations, posited that more still needs to be done to immortalize Uche Okeke in terms of critical writing and the evaluation of his work and uli art, which Nnabuife said, remain abysmally poor in terms of media exposure in Newspaper publications in Nigeria.
A video presentation was made by University of Washington emeritus Professor of Anthropology and a researcher on Igbo culture, Simon Ottenberg. He narrated his encounter with Uche Okeke and the inspiration the artist has been in the evolution of Nigerian contemporary art. In a presentation by another anthropologist, Prof. Peter Eze of the University of Nigeria, Uche Okeke’s life and work was viewed from his activist and intellectual predilection. Eze observed that even in his Zaria years, Okeke had reached out to the greatest intellectuals in the arts at the time, Abdulazeez Ude, Christopher Okigbo, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and others while they were working on the Mbari Project. He stated that Okeke’s collection of Igbo folk tales was the very first publication of the Mbari movement in Nigeria just as it was his research that brought the male gender into uli, a hitherto female preserve. Ultimately Okeke internationalized uli and this has culminated in other forms of extrapolations like Ghana born El Anatsui’s blending of Adinkra patterns from his Ewe tribe in Ghana, with nsibidi, and uli symbols of southeastern Nigeria which he called Adinsibuli. An evident underlying streak in Okeke’s work from the anthropologists’ presentations is his inclination to mitigate the corrosive effects of pervasive foreign influences while retaining their relevant values. The result is the preservation of valuable heritage from decimation and the concretization of those values that have sustained ongoing decolonization from the 1960s to the present.
As part of the colloquium, a fashion show aimed at highlighting the very ideas Uche Okeke espoused was held tangentially. Although fashion design has always been a part of Textiles section in the Fine and Applied Arts Department of University of Nigeria, much visibility has not been given to it and other aspects of the applied arts as equally important conduits in the matrix of nationalistic and colonial exchanges that engendered Nigeria’s post modernism. Recently, Fashion Design became a full-fledged section of the Fine and Applied arts school. It would utilize the research works by the textiles section to create finished apparels. The couture labels were productions of the departmental faculty with inputs from students. Worn by student-models, the apparels were articulations of local designs as a way of asserting the cultural identity of the people while still engaged in the negotiation of the concept of decolonization. The fashion show was therefore a statement on how cultural ideas and concepts could be translated to play added roles in shaping both individual and national identity. In assessing the gains of the symposium, Ikwuemesi reiterated the reason for celebrating Uche Okeke as a people who are critically conscious of their professional parentage considering that “art is the soul of heritage and heritage thrives on transition, change and continuity if it must remain the tool for conversations between generations.” Ikwuemesi says that it is imperative for artists of all climes to “like the Sankofa, a mythical Ghanaian bird, to travel back from the future now and again to fertilize the present with the waters of the past”.
As the event wound up, the affirmations of great promises from critical voices rallied on the point that in the twenty first century, the aggregation of art currents from both mainstream and the so-called periphery is propelling creativity and broadening the space and reach for previously occluded artists based on their ethnicities. Art, real art from any part of the world, can now occupy equal pedestal. The world has therefore taken more steps forward in comparison to Okeke’s activist era.