Exit the native synthesist
Uche Okeke hit the Nigerian visual-art scene like a tornado, but throughout a prolific career that spanned nearly 60 years, his only known victim was the complacency inherent in Western-style education.The innovative 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 those of political or labour leaders.
Okeke’s group of nine students 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 those in the 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 genres, the activists could at least start raising awareness about them, promoting them by producing them and spreading enlightenment about them.
Like every truly innovative movement, the campaign was misunderstood. In the history of Nigerian modern art, Okeke and his small group of pathfinders are referred to as the Zaria Rebels although the group, officially, was the Zaria Art Society. “Rebel” in their case came to acquire a nuance of praise, though. Everyone in that group was in unchartered territory, individually defining the visual art space of the post-contact era, which is to say, the period after the African encounter with European modernity.
They include, apart from Okeke, 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 at what was then the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, now Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria. As Nigeria got ready for independence from Britain, the young firebrands felt that it was not only actors in government offices that should change. Change in the knowledge driving governance was just as important.
When he and his small circle of friends arrived at 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 to 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-west, and elsewhere on the continent – in Legon in Ghana and Makerere 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 independence. Such people needed to look inwards and rediscover 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 that I am a 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 this 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 leading 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,” he 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 [that] 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, puts the tail there, you know, trying to adapt. But when it is creative, you allow all these influences to affect you.”
Never a man for talk only, Okeke, twenty-five in his freshman 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 artists and influential personalities as Wole Soyinka, the later Nobel laureate in literature; Chinua Achebe, one of Africa’s greatest novelists; Christopher Okigbo, the major poet who died fighting for Biafra early in the Nigerian civil war; 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 carried in Black Orpheus, the Mbari Club, Ibadan’s journal, which in those days was at the forefront of encouraging African creative writers looking to cut their teeth.
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 speak – that Professor Okeke came to be best known for. Traditionally, uli painting was practised by Igbo women, in two main forms: somatic and mural.
The somatic variants were used more or less as cosmetics on 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 the berries of several plant species. Somatic uli was monochromic; only one colour was used. This might be black or bluish green, depending on the dye.
The choice was wider for the mural variants. Krydz Ikwuemesi, one the best-known scholars of uli and a third-generation descendant from Professor Okeke’s aesthetic lineage, describes the genre thus: “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 took an innovative approach that did four basic things to reform the art form. He removed the gender barrier, bringing in male practitioners. He extended it beyond the Igbo ethnic boundaries, internationalising it. Following on from this, 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 an area of formal academic study. By the time Professor Okeke retired as the Dean of Faculty of Arts at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), the visual art department of the country’s first indigenous university had become synonymous with 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 at 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 study 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 followers had drawn her attention to them.
Professor Okeke died at the age of 83 in his home town of Nimo in Anambra State, in south-eastern Nigeria, after a long struggle with illness triggered by a 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 will be remembered whenever post-contact Nigerian visual art is the subject.