Postcolonial Modernism… Okeke-Agulu Probes The Heart Of Nigerian Art
As short as the period of Nigerian modern art is, the post-independence era is full of much energy, suggesting that the emerging contemporary art scene of the country is less colourful.
And that quite a number of books, fora and other outlets of academia or intellectual have devoted so much space for Nigerian modernity confirms the towering posture of the period.
In fact, the Nigerian modern art period is a wide subject that requires segmentations, so suggests a new book, Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth-Century Nigeria, authored by Chika Okeke-Agulu, Associate Professor at the Department of Art and Archaeology and Centre for African American Studies, Princeton University, U.S. Okeke-Agulu’s postcolonial focus of Nigerian modern art, in this book, would most likely inspire future writers to explore artists foray in the vast areas of modernism.
The author is a familiar name in the documentation of Nigerian art across periods and generations, having co-authored Contemporary African Art Since 1980 and co-edit Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art.
As a book that documents the trajectory of colonial and post-colonial states of visual arts in Nigeria, Okeke-Agulu’s Postcolonial Modernism… is no doubt a compact scholarly work that highlights the dynamics of the past and politics of a period that could have been the Nigerian renaissance in the post-independence era.
A Duke University Press (2015) publication, the 357 pages book starts with the periods of colonialism, dwelling on the art academia, and in the advancing chapters highlights conflicting local as well as foreign interests.
In the concluding chapters, the book coalesces the energies that consisted of Nigerian modernism and the residue that became issues in post-colonial modern period.
It is important not to gloss over the Introduction section as the author explains the appropriation of the book’s title, giving two reasons. Sub-topics of the introduction include Europe and Modern African Art; Modern, Modernity and Compound Consciousness; and Postcolonial Modernism.
In Okeke-Agulu’s analysis of Nigerian Modernity, non-mentioning of colonial photographer, Jonathan Adagogo Green (1873-1905) appears to have confirmed that photography as a contents of art – within the perspective of Nigerian art historians – has no retrospective consideration. Like other historians who have written about Nigerian modernism, Okeke-Agulu does not alter the Aina Onabolu (1882-1963) as pioneer of the country’s modern art.
As the book tracks art education from the colonial era, Okeke-Agulu compares Onabolu’s pioneering years with that of expatriate, Kenneth C Murray (1903-1972). He argues that “Murray’s art teaching unsuccessfully worked against the artistic and ideological tradition laid down by Onabolu.”
Between Onabolu’s legacy and his stints with colonial influence, there appears to be varied perspectives among writers of the subject.
For example, another author, Onyema Offoedu-Okeke in his book, Artists of Nigeria (2013), notes that when Onabolu’s art emerged in 1905, “there was already an established contents of modernists practices in photography and architecture that served as a foundation for the new art he was creating.”
Most prominent part of Nigerian modernism, which was the emergence of a group of young artists at Nigerian College of Art Science and Technology (NCAST) in the late 1950’s to 1960s, deservedly gets much attention in Chapter 3 (The Academy and the Avant-Garde) of Postcolonial Modernism.
The inspirations behind the Zaria Art Society, formed by a group of students at the NCAST’s Department of Art and the emergence of the ‘Natural Synthesis’, a central focus of the group dominates the chapter. He cites one of the members of the society, Uche Okeke’s statement to support the African direction of the group.
“Natural synthesis as formulated by Okeke was to be the foundation of a ‘ virile school of art with the new philosophy of the new age – Nigeria’s renaissance period.” But one may ask: has Nigeria really recorded a Renaissance?
Using the 1956 historic gathering themed First International Congress of Black Writers and Artists, held in Paris, France as a background, the author, in Chapter 4, Transacting the Modern, takes the argument about Natural Synthesis further into a broader space.
But this time, he drags key contributors such as the Mbari Artists and Writers Club at Ibadan and late German linguist, Uli Beier into the ring.
However, after several exhibitions, the club soon grew to international level, he notes. “In November, the Sudanese artist, Ibrahim El Salahi became the first African artist to get a one-person show at Mbari or any art gallery in Nigeria.”
Post-Zaria art texture of some of the ‘Rebels’: Uche Okeke, Demas Nwoko, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Jimoh Akolo and Simon Okeke follows in the next chapter.
From Okeke’s uli-inspired rendition, to Nwoko’s adaptation of Nok object style sculpture and Simon Okeke’s leaning towards Igbo-Ukwu, abstraction paintings from Akolo as well as folklore themes in printmaking by Onobrakpeya, the author brings out what he considers as gains of the Black Orpheus and Mbari Club.
Every profession has its politics, which either strengthens professionalism or promotes clique. For the post-independence era, Okeke-Agulu fingers Lagos as the hotbed of Nigerian art where contents and space became issue.
In fact, foreign influence, he writes, played crucial parts in the local politics of space. For example, in the early 1960s, the dominating spaces, he recalls, were the Exhibition Centre and the American Society of African Culture (AMSAC). In fact, he discloses that AMSAC “was funded by the CIA.”
Still in the same chapter, from the rubbles of the politics that surrounds art and appropriation in the 1960s, came the formation of Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) – umbrella professional body for artists. But the traces of the art academia and the large influence of the Zaria Society members shaped the foundation of SNA. “Thus in January 1964, a group of 24 artists held an inaugural meeting and exhibition of the SNA at the Exhibition Center with Yusuf Grillo as the founding-president and T.A Fasuyi as Secretary.”
The last chapter of the book Crisis in the Postcolony uses the works of Uche Okeke and Nwoko as a template to stress how the disintegration of the political structures of country affected the creative sector. “Nigeria’s postcolonial predicament had wide ranging effects on art,” the author argues under the heading End of a Dream.
“For one, the cultural nationalism that had inspired members of the Art Society and their colleagues in Ibadan and Lagos was replaced during the middle and late 1960s by doubt and angst about the role of art and culture in the independent but increasingly distressed nation.”
He adds that the anxiety over Nigeria’s nation state survival “led to the failure of the government’s dreams for robust and effective national art and cultural institutions (led by the Nigerian Council for the Advancement of Art and Culture, Lagos, NCAAC).”
In seven chapters, Okeke-Agulu’s Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth-Century Nigeria appears like a covert focus, mainly on the works of Uche Okeke and Demas Nwoko. From one chapter to another, the more one dismisses the insinuation, the louder the two artists dominate history, critique and analysis of events in the book.
In fact, the works of the two artists also dominate nearly half in the 127 illustrations in the book.
Okeke-Agulu specialises in classical, modern, and contemporary African art history and theory. He previously taught at The Pennsylvania State University, Emory University, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and Yaba College of Technology, Lagos.
In 2006, he edited the first ever issue of African Arts dedicated to African modernism, and has published articles and reviews in African Arts, Meridians: Feminism, Race, Internationalism, Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, Art South Africa and Glendora Review. He contributed to edited volumes such as Reading the Contemporary: African Art from Theory to the Marketplace, The Nsukka Artists and Contemporary Nigerian Art, and The Grove Dictionary of Art.
Professor Okeke-Agulu is a recipient of the Arts Council of the African Studies Association Outstanding Dissertation triennial award (2007). In 2007, Professor Okeke-Agulu was appointed the Robert Sterling Clark Visiting Professor of Art History at Williams