Uche Okeke honoured on 86th post-humous birthday
Master artist and father of the Nsukka Art School, Uche Okeke, would have turned 86 this year had he not passed away on January 5, 2016.
On Tuesday April 30, 2019, the Ugoma Adegoke-led Bloom Arts, in concert with the Asele Institute and Iwalewa Books, gathered artists and thinkers, art collectors and enthusiasts, as well as writers and creatives of various stripes in honour of the master artist at the well-appointed Bloom Art Studios in Victoria Island.
The two–in-one event witnessed the presentation of Uche Okeke’s seminal book, Art in Development – A Nigerian Perspective, just re-published by Iwalewa House.
The Asele Archives first published it in 1982. Toni Kan, who was the reviewer, provided insights from the book while artists Victor Ehikhamenor and Chinwe Uwatse shared memories of their encounters with the master artist.
Ugoma Adegoke declared open a small show of limited edition prints by Okeke, which she curated. They were mostly drawings, which featured in his 1971 book, Tales of Land of Death: Igbo Folktales. The show will run from April 30 to May 19, 2019 and can be viewed on appointment.
Born in Kafanchan, near Zaria, in the North of Nigeria to Igbo parents, Okeke grew up in a very multiethnic environment. He later went to schools at the Metropolitan College, Onitsha and the Bishop Shanahan School, Orlu.
He later attended the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology (NCAST), now Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, between 1958 and 1961.
With some young art students like him — Solomon Irein Wangboje, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Simon Olaosebikan, Oseloka Osadebe, Felix Ekeada, Ogbonnaya Nwagbara, Jimoh Akolo, Yusuf Grillo, Emmanuel Odita, Simon Okeke, Demas Nwoko and Ikpomwosa Omagie, the only female among them — they started an organisation, the Zaria Arts Society, where they began to agitate for a change in the curriculum of the arts programme from its essentially Eurocentric aesthetic position to include or integrate an African aesthetic praxis as part of its offering.
Okeke was a leading light of the society and a tireless advocate for a new aesthetic paradigm especially in the post-colonial era.
The result was an aesthetic idea, the ‘natural synthesis’ movement pioneered by the Zaria artists, whom art historians have now come to label the ‘Zaria Rebels’. They were not all classmates except that their duration of training in Zaria overlapped.
Graduating in 1960, he established his own studio on Ibadan Street, Kafanchan, and later on moved to Enugu to work in the government services, and as artistic consultant for the Enugu Musical Society.
His theory of ‘Natural Synthesis’ was a guiding principle and he appropriated Asele, the mythical Uli artist, as his ‘patron saint’ with the earth goddess, Ana, as fountain and creative forge. His practice was influenced by his Igbo tradition, which also informed his ethno-aesthetics.
Much of his work is grounded in Igbo folklore and mythology, depicting spirits and masqueraders. The fluid, broad brushstrokes of his compositions owe to the linear uli designs of the Igbo people.
Okeke’s tenure as departmental head in University of Nigeria, Nsukka, which he joined in 1970, aided this style, consequently propagating this distinctive school and art form through his students and colleagues.
In his lecture titled, Uche Okeke: An Enduring Embodiment of Art Revolution, Prof. Ola Oloidi, described him as an unrepentant apostle of art revolution.
As an apostle of art decolonisation, Okeke was influenced by the nationalistic revolution that was targeted against the colonial powers through his art.
According to Oloidi, he was the first to make poetry an integral part of visual art. He was also one of the most important promoters of critical writing in Nigeria and made drawing a full profession in UNN.
Uche Okeke contributed to the formidable intellectual and cultural environment, as artist, scholar and administrator.
Some of the most remarkable contemporary artists and art historians working at the national and global scenes today, including Obiora Udechukwu, Ada Udechukwu, Didi Dike, Chinwe Uwatse, Tayo Adenaike, Olu Oguibe, Sylvester Ogbechie, Kridz Ikwuemesi, Chika Okeke, Ozioma Onuzulike, Marcia Kure-Okeke, and Nnena Okore, just to mention this few, were products of the Nsukka Art School.
He was Head of the Department of Fine Arts, Director of the Hansberry Institute of African Studies at Nsukka, and later, Dean of the Arts at the University of Nigeria. He retired from academic life in 1985 and established his private gallery and Art Library at his Asele institute in Nimo, where he continued to work, and produce remarkable art until his death.