By Tajudeen Sowole
The fourth edition of Yusuf Grillo Pavilion, which celebrated modern uli art exponent, Uche Okeke, last weekend revealed how nationalistic characters of the founding fathers of Nigeria influenced artistic offering of the artist.
THE revelation at the 2012 Grillo Pavilion Art Fiesta, held in Ikorodu last Saturday came as a surprise.
In his lecture titled Uche Okeke: An Endearing Embodiment of Art Revolution in Nigeria, art historian, Prof. Ola Oloidi recalled that though, Okeke had imbibed the art philosophy of Akinola Lasekan and Aina Onabolu, there came a sudden and “new ideologically instrumental direction.” Oloidi, a colleague of Okeke at the University of Nigeria (UNN), Nsukka, Enugu State noted that the hustle and bustle of political movement by Nigerian nationalists such as Nnamidi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Aminu Kano, Anthony Enahoro and Eyo Ita energised the artist.
Oloidi recalled that Okeke said that he “was naturally constricted into the invisible army of nationalistic revolution that was targeted at a non-physical war against colonisation.”
|Prof Uche Okeke, listening to Prof Ola Oloidi's presentation.|
The art historian stressed that it would have been impossible for young and dynamic man like Okeke not to notice the radical changes taking place around him, particularly when Lasekan, his master, was artistically employing his creativity to fuel the burning political tension in the country.
“It was the period the Nigerian political climate began to change with that desire for an all embracing and un-parasitic freedom. It was an age that Lasekan, also an artist-nationalist, used his cartoons in the West Africa Pilot of Azikiwe, to fight colonialism. According to Lasekan, ‘I had to give Zik the political art so as to make him complete his political act.”
Oloidi argued that it was therefore a natural transition when Okeke, later, as a student at Nigerian College of Art, Science and Technology (now Ahmadu Bello University), Zaria, in1958 gathered his colleagues to form a group that radicalised art in the country, “which he named Zaria Art Society.”
The group’s pioneer members such as Prince Demas Nwoko, Simon Okeke, Bruce Onobrakpeya and Yusuf Grillo, Prof. Oloidi asserted, “all embraced Uche’s ideology of ‘natural synthesis’ and helped bring actuality in the society’s well processed objectives.” Okeke’s ideology, Oloidi noted, was not really popular among the generality of students. However, few students who were not members of the society, like Jimoh Akolo, he said, embraced the ideology.
Founder of Yusuf Grillo Pavilion, Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi (left) giving the guest speaker of the event, Prof Ola Oloidi Grillo Pavilion Award.
He summarised the society’s art ideology thus: “Among other many nationalistic and culturising activities, the members of the Zaria Art Society, or more particularly, the more aggressive Demas Nwoko, Onobrakpeya, Grillo and Simon joined Uche – though in their private period – to start producing art works that were violently instructed in African traditional art formalism. In fact, their ‘anti-academic’ imageries were visually aggressive and technically rebellious.”
Still on Okeke’s radical art, Oloidi argued that the artist’s “modernisation of the traditional Igbo uli body art, is his most creative achievement.”
The art historian noted that Okeke, after his college education, “devoted attention, very fanatically, to the study of uli.”
It should be recalled that the Yusuf Grillo Pavilion was launched in 2009 as a resource centre for the promotion of Nigerian art. So far, all the artists celebrated by the Grillo Pavilion are members of the Zaria Art Society otherwise known as ‘Zaria Rebels,’ in Nigerian art parlance.
In 2010, it was Onobrakpeya’s event, and Prof. dele jegede delivered the lecture. Last year, a renowned architect, Prof. John Godwin gave the lecture at another Zaria Rebel, Prince Nwoko’s celebration.
Uche Okeke (right), his wife and colleague at Zaria, Jimoh Akolo.
Earlier, at the 2012 edition of the Grillo Pavilion fiesta, the founder, Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi in his welcome address tagged ...As We March On Ceaselessly… noted that
there was a “ferment in arts consciousness” during the late 1950s, “which was parallel to the political emancipation story of Nigeria.” Gbadamosi said the literary thoughts of Okeke “blossomed then and it continued in the wake of the civil war. His restless soul engendered the birth of another school, Ulism, a portrayal of the depth of artistic creativity.”
He argued that aside Lasekan, Okeke also “hobnobbed with expatriates such as J.G.C Allen, Dennis Duerden, T.M Evans of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, and had even met Bernard Fagg, the renowned ethnographer.”
Gbadamosi assured that Grillo Pavilion would continue searching for the “authentic intellectual underpinning of modern art in Nigeria.”
The exhibition of Okeke’s work at the Pavilion was declared open by His Royal Highness, the Obi of Onitsha, Igwe Nnaemeka Achebe.
During the interactive session, Okeke’s colleagues — Nwoko, Onobrakpeya and Akolo shared the experience of their Zaria days.
Nwoko said “Uche was a wonderful colleague; with him no dull moment. I am glad we (Onobrakpeya, Grillo, Akolo) are alive today.”
While Akoko admitted that “I used to be on my own, though later shared the society’s ideology,” Onobrakpeya disclosed that he gained from Okeke’s penchant for documentation, adding further that, “I personally gained from Uche’s documentation of Igbo culture, which inspired me to also document Urhobo.”
|His Royal Highness, the Obi of Onitsha, Igwe Nnaemeka Achebe, felicitating with the celebrant, Okeke|
Onobrakpeya recalled how Okeke “would tell me ‘just write and don’t worry about the grammar, somebody else would put it right.”
For the exhibition, some of the works, according to Gbadamosi, were on loan to Grillo Pavilion. The donors, he disclosed include Prince Yemisi Shyllon “who has allowed us to raid his priceless collection of the exalted works of Okeke.”
Okeke was born in 1933, and later found out that his mother was an uli artist.
|Former students of Uche Okeke, Chinwe Uwatse (left) and Nididi Dike|
He attended the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, Zaria from 1958 to 1961.
He founded the Asele Institute, a cultural center now located at his residence in Nimo, which houses an art library and a collection of contemporary Nigerian art.
Okeke's early work included pen and ink portraits, mostly on Igbo folk tales as well as images in gouache published in Tales of Land of Death (1971).
Some of his works on Igbo mythical figures and masquerades are expressed in scenes depicting Chinua Achebe's classic novel Things Fall Apart.
Okeke and other scholars developed the art program at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, from 1970-1985.
|Yusuf Grillo Pavilion building, inside Rasheed Gbadamosi compound, Ikorodu, Lagos State. 2008 FILE PHOTO|