Pro Uche Okeke (left) with former school colleagues, Demas Nwoko, Jimoh Akolo, Yusuf Grillo and Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya during 2012 edition of Grillo Pavilion, in Ikorodu, Lagos State.
By Tajudeen Sowole
FROM being a member of the generation of Nigerian modernists who changed the texture of the country's art to reflect contextual local identity, Prof. Uche Okeke (1933 - 2015) progressed into the realm of reviving native Igbo art of Uli. As Okeke breathed his last at Nimo in Njikoka Local Government Area of Anambra State, South East Nigeria on January 5, he has left behind a strong aura, which would keep radiating in African art lexicon for a long time across the world.
The artist's daughter, Salma Uche Okeke stated that her father died in his hometown on Tuesday afternoon. Her father, she explained, left Lagos January last year and has been "struggling" with his health since then. The Uli master battled with stroke, which confined him to a wheel chair for many years.
Okeke was one of the early sets of higher institution-trained visual artists in Nigeria whose activities, even as students, would later be reference points in African art history. He came into limelight as one of the young students from the then Nigerian College of Art, Science and Technology, (now Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria in the late 1950s through early 1960s, who were later known in the art parlance as 'Zaria Rebels' after the formation of Zaria Art Society. Among other colleagues of Okeke are master printmaker, Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya, master cubist and sculptor, Prof. Yusuf Grillo, artist and architect, Demas Nwoko, Simon Okeke and Odechukwu Odiita. The artists, specifically, were known for their art philosophy called 'natural synthesis', which was then seen as a deviation from the focus of the westernised teaching in art academia.
Recalling his memory of Okeke as a colleague and the origin of the group's 'natural synthesis', Onobrakpeya, during a chat a few days ago disclosed that the influence of Okeke generated the now revered art philosophy.
According to him, "As the president of Zaria Art Society, Okeke who took over from Grillo, was a very articulate artist. He actually brought the idea of natural synthesis philosophy into the society".
Onobrakpeya, however, conceded that Okeke was so proficient then because "he was already an established artist before coming to Zaria," adding that Okeke was also a "passionate art collector." His collection, Onobrakpeya confirmed, make up part of the Asele Institute, a cultural centre at Okeke’s residence in Nimo. The space also has a library collection of contemporary Nigerian art.
If there was any singular and most outstanding honour that Okeke got, which crowned his trajectory of over five decades’ career, it happened in Ikorodu, a Lagos suburb in April 2012. Organised as the fourth edition of the yearly Yusuf Grillo Pavilion Art fiesta, the event's guest speaker, Prof. Ola Oloidi, in his paper titled ‘An Endearing Embodiment of Art Revolution in Nigeria,’ recalled that though Okeke had imbibed the art philosophy of a pioneer cartoonist, Akinola Lasekan and Aina Onabolu, there came a sudden and“new ideologically instrumental direction.”
Oloidi who was a lecturer-colleague of Okeke at the University of Nigeria (UNN), Nsukka, Enugu State, explained how the energies of political movement by Nigerian nationalists such as Nnamidi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Aminu Kano, Anthony Enahoro and Eyo Ita inspired the artist.
“It was a 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”.
Oloidi argued that it was therefore a natural transition when Okeke, later as a student at Nigerian College of Art, Science and Technology Zaria in1958 gathered his colleagues to form a group that radicalised art in the country, “which he named Zaria Art Society.”
Still on Okeke’s radical art, Oloidi stressed that the artist’s “modernisation of the traditional Igbo uli body art is his most creative achievement.”
Prof Uche Okeke (1933 - 2015). PHOTO BY: Shelley Kusnetz, C/O Newark Museum, NJ, U.S
In recent times, one of the documentation works that focused on Nigerian modernity, a book written by art historian, Chika Okeke-Agulu, gave quite a chunk of space to the art of Okeke. In seven chapters, Okeke-Agulu's Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentith-Century Nigeria published in 2015 appears like a covert focus, mainly on the works of Okeke and Nwoko. In fact, nearly every chapter of the book has the two artists dominate history, critique and analysis of events. Okeke-Agulu is an Associate Professor at the Department of Art and Archaeology and the Centre for African American Studies, Princeton University, U.S.
As Head of Fine Arts Department at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in the 1970s, Okeke introduced uli art tradition into the institution's programmes. In fact, one of his former students at UNN, Ndidi Dike, shortly after his death described him as uli master and patriarch of many art movements: "Prof. Uche Okeke was a unique trailblazer, artist, historic pioneer of uli, natural synthesis and modern contemporary Nigerian Art".
A few days after his death, the family issued a formal statement: "The family of Prof. Uche Okeke wish to inform the arts community both local, continental and global of the passing of a great artist who devoted a greater part of his lifetime to developing and promoting the arts in his home country Nigeria and globally. This sad event took place on Tuesday the 5th of January after a protracted period of ill-health. Mrs. Kaego Uche-Okeke and his four children Salma, Ijeoma, Chuma and Chindo wish to express their appreciation for the outpouring of condolences and words of encouragement that continue to pour in. Arrangements for the programme celebrating Uche Okeke’s life work and achievements will be formally announced to everyone once dates are confirmed. Please join us in praying for the peaceful repose of his gentle soul."
Okeke's auction records, among others, include top 10 at the November 2012 sales of Arthouse with ‘March of Masquerades’ (Charcoal 30.5 x 84 cm 1974.) for N2m, and one of many world record sales at Bonhams, London in a May 2013 auction for a few artists.
Born in Nimo, Eastern Nigeria, now part of Anambra State), Okeke started his education at St. Peter Claver’s (Primary) School, Kafanchan, and proceeded to Metropolitan College, Onitsha and Bishop Shanahan College, Orlu. Okeke was Director, Institute of African Studies, UNN, Visiting Professor to the Department of Creative Arts, University of Port Harcourt, Honorary Deputy Director-General (Africa) of International Biographical Centre, Cambridge, among other strides in academia. In 1981 to '82 he was Honorary Fellow, Department of Textile and Clothing Design and Art History, University Minnesota, U.S.
Quite a long list of honours and awards were given to Okeke, spanning decades some of which included a 2009 Federal Government Award for Distinguished Service in the Arts and Culture Sector, 2001 Presidential award of Member of Federal Republic (MFR) by the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. 1977 Prize for Terra Cotta Sculpture titled ‘Dance of Unity,’ Murtala Mohammed International Sculptor competition, Lagos, 1973 British Council Bursary Award, 1972 Illustrator of the Year 1972 for Tales of Land of Death, Igbo Folk Tales published by Doubleday, New York, awarded by National UNESCO Commission’s Book of the Year competition.