Title: Art in Development – A Nigerian Perspective
Publishers: Iwalewa House
Reviewer: Toni Kan
In reflecting upon Uche Okeke’s paintings, poems and drawings collected under the handle, Art In Development – A Nigerian Perspective, one is constrained to appropriate a Roman Catholic analogy; Asele is Uche Okeke’s patron saint and Ana is the deity.
Who is Asele? She is the mythical Uli artist and designer who excelled in both the land of the living Anammadu and the land of the dead, Anammuo. Asele is, in that sense, more than a being; she is an essence, the aesthetic and ethical conscience of the Earth Mother, Ana Asele was not the first to create Uli designs. Uli preceded Asele, having been used to decorate the skin of Eke, the sacred python by Chineke, the creator and master designer.
Ana or Ala or Ani, on the other hand, is the fount, the forge, the sacred origin. Mother earth, the mainspring of all creativity. An understanding of these connections between Asele and Ana, as well as the long line of artists that have emerged is essential in understanding Uche Okeke’s works which are forged in the smithy of his Igbo ethno aesthetics, one which considers the role of the artist as communal and his function almost akin to that of a priest.
Uche Okeke is a seminal Igbo artist, regarded far and wide as the founding father of Nigerian modernism through his leadership roles in the Zaria Art Society and Mbari club, his championing of the Nigerian Society of Artists and pioneering role in evolving a fine art curriculum at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. But he was a theorist, who was fervent in his interrogation of the artistic practice of early contemporary Nigerian art.
His practice was informed essentially by what he called Natural Synthesis, an understanding of the past which he sees as critical in informing the present. For him, the African artist must not be slavishly beholden to the past or overwhelming modernist. In his view, the artist must be fully aware of his past in order to forge a distinct identity in the present and future.
Uche Okeke was no armchair critic or pundit, expounding on what is wrong without showing how to fix it. Time and time again, through lectures and essays and poems, as well as drawings and paintings, he tried to explicate his theory of Natural Synthesis and how an artist’s work should shape his milieu. His first published works were his visual interpretations of what he calls “Igbo Folktales experimental drawings which were published in 1961 in Ibadan as their first monograph by the historical Mbari Club.”
In his 1978 essay, “The Future of Visual Arts In Nigeria –Strategy for Survival,” he not only makes a case for the Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA); he goes ahead to propose an Organisational Structure for the SNA complete with an organogram.
Concerned about the lack of spaces for tutelage, archiving and perpetuation of artistic legacy especially with calls for a National Gallery Arts not being heeded he set up the Asele Institute, which, today, houses the bulk of his works.
Never afraid to criticise what he perceived as unhelpful in contemporary Nigerian art, he was also quick to give praise where due. Having accused Ben Enwonwu of “alienation”, Okeke describes him as the “best known and perhaps the most controversial artist to come out of Nigeria in the late 40’s … Enwonwu’s style was mostly eclectic but very experimental. His technical ability was of the highest quality.” (p.125)
Uche Okeke’s Art in Development – A Nigerian Perspective is a magisterial compilation on modern Nigerian art. It offers unique insights and fresh perspectives on a defining epoch and its leading lights. It was first published in 1982 by the Asele Archives, because he was appalled by the paucity of books and reference materials on traditional and modern African arts.
Writing in his earlier referenced 1978 essay, “The Future of Visual Arts in Nigeria – Strategy for Survival”, he noted that: “I am concerned by the state of art historical research in Nigeria today, I am worried that art scholarship has been so badly neglected… It is my view that some of the present problems of art teachers and lecturers in our institutions could be traced to the seeming indifference of artists to theorise in their areas of interest” (p.81).
The book has now been republished by the German based Iwalewa House, and, in republishing it, they have stayed faithful to its original form, the only major change being the cover which now has Okeke’s iconic paintings Aba Women’s Riot (1965).
Uche Okeke was, as his daughter, Ijeoma Loren Uche-Okeke writes in the preface, “a multi-faceted, multi-talented man who was ahead of his time, a deeply intellectual and highly intelligent man. A visionary on many levels, who believed in the greater good and the power of community.” (p.16)
But he was above all that a poet, teacher, artist, theorist, thinker, humanist and I dare say, prophet. Why would I refer to Uche Okeke as a prophet when he disavowed the term at a UNESCO summit in Belgrade Yugoslavia? “Mr. Chairman, I am not a prophet, I am a painter and poet,” he had said. (p.109)
The answer is that he was being modest because his publishers, Nadine Siegert and Katharina Fink, in their Note from the Publisher, have commented on the topicality of his subject matter –“there are many passages in this book that speak directly to the present condition, be it migration, transnationalism, decolonial education, and a society in which art is not an add-one but a driving force” (p.15).