Resisting the urge to mimic Western artforms at the dawn of independence, Professor Uche Okeke founded a movement in African art that will live long after his recent passing. Peter Ezeh celebrates this unique pioneer.
Uche Okeke hit the Nigerian visual-art scene like a tornado, but throughout a prolific career that spanned nearly 60 years, his only known victim was the complacency inherent in Western-style education. The innovative professor of Fine Art reconstructed more than he destroyed.
It all began in 1958 when anti-colonial campaigns by nationalists were at their peak. Before young Uche Okeke and his far-sighted colleagues got in on the act, the more familiar names in the campaigns were those of political or labour leaders.
Okeke's group of nine students chose to fight with the unlikeliest of weapons: art. Their logic was that part of what Western-style education had done was to socialise Africans into rejection of their indigenous intellectual products, including those in the arts, as inferior or even undesirable.
African arts were not taught in Western-style schools in Nigeria up until then. The Fighting Nine kicked against that. If the colonial curriculum would not recognise African genres, the activists could at least start raising awareness about them, promoting them by producing them and spreading enlightenment about them.
Like every truly innovative movement, the campaign was misunderstood. In the history of Nigerian modern art, Okeke and his small group of pathfinders are referred to as the Zaria Rebels although the group, officially, was the Zaria Art Society. "Rebel" in their case came to acquire a nuance of praise, though. Everyone in that group was in unchartered territory, individually defining the visual art space of the post-contact era, which is to say, the period after the African encounter with European modernity.
They include, apart from Okeke, such names as Yusuf Grillo, Bruce Onobrakpeya, and Demas Nwoko. They helped define the visual art landscape of the newly independent nation-state.
It all started two years before Nigeria's independence in 1960. It was Okeke's first week at what was then the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, now Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria. As Nigeria got ready for independence from Britain, the young firebrands felt that it was not only actors in government offices that should change. Change in the knowledge driving governance was just as important.
When he and...