Christopher Uche Okeke, Painter and Professor of the Fine Arts died on January 5, following a long struggle with a devastating stroke, at his home in Nimo, in the Njikoka area of Anambra state, where he had established the Asele institute on his retirement from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Uche Okeke’s death marks a powerful closure of the life of a powerful imagination; a great artistic and cultural presence on the African firmament in the last half century.
Okeke’s life embodies a historical moment: 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. His inspiration were profoundly Igbo artistic forms; systems which he came to absorb after his Art education, and the experimental phase of his earlier work.
Okeke studied Art at the famous Zaria Art School with Demas Nwoko, Bruce Onabrakpeya, Simon Okeke, Felix Ekeada, Jimoh Akolo, Okechukwu Odita, Sol Wangboje, and Yusuff Grillo. Starting from 1958, under the aegis of the organization which they had formed, the Zaria Arts Society, these students at the Zaria School of Arts began to agitate for a change in the curriculum of the Arts program from its essentially Eurocentric aesthetic position to include or integrate an African aesthetic praxis as part of its offering. 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.”
Uche Okeke was the lynchpin of that “defiant” movement, and his ideas came to encapsulate some of its most profound expressions in art. Graduating in 1960, artists of the “Zaria Rebels” movement fanned out across the nation, and many began as Art Teachers in Secondary Schools: Ekeada in Baza, Onabrakpeya at St. Gregory’s Lagos; Grillo was off to Cambridge, Demas Nwoko had moved on to Paris to study Architecture after Zaria, and Uche Okeke had first established his own studio at 30 Ibadan street, Kafanchan, and later on moved to Enugu to work in the Government services, and as Artistic consultant for the Enugu Musical Society. But soon, the convergence that illuminated their instincts and gave urgency to their work happened: the Mbari movement. It was at a crucial moment of transition; the age of Azikiwe’s “new” or “Renascent African” whose inspirations must be drawn from an authentic African sensibility and as ameans towards the renewal of Africa at the end of colonialism.
The imaginative quest of that era spoke precisely to this new moment, and in the attempt to articulate its nationalist spirit. The writers and artists gathered at Ibadan. At about this time, active in their prime, Chinua Achebe had moved from Enugu in 1961 to assume duties as the powerful Director of External Broadcasting of the Nigerian Broadcasting Service (NBS) in Lagos, Christopher Okigbo had moved from the Library of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka as the pioneer acting University Librarian to become the West African Regional Manager of the Cambridge University Press in Ibadan, Wole Soyinka had returned not long then in the previous year and was a Rockefeller Research Fellow in the University of Ibadan, and had also founded his theatre company, the Orisun Theatre co; J.P. Clark was a young Information Officer in the Western Region’s Ministry of Information in Ibadan, and Ulli Beier was traveling back and forth between Ibadan and Oshogbo for the University of Ibadan Extra Mural Studies, and editing the new journal, the Black Orpheus. The essential nucleus of the Mbari movement was around these individual writers. Of the artists, Demas Nwoko was active on return from Paris in the Ibadan Theatre, where he was engaged to design stages for Theatre productions, and was equally busy creating the famous U.I. Wall murals; Onabrakpeya nearby in Lagos came often, and Uche Okeke was at the Enugu end of the Mbari club, on Uwani Street. The effect was a cultural synergy that gave impetus to a new artistic impulse in Nigeria.
By the time the Mbari movement collapsed following the Nigerian civil war, Uche Okeke had evolved his personal style based on the Uli motif, the signal attribute, and the basis of his remarkable contribution to Nigerian modernist aesthetic.
At the end of the war, Uche Okeke was instrumental in re-establishing the University of Nigeria Nsukka Arts School, alongside the likes of Chike Aniakor, and in shepherding the remarkable, and formidable group that came to emblematize Nsukka as one of the greatest centers of contemporary art production and education, with the likes of Obiora Udechukwu, El-Anatsui, Ola Oloidi, and so on.
It must be counted as part of Uche Okeke’s most significant legacies that his Uli movement has endured, and that Nsukka has produced in the broad shadow of his ideas, 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.
For years at Nsukka, Uche Okeke contributed to the formidable intellectual and cultural environment, as artist, scholar and administrator. 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 hisAsele institute in Nimo, where he continued to work, and produce remarkable art, which must now be catalogued in the index of his late productions.
An Uche Okeke collection ought at this stage be considered by the National Gallery to preserve as part of the fruits of an iconic moment in modern Nigerian art and cultural life, the work of one of Nigeria and Africa’s greatest artists of the 20th and early 21st centuries.
Uche Okeke was a globally known and well-regarded artist. His works have been exhibited and in great private collections in Europe and America. He belongs to the canon of the great African modernists of the 20th century. The last time I saw him personally was in June, 2006, at the Skoto Gallery in New York, at the exhibition of his work, and later at the Newark Museum across the River, where he appeared on the same stage with Chinua Achebe and Simon Ottenberg.
It was a memorable event, and now quite more significant as the years begin to gather the seeds into the immortal barnyard of time. The stars, indeed, are departing, as the poet Okigbo wrote. Uche Okeke’s passing is one more example of the closure of a human library: artist, scholar, and great teacher, Uche Okeke will most certainly be remembered for the beauty he brought into our lives, and for his insistence that the fine lines of Uli also carry within them, immortal statements of real beauty.
By Obi Nwakanma
Christopher Uche Okeke, Painter and Professor of the Fine Arts died on January 5, following a long struggle with a devastating stroke, at his home in Nimo, in the Njikoka area of Anambra state, where he had established the Asele institute on his retirement from the University...