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Plaudits for Uche Okeke: Poet, painter and prophet

By 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.

There were also according to Uche Okeke, “women in the distant past who worked their way to fame by embellishing the female folk with such beauty marks as are found on the sacred python and with motifs derived from the earth spirit’s place,” (p.115).

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.

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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.

For Uche Okeke, the modern artist must evince a concern for “the ritual sense, the proportion, the concern for the decorative, and not the least, the mastery of ethnic symbolism” (p.59) something he would go ahead to describe as Mythical or Ritual Realism.

Writing in his essay, “The Growth and Development of Contemporary Nigerian Art” he attempts an explanation of the terms – “Traditional art philosophy is, therefore, a complex system based on unity or oneness of human and natural elements and the acceptance of super-natural law. It is a religion, a way of worship; it is a social system, a way of protecting or strengthening the moral code of a dynamic human group with common ancestry and destiny.” (p.28

His thesis, as encapsulated in his theory of Natural Synthesis, is akin to the sentiments expressed by TS Eliot in his influential essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” in which he, like Okeke, expresses the view that for the artist or poet to function optimally, he or she must be aware of the “pastness of the past” and in so doing should make sure that the past is “altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.”

Eliot then goes on to say that the real artist or poet must undergo a process of self-abnegation in which the poet expresses not just his personality but a conglomeration of all that has gone before him and is impacting upon him. It is the synthesis of the past and his multifarious experiences that define the work of the poet or artist.

Okeke describes the process in his own words “New Nigerian realism demands synthesis of old and new influences.” P.38

Uche Okeke was not content with espousing a theory. He was quick, like TS Eliot did with The Wasteland, to put his views into practical form. He 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 Organizational Structure for the SNA complete with an organogram.

When he saw that Murray and his acolytes were unrealistically infatuated with what he called the “marionette people” and did not, as he wrote “produce great art” while the likes of Aina Onabolu were perpetuating a culture fascinated with satisfying the aesthetic tastes of the emergent Lagos elites as well as the missionaries, he personally evolved an art school curriculum that was better suited to the modern Nigerian artist.

In essay upon essay, he harangued the builders of the new capital city, Abuja for what he called the soullessness of the proposed city – “For example, the National Capital Planning Authority is seen as a merely functional machine capable of transforming Abuja into a soulless modern city. No visual artist is in that body…” (p..79)

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 criticize what he perceived as unhelpful in contemporary Nigerian art, he was also quick to give praise where due. Having accused Ben Enwonwu of “alienation”, Uche Okeke does not stint with praise. According to him “The best known and perhaps the most controversial artist to come out of Nigeria in the late 40’s was…Ben Enwonwu, painter and sculptor, 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… I am aware of the paucity of work so far done in this direction by our different art schools and the limitations imposed by the absence of depositories of documents or archives and a national gallery system… 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).

In an April 1980 letter to the editor, Uche Okeke complained about what he termed the unnecessary “veneration of the dead” and huge sums of money expended in burying the dead in Igboland which he said was putting the people under undue pressure. “For how else can one justify more convincingly the regular weekends of festivities all over the state and the consequent deaths by accident and the resultant economic depression suffered by the celebrants. (p.92).

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Thirty nine years later, Uche Okeke has been proved prescient by a new piece of legislation passed uncannily in April 2019. Termed “Law To Control Burial/Funeral Ceremonial Activities in the State” and sponsored by Charles Ezeani, member representing Anaocha II constituency.

The new law is aimed at cutting down the cost of burial activities in the state. The law states that “No person shall deposit any corpse in the mortuary or any place beyond two months from the date of the death, while burial ceremonies in the state shall be for one day.”  It also prohibits “destruction of property, gunshots, praise-singing, blocking of roads and streets during burial ceremonies in the states.”


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