Feb 20, 2009

A Gathering of the Clan

A follow up to my earlier post on Achebe and UNN. Works and events discussed in this essay:

Another Modernity: Works on Paper by Uche Okeke (February 1-July 20, 2006)
Obiora Udechukwu: New Works (June 1-July 20, 2006)
Chinua Achebe and Uche Okeke: Artist and Author in Conversation (June 2, 2006)

On the evening of June 1, 2006, an extraordinary event took place at Skoto Gallery in New York. Officially, it was the opening of an exhibition of artworks by Obiora Udechukwu, renowned Uli Revivalist and a pillar of the Nsukka School group of contemporary artists, whose fame now extends quite far beyond the green hills of their erstwhile University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) origins. The event brought eminent representatives and friends of the Nsukka School together in one place for the first time in over two decades. As guests milled around admiring Udechukwu’s art and renewing old relationships, I was reminded of the scene in Achebe’s landmark novel Things Fall Apart of the appearance of the great masquerades and the charged atmosphere of their presence. This was indeed a gathering of the clan and it invited thought on how exactly this network of scholars and artists came into being.

Skoto Gallery was established in 1992 as a venue for exhibiting contemporary African art in New York. It was one of the first galleries of this sort and has been instrumental in the progression of this rapidly growing field. The Udechukwu exhibition was part of its special program on masters of contemporary African art and it drew a large and prestigious crowd. Ichie Ugonabo, Prof. Chinua Achebe, graced the event and his arrival turned an exciting evening into a cultural phenomenon. Chinua Achebe is a great masquerade and his presence at Udechukwu’s art exhibition was part of a unique convergence of programs on modern Nigerian art at Skoto Gallery in New York and the Newark Museum of Art in New Jersey. These included an exhibition of Uche Okeke’s drawings, a formal lecture on modern Nigerian art and Uche Okeke’s role in it (that I presented); Udechukwu’s art exhibition at Skoto Gallery, and a conversation between Uche Okeke and Chinua Achebe, two legends of modern Nigerian art and literature, at Newark Museum. Christa Clarke, who curated Uche Okeke’s exhibition and organized the lecture and subsequent events to promote it, also moderated this last event.

Christa Clarke contacted me with a request for curatorial consultancy on the Uche Okeke project and invited me to present a lecture on the subject, which I gladly accepted. In 1983, Uche Okeke matriculated me into the Fine and Applied Arts program of the University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN) where I graduated with a first class honors degree in Fine Arts in 1988. I had intended to leave the program after my first year to pursue a degree in law at the Enugu campus of UNN but was compelled to drop this plan by Uche Okeke, who exerted various pressures to ensure that I remained in the Fine Arts department. Back then, I thought this was an undue intrusion into my life-plans and developed a huge animosity towards Uche Okeke. This antipathy remained for a long time (at least on my part) but as I grew older, I recognized that Uche Okeke’s intervention was perhaps fortuitous, as I became more invested in art and art history and came to understand that he had provided me with a unique form of tough-love mentorship particular to the Nsukka School. I later came under the tutelage of Obiora Udechukwu who, along with Chike Aniakor and the art historian Ola Oloidi, provided me with an intellectual foundation that remains pertinent to my work today. I studied painting, graduated with honors and upon consideration of the small numbers of scholars working on African art history (unlike say huge numbers in African history and literature), I decided to pursue a career in African art history. Now, two decades later, the wheel comes full circle: I was called upon to present a lecture about my erstwhile master and help situate his work within the development of modern African art. It was a great honor to receive the invitation but an event greater honor to be reunited with these two major forces in my intellectual development but this story is not about me. It is about the Ben Enwonwu College of Fine Arts of the University of Nigeria (commonly known as “the Nsukka School”) and the unique nature of its impact on the development and critical reception of modern Nigerian/African art both in Nigeria and internationally. The Uli-revivalist movement of the Nsukka School is the most ideological manifestation of modern art to appear in Nigeria in the post-colonial period. This movement adopts the Igbo Uli body and mural painting tradition as a conceptual framework for contemporary art practice. It also represents a distinct mode of identification for specific contemporary Nigerian artists who are mainly of Igbo origin. By circumscribing their artistic practice within the parameters of identifiable Igbo aesthetic and conceptual systems, these artists defined a distinctive space of representation that provides much material for study by historians of contemporary African art. The contemporary Igbo artist and educator, Uche Okeke, is widely credited with developing the conceptual framework and teaching environment in which the Uli revivalist ideology evolved. (I have argued elsewhere that such accolade minimizes the influential role of Ben Enwonwu whose engagement with the relevance of indigenous aesthetics to modern Nigerian art provided Uche Okeke with a structural framework for his theory of Natural Synthesis). Other dominant figures of this movement include V.C. Amaefuna (a.k.a. Ichie Chairman), Chike Aniakor, Obiora Udechukwu, Tayo Adenaike, El Anatsui, Olu Oguibe, Ndidi Dike, and recently, many younger artists making their impact in the global art context. Since 1970 when Uche Okeke took over as director of the University of Nigeria’s fine arts department, the Uli-revivalist movement has grown into a categorical mode of self-representation, an aesthetic and political platform upon which a distinct African aesthetic was created and sustained by artists who now command international influence and who live all over the world. Nsukka School artists are internationally exhibited, and their scholars are so dominant in African art history that other Africanist scholars in the United States now speak of an “Nsukka Mafia” of scholars and I am not sure they do so entirely in jest.

The Nsukka School also benefited greatly from the presence and tutelage of Chinua Achebe, who helped create the structure of intellectual inquiry that sustained the school through the last three decades of the 20th century. This general framework was perhaps responsible for the filial aura that pervaded the Udechukwu event. The guest list was truly monumental: there was Kaego Uche-Okeke, the artist’s wife and a noted artist in her own right. Ichie Simon Ottenberg, a major scholar and ancestral figure in African art history, moved equably among the guests receiving greetings from all for his unflinching devotion to Igbo/African arts and culture over the past six decades. Similar greetings went to Janet Stanley whose enthusiastic support of modern African art scholarship (and sustained patronage of a large number of African contemporary artists) is crucial to the success of many African artists in the USA. Janet, as we all call her, has done more to promote modern Nigerian artists than anyone else I know and should definitely receive a Chieftaincy title in recognition of her role as the “Iyalode” of patrons of Nigerian art. Norbert Aas, German publisher and Udechukwu’s close friend flew in from Germany with his wife. A scholar in his own right who has produced several notable texts and is an enthusiastic supporter of Uli revivalist art, Norbert’s publishing imprint issued books of poetry by Obiora Udechukwu, Olu Oguibe and Ada Udechukwu all of which received international acclaim. Sarah Adams came to Nsukka a decade and half ago as a very young woman to study the growing cadre of indigenous revivals of Uli art; she now teaches African art history at the University of Iowa after several years of notable research in Southern Nigeria and West Africa. Chike Okeke-Agulu was there with his young son, along with his wife and fellow Nsukka alumna Marcia Kure whose expressive drawings are garnering international attention. Prof. Chukuwma Azuonye, former professor of literature at Nsukka (now at the University of Massachusetts, Boston) and a longtime literary collaborator with Udechukwu, was there as was Jonathan Haynes, who spent two years in Nsukka as a Fulbright scholar in the early 1990s. Okwui Enwezor, the internationally acclaimed curator of contemporary art, showed up to pay his respects to Udechukwu and Achebe, as did other important people too numerous to mention. Alix Du Serech, co-director of Skoto Gallery and Skoto’s wife, deftly managed the crowd of visitors. The atmosphere in the gallery was full of excitement and a great sense of focused energy crackled all night. It was clear to all that this was a unique gathering, and one unlikely to be repeated anytime soon.

This energy peaked with the arrival of the great masquerade—Ichie Ugonabo Chinua Achebe. Udechukwu called for silence and formally introduced Achebe who was surrounded by admirers wanting to be photographed next to him, myself included. I last stood in the presence of Chinua Achebe in 1990 when I worked as Udechukwu’s assistant on the Eagle on Iroko project during Achebe’s 60th birthday celebrations at Nsukka. I remember the event as the last time I saw him on his feet. After the 1990 celebrations, Achebe boarded a vehicle to travel from Nsukka to Lagos and was involved in a car crash that left him in a wheelchair. I recall that the university community at Nsukka viewed the incident as a major tragedy but were consoled by the ineffable grace of Achebe himself, who regarded his disability as a marginal nuisance. Instead of diminishing him, the incident actually increased his stature, and at Skoto’s gallery, his presence effortlessly filled the room. Achebe was one of Udechukwu’s mentors at Nsukka and I remember the great impact of his celebrity as well as the impact of Okike, the journal he started, on campus intellectual activities. Okike means creation, and in many ways, Achebe served as an elder statesman among Nsukka intellectuals and helped nurture a unique concept of creativity that has made Nsukka graduates some of the most recognizable names in various fields of Africanist intellectual endeavor in the contemporary era.

Uche Okeke was also a special guest at the Skoto event. I last saw Uche Okeke and his wife Kaego at Asele Institute in Nimo in 1998, when I visited him to discuss his role in the Zaria Art Society’s “rebellion” against colonial orthodoxy in Nigerian art education in 1950s. As a scholar, I have sometimes contested the orthodox account of his role in the “Zaria Rebellion” that introduced new paradigms of artistic practice into postcolonial Nigerian art. At the Newark lecture, I had a chance to come to terms with our joint history of scholarly disagreements and publicly acknowledge the immense importance of this great Nigerian and African modernist. I served as an iconoclast in the Nsukka School and early in my career, challenged the mannerist attitudes of fellow artists who seemed content to replicate forms and concepts established by leading Uli revivalists like Uche Okeke, Obiora Udechukwu and El Anatsui. In fact, Anatsui once decried this issue of systemic followership by pointing out that group exhibitions from Nsukka often pay homage to existing styles and personages. Chike Aniakor went one step further, decrying with his usual bombast what he identified as “the painter-proselytizer paradigm and the multiplier effect of Nsukka School followership,” a criticism of the state of Uli Revivalist art circa 1990. Aniakor’s criticism was valid but the filial devotion of Nsukka alumnae can also be attributed to the sheer force of personality exhibited by Uche Okeke, Udechukwu, Oloidi, Anatsui, Aniakor and other principal teachers of the Nsukka School in that era. Aside from his accomplished practice in postcolonial Nigerian art, Uche Okeke was a formidable literary figure and educator. Udechukwu was not only “a master of line” but had published poetry and was a major scholar of Igbo literature and culture. Ola Oloidi grounded his students in the intricacies of art historical analysis while Chike Aniakor directed their focus to studies of indigenous culture. We learned about the politics of intellectual endeavor by tangling with the late V.C. Amaefuna whose influence on campus was such that complaints to the University Senate about his conduct invariably ended up on his desk for action. In the Faculty of Humanities, fine arts and literature coexisted so strongly that most artists from the Nsukka School are equally prominent poets. This combination of visual and verbal dexterity contributes greatly to the visibility of Nsukka School graduates in the field of art history.

The appearance of two top figures of the Nsukka School in the same arena was thus a monumental affair. Uche Okeke’s exhibition at the Newark Art Museum presented drawings dating from the late 1950s, a period when he and other members of the Zaria Art society introduced new concepts into modern Nigerian art. This was the first exhibition devoted solely to his drawings in the United States and it included examples from his early experiments of using Uli aesthetics as a structural model for modern art. His line drawings were direct and lyrical; the gouache paintings dense and poignant. Analysis of Uche Okeke’s art has always emphasized the radical nature of his Zaria Art Society period (1958-1962) but this kind of analysis overlooks the cumulative nature of his creative development. The artist affords us a glimpse into his personal history of creative practice through his own personal archives. Uche Okeke was and remains an obsessive collector, whose passion for documents date back to his early years. It is therefore possible to see clearly how the artist’s abilities and outlook changed in the record of drawings and critical engagements he documented from all stages of his stellar career. These drawings show that the artist was acutely aware of the visual culture of his time and was equally impacted by the examples of predecessors like Aina Onabolu, Akinola Lasekan (from whom Uche Okeke took a correspondence course) and of course Ben Enwonwu whose massive international reputation cast a giant shadow on younger post-independence Nigerian artists. (The Zaria Rebellion against Enwonwu unfolded as a classic Oedipal process of patricide). Above all, the drawings identified Uche Okeke as an eclectic intellectual who diligently searched for new ways to theorize the Nigerian and African cultural experience in the era after colonialism despite major political, social and cultural challenges. The Nigerian/Biafran Civil war forced him into a defensive ethnocentrism but even this could not invalidate the deeply humanistic orientation of the artist, drawn perhaps from the charter of the University of Nigeria, which charged all adherents “to restore the dignity of man”. Visitors to the art exhibition at the Newark Museum all complimented the artist on the integrity of his scholarship and lyrical interpretations of Igbo culture.

Uche Okeke might have invented the modern visual language of Uli revivalist aesthetics but Udechukwu arguably embodies this practice. As the primary instructor in painting at Nsukka, Udechukwu was a mythical figure who barely spoke and was notorious among students for his exactitude and gestural criticism. If he glanced at your painting from a distance, it was passable. If he moved in for a closer look, the painting was good. If he leaned in and removed his eyeglasses for an even closer look, it was excellent, but if he does all of above and shrugs, then the painting was extraordinary. As a student, you learned to read these cues; they gave the best students some freedom to search within themselves for ways to do better but often frustrated other students who depended on literal instruction and were rather terrified of Udechukwu’s asceticism, his almost monastic presence. Nevertheless, Udechukwu has had a long career (at almost four decades of practice) during which he established the forms that most scholars now identify with “canonical” Uli revivalist art. Along with El Anatsui, he is most responsible for the principal styles of the Nsukka School, much as Ola Oloidi and Chike Aniakor are responsible for its languages of critical engagement. Udechukwu is a master draughtsman with complete mastery of lines that are deployed with awesome brevity. His compositions are meticulously formal but usually mitigated by the use of asymmetry and negative spaces that destabilize the formal orders of his drawings and paintings. The lyrical lines and harmonious colors of his art however mask an acerbic tongue that he used to lash successive Nigerian governments for their profligacy and injurious governance. In fact, Udechukwu emmigrated to the USA after being jailed by the Abacha government on trumped up charges (he was a prominent opponent of the idea of staffing University administrative positions with appointees beholden to the military government). He has since been appointed Dana Professor of Fine Arts at St. Lawrence University and has turned the small liberal arts college in upstate New York into a crossroads of African intellectual culture by inviting major scholars like Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and a host of others to speak at various events.

Udechukwu’s drawings and paintings in this exhibition showed a lighter side to the artist, an almost whimsical engagement with fluid essences. His lines were loose and drawn with smudged graphite surfaces that undermined boundaries and were quite sophisticated. Some paintings were covered with white sheets of paper with holes torn in them. At close range, these paper covers masked the painting and frustrated vision; however, farther back, they suddenly reveal themselves as masks and the swirling colors seen through the holes gain a corporeal intensity, truly like staring into the eyes of a masquerade. I have known and worked with Udechukwu for over two decades and it occurred to me this was the first time I could describe his work as “playful.” It was certainly a revelation to realize that the master has mellowed with the passing of the years. Udechukwu’s exhibition eventually drew to a close and a selected number of guests moved to a nearby restaurant for dinner. Amidst close conversations and the laughter of closer friends, time flashed before my eyes, and I reflected on how far we had each come to converge in this particular place. I had always thought there was something magical about my experiences at Nsukka; I saw that magic again there in New York, on a rainy night that nevertheless failed to dampen the enthusiasm of colleagues who gathered from all over the world to honor one of their own.

The next day, an even greater crowd came to the Newark Museum of Art to listen to curator Christa Clarke moderate a discussion between Chinua Achebe, considered by many as the father of modern African literature, and Uche Okeke whose interventions in postcolonial African art confers great international acclaim. These two luminaries have a long history of interaction and have collaborated on several initiatives. In fact, Uche Okeke illustrated an early version of Achebe’s masterpiece, Things Fall Apart. The book was first published in 1958; it has been translated into numerous languages and remains in print. I recently reread this book recently and each reading confirms that Achebe managed to capture the cadences of Igbo language in English and this fact contributes to the international allure of the celebrated novel. In a colonial era of willful misrepresentation of African culture, Achebe narrated the travails of a complex tragic hero whose demise mirrors the tragedy of a culture torn apart by colonial incursion.

In their conversation, Achebe and Uche Okeke discussed the intellectual ferment of the 1950s as a period of intense nationalist agitation for Nigerian independence. They explained their creative and intellectual projects, and their individual contribution to the nationalist cause. Uche Okeke downplayed the tag of “rebellion” that clings to his Zaria Art Society experiments by pointing out that the group was one of at least two other groups of artists who were all trying to find new ways to engage their unusually Eurocentric education at Zaria. Uche Okeke’s gracious deferral does not however occlude his contributions to art discourses in this era. He demonstrated his commitment through his willingness to work hard and to adapt existing strategies all of which helped him devise the Uli Revivalist style. In like manner, Achebe explained the strange coincidences that led to his first novel (a similar dissatisfaction with colonial tutelage), which went on to become his best known work by far. He wrote the book, he said, because he thought that the Igbo and English languages had a lot that they needed to discuss. Conducted properly, the conversation might provide a basis for some mutual self-respect and help bridge the gap between the millennia old indigenous Igbo culture and the young usurper culture of Britain that was only interested in imposing its will on Igbo and other African peoples. Achebe spoke of how archaeological discoveries of Nok sculptures helped to undermine the Western perspective that there was no history in Africa before colonization. He spoke always with humor but his comments on Nok art got the greatest laugh of the night: the sculptures, he said, confirmed for him something that he had always suspected—“that Africans were human” with their own history of cultural practice and social development. For Uche Okeke, the Nok sculptures and related findings were absolutely vital to his search for a new artistic idiom. They provided a formal structure to base his interpretation of the idea of Natural Synthesis, which called for an amalgamation of the best that indigenous African and the foreign Western culture had to offer. His appeal to indigenous culture, like Achebe’s description of Igbo culture at the time of colonial conquest, reminded me of an important factor behind their focus on indigenous aesthetics. Achebe and Uche Okeke were both cultural outsiders who were compelled to learn about Igbo cultural practices in order to reclaim their Igbo cultural heritage. Uche Okeke spent a large part of his life (well into adulthood) in Northern Nigeria and speaks very fluent Hausa. Achebe was born in Igboland to a Christian churchman and was early on indoctrinated in the values of the Christian faith. The clash of divergent Christian and Igbo cultural values sparked his interest in questions of culture conflict, to which he gave devastating form in the narrative of Okonkwo’s fall from grace. He has been a scholar of Igbo culture since then and has inspired a huge renaissance in Igbo studies at Nsukka where he spent a lot of years teaching.

The exchange between Achebe and Uche Okeke wound down and ultimately drew to a close. The two luminaries took questions from the audience, which was quite charged up by then. Achebe pointed out to the audience that his work is about universal justice. He suggested that all humans are entitled to their space on this planet and all should fight for the rights of all others, since by so doing they assure their own freedom and affirmed a common humanity. Uche Okeke pointed out that the world has become a global village and that everyone must engage questions of cultural practice with this point in mind. Both reiterated that Igbo and African cultural values are quite old and time tested, and suggested that perhaps these African cultural values, with their focus on ethics and morality, can help engender justice and harmony in this global age. Eventually the audience applauded at length, the curtains came down and the conversation ended.

A lot has happened since Nsukka school artists began to emigrate abroad in search of better opportunities. The first three persons to receive first class honors degrees at the University’s Fine and Applied Arts Program (Olu Oguibe, myself, and Chika Okeke-Agulu, in that order) now teach at prestigious American universities and have become internationally acclaimed for bringing new perspectives and critical rigor to African art history. Nsukka School alumni regularly pass through various Western metropolises on their way to lectures, residencies, art exhibitions, and sabbatical appointments. The promise of intellectual achievement, which was the goal of education at the University of Nigeria, now seems fulfilled, at least for these generations of scholars. Skoto Aghahowa (owner of Skoto Gallery), exhausted but pleased with his opening of the night before, commented on the emergence of the Nsukka School as a global force in contemporary African art. He mused on the event we just witnessed and finally asked: “how did you guys do it”? Indeed how? It occurred to me that I could only speak to my own experience and to the immense sacrifice of time and effort it took to rise to the top of my class in Nsukka. It also took time to get international attention for my work (endless correspondence with any and all interested art/art history institutions abroad); to get an academic scholarship to Northwestern University where I spent years repeating the grunt work of graduate education that I had already completed at Nsukka, before moving on to my doctorate degree. No one gets anywhere by chance unless of course one has incredible luck. Nsukka School artists and scholars are prominent internationally because they worked hard and embraced an integrated-arts notion of art education. In this context art practices flourished but so did art history and art criticism. The ideological orientation of the Uli Revivalist focus on Igbo culture was largely ethnocentric (too focused on Igbo ethnicity) but it was flexible enough to accommodate Tayo Adenaike (a Yoruba who now speaks flawless Igbo learned over the course of a twenty-five year sojourn in Igboland) and El Anatsui, who came to Nsukka from Ghana over 30 years ago and stayed. All who pledged devotion to creativity and intellectual advancement became members of the Nsukka clan. Over the years, this attitude produced competent scholars who built alliances with other international scholars. When the focus of contemporary art history shifted to Africa, the Nsukka School was there waiting and it quickly became apparent to all that it was also well prepared to engage with various discourses of global art practice. Eventually, the clan dispersed into the global arena but new media of global communication kept almost everyone within easy reach. The cluster of international events described above engendered a gathering of the clan, and for one glorious night, it was possible to reconnect with old friends and engage our common history in the theater of memory.

Pictured: The Road to Nsukka, 2008.

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