The tragedy of ancient black civilization was the fact that so few of what the ancients knew was written down and whatever is not written down is difficult to transmit from generation to generation and so knowledge ends up being lost. Uche Okeke is considered one of the founding fathers of Nigerian modernism. His practice was influenced by his Igbo tradition which also informed his ethno aesthetics and he was very concerned that artists and creatives must be able to articulate the theory and ideas and thoughts behind their works.
Below are seven other things to know about this father of modern Nigerian art.
1 Uche Okeke was a poet, painter and prophet. His works explore his Igbo cosmology from both a visual and poetic viewpoint. In fact his first published work was what he called his “Igbo Folktales experimental drawings which were published in 1961 in Ibadan as their first monograph…”
2 Ani was the creative forge and deity for Uche Okeke and Asele; the mythical Uli artist was his “patron saint.” For him everything flows from and returns to the earth: “Everything comes, everything goes, /Mother Earth remains, /Supports all life…”
3 Uche Okeke’s artistic practice was predicated on what he called “Natural Synthesis”. He believed that an understanding of the past is critical in informing the present. Okeke describes the process in his own words “New Nigerian realism demands synthesis of old and new influences.”
4 For Uche Okeke, 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. His view is that for the artist or poet to function optimally, he or she must be aware of the “pastness of the past” yet fully aware of the influence of the past on the present.
5 Design was important to Uche Okeke because he believed that art and even technology revolve around the pivot of design which is critical to creation and making.
6 Uche Okeke played a leading role in the Zaria Art Society and Mbari club. He was a champion of the Nigerian Society of Artists and played a pioneering role in evolving a fine art curriculum at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.”
7 Uche Okeke was not afraid to criticise what he perceived as unhelpful in contemporary Nigerian art, but 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.