". . . any visual artist who cannot draw is really for me not a visual artist."

photograph by Simon Ottenberg

Uche Okeke

With the aid of Chike Aniakor and others, Uche Okeke developed the art program at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, from 1970--at the end of the Biafran War--until 1985. Born in 1933 of an Igbo family living in northern Nigeria, Okeke's curiosity about his own culture was whetted by Igbo tales told by his mother and sister, by his secondary school education in the Igbo region, and later by the discovery that his mother had been an uli artist.

Attending the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology (now Ahmadu Bello University) at Zaria from 1958 to 1961, Okeke and other art students rebelled against formal British artistic training and the work of earlier contemporary artists in Nigeria, arguing instead for the "natural synthesis" of indigenous elements with topical issues. He founded the Asele Institute, a cultural center now located at his residence in Nimo, which houses an art library and a collection of contemporary Nigerian art.

Okeke's early work ranged from pen and ink portraits, to wondrous figures rendered in pen and ink and based upon Igbo tales, to a series of images rendered in gouache that were published in Tales of Land of Death (1971). He has created images of Igbo spirits, mythic figures, and masqueraders in various media. A scene from Chinua Achebe's famous novel Things Fall Apart was illustrated in oil paint, as was a scene of Igbo women demonstrating during the 1929 Aba Riots in southeastern Nigeria.

Drawing strongly on the rich linear qualities of uli, Okeke thoughtfully uses Igbo cultural materials in a positive, forward-looking manner rather than a nostalgic way. He sees the state of development of contemporary art in Nigeria as related to the country's condition in general, and he has done much to call attention to the importance of art to the life of the nation.

Back to: NMAfA past exhibits