Agwu Enekwachi

After the passing away on January 5, 2016, of one of Nigeria’s greatest artists and the acclaimed leading light of Nigeria’s modernism, a national colloquium was organized by the Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, to reappraise his role nationally, his art practice and contribution to what is taught at Nsukka.

The event which was held at CEC, Nsukka campus, ended on Friday, June 24, 2016 with speakers emphasizing the need to do more than engage the personality and creative legacy of Uche Okeke but to equally take on emergent debates on the aftermath of post Zaranism which Okeke’s death has undoubtedly initiated. The impressive crowd at the event comprised of persons from the academia, culture sector, the media and contemporaries, friends and family of the late visionary artist. The Vice chancellor of University of Nigeria, Prof. Benjamin Ozumba was the chief host while Jess Castelotte an international art historian and architect chaired the sessions.

While welcoming guests, Dr. Krydz Ikwuemesi noted, “We have reasons to celebrate Okeke as a people who are critically conscious of our professional parentage.” He noted that art is the soul of heritage and heritage thrives on transition, change and continuity, if it must remain a tool for the conversation between generations. He asserts that “we must, like Sankofa, the mythical bird, travel back from the future now and again to fertilize the present with the waters of the past.”

Notable speakers at the occasion included Dr. Simon Ikpakronyi-representative of Dr. Abdulahi Muku, the DG of National Gallery of Art, Mr. Oliver Enwonwu, president of Society of Nigerian Art, The managing director, National Light Newspaper, Awka and a former art editor of the Guardian Newspaper-Chuka Nnabuife and Moses Ohiomokhare of Quintessence Gallery, Lagos. Ola Oloidi, emeritus professor of art history of University of Nigeria, Nsukka went back memory lane to share his encounter with Uche Okeke, who he said appointed him and others like Prof. El Anatsui and Seth Anku into the University faculty in 1975 without such pedestal considerations as tribe or clique. He described Okeke as a man imbued with clarity of vision. This he argued could be seen in the many firsts of Nsukka art school in Nigeria’s post modern art history. He declared that “Uche Okeke is the leader among Nigerian modernist and should be given that credit.”

The guest of honour, His majesty, Obi of Onitsha, Igwe Alfred Achebe praised the late Professor of art for his contributions to the development of modern art in Nigeria. Igwe Alfred Achebe said his interest in art started when he got a gift of an art work from Uche Okeke during his sojourn in the United States of America. His majesty, the Obi of Onitsha has indeed become a major pillar of the arts in Nigeria especially in the southeastern Nigeria where he is building a museum at the city of Onitsha in addition to his several supports for art projects in the region. He used the opportunity to announce the institution through the Chimedie Museum, a prize for Creative Excellence in the Visual Arts in the Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

Other contributors to the colloquium include, Robin Renee Sanders, former US ambassador to Nigeria and scholar with interest in Nigerian cultures. She recently published a book on Uli. Simon Ottenberg, emeritus professor of Anthropology, University of Washington, a scholar who studied different cultures of Nigeria, presented his paper titled “Uche Okeke: Memories and Views” where he discusses the contexts of Okeke’s Christian religious orientation and his strong interest in certain spiritual aspects of Igbo beliefs as canon for the multi directional expansion of Nsukka artists.

Prof. Jerry Buhari of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Kunle Filani, Tobenna Okwuosa, Prof. Frank Ugiomoh, chair,Omoba Yemisi Arts Foundation, University of Portharcourt also made contributions. Okechukwu Nwafor of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka did a review of the book “Postcolonial Modernism: Art and decolonization in twentieth century Nigeria,”written by Chika Okeke-Agulu a graduate of Nsukka art school and a professor of art history and archaeology at Princeton University.

The fruits of the colloquium include the announcement making the event an annual one. It was also an opportunity to formally receive two exceptional staff that worked under Uche Okeke as the head of department of Fine and Applied art University of Nigeria. Mention was also made of the many global accolades still being received by Professor El Anatsui. Recently the Havard University in America and university of Cape Town, South Africa respectively conferred on him doctorate degrees for his exceptional achievements in art.

For the successful organization of the colloquium by the department of Fine and applied arts of UNN, there was a meaningful partnership with the National Gallery of Art, the Quintessence Art Gallery, Lagos and many individuals and organizations. The event was indeed an opportunity to look back at the significance of the life and times of Prof. Uche Okeke.

-Enekwachi writes from Enugu
pix: Jess Castelotte- art historian, His masjesty, Obi of Onitsha, Igwe Alfred Achebe and Rep. of the Vice Chancellor of UNN at the Colloquium.jpg