Chijioke Onuora’s Marks of Dexterity and Spontaneity

Despite his over three decades of art practice and renown as a trailblazer of the Nsukka Art School, Chijioke Onuora’s first-ever solo exhibition in Lagos marks a turning point in his career. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports

Isn’t it strange that Chijioke Onuora’s debut solo show in Lagos is taking place at a time when, according to an unspoken agreement, activities in the visual arts scene tend to reach a fever pitch? True: the choice of the Yaba-based Centre for Contemporary Art as the venue of this exhibition hardly qualifies as a grand entrance into the Lagos art scene. Nonetheless, the venue has an aura of exclusivity due to its history of hosting artists who are respected in the art world.

Speaking of the exhibition, which is titled Chijioke Onuora: Mark Making, it captures the essence of this undeniably leading dramatis personae from the Nsukka Art School, who just celebrated his 60th birthday on Monday, May 30. “The exhibition examines the artist’s experimentation with drawing in various dimensions, processes, and media,” the Princeton University, US-based curator Iheanyi Onwuegbucha says about the show, which opens today (October 30). “In this current body of works, Onuora has combined his multiple studio practice in sculpture, painting, batik, and drawing, in [the] exploration of drawing as a performative ritual of mark making.”  

Weaned on the aesthetics of his Igbo cultural legacy, the artist’s use of Uli motifs and experimenting with Ichi facial scarifications positions him as a resource person and custodian of a rapidly vanishing ancient civilisation. As a former student of the renowned painter and art historian Chike Aniakor, he was required to study cultures that were on the verge of extinction in his village. This was how he discovered the shrine objects, which bore the Ichi marks on their faces, in his native Adazi-Ani in Anambra State. Over the years, he would evolve his trademark stylised formal expressions, which have their roots in this period when he was researching these traditional sculptures found in his hometown. 

A word about Ichi: it is a face scarification rite popular among the Igbo people that qualifies wearers for induction into the aristocratic Nze na Ozo society, as reflected by the Igbo name for a titled chieftain, “Ichie.” This tradition, which Onuora once explained “waned with the advent of Christian colonisation, was preserved by the shrine art objects… The research brought me closer to the works, and I began to draw inspiration from them to create art. This was the genesis of my incursion into the Uli art.”

There is no doubt about the overwhelming influence of Uli art, which is the bedrock of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka lecturer’s studio practice. These vanishing art forms are brimming with ancestral precepts as condensed metaphors. If they rework themselves into modern contexts as a way of making sense of the present-day confusion, it is because the artist has recognised that the true progress of a people can only be rooted in their own culture. Often, these forms reincarnate in the artist’s studio practice as mask-like images (and mostly as faces). “In other words, the forms and actions are summaries,” he disclosed in an earlier interview. 

Thus, this exhibition is not just about Onuora’s adaptation of this dying tradition for its aesthetic ends but also its use as a tool for engaging contemporary issues. In their new life as his illustrations, they focus on trending events, which are mainly political and are sometimes expressed as jokes and proverbs. This inclination, which is a hallmark of the Nsukka Art School, reached a crescendo during the period between 1970 and 2000 through the works of such artists as Chike Aniakor, Obiora Udechukwu, Olu Oguibe, Krydz Ikwuemesi, and Chika Okeke-Agulu. According to Chikaogwu Kanu, one of the Onuora’s acolytes, “Nsukka School [exhibitions] were thematically political.”

Onuora, meanwhile, progressed to learning how to draw with charcoal from Ghanaian-born art lecturer Seth Anku after early exposure to Obiora Udechukwu’s pen and ink drawings, he progressed. Eventually, his trajectory culminated in his PhD degree programme in art history research on the development of the pyrography technique of sculpture production by a slew of renowned artists from the Nsukka Art School. Thanks to this technique, which seemed to resonate with him since he connected it to lines, essential features of draughtsmanship, took his art practice to another level. This is what Onwuegbucha highlights in his curatorial note as his pushing “the boundaries of drawing by playing with the characters and visual syntaxes of charcoal sticks on paper and fabrics, the burning and lacerations of the angle grinder and router on wood, and brush-applied hot wax-resist on dyed fabrics.”

In his spontaneous meandering and occasionally aggressive lines, Onuora’s skilled use of compressed charcoal sticks is visible. Undoubtedly, the Uli-inspired pieces featured in this exhibition, which runs until Saturday, November 19, are eloquent testimonials of his creative philosophy of over three decades, which is typified by forcefully explored lines that proclaim the nation’s socio-economic challenges from the rooftops. But they also sum up the artist’s unequalled industry and versatility. Works like the wood installation “Ndi Gbulu Ichi” and the 2-D expressions in the “Neighbours” series, for instance, seethe with the artist’s intense creative energy.

Strange as it may sound, this exhibition and the artist’s previous ones – especially Ulukububa, held in 1999, and Akala Unyi in 2014 – barely scratch the surface of how prolific he has been.

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