Becoming Uche Okeke

Published 22 January 2024 in The Man

Abongile Matintela

Christopher Uchefuna Okeke, born on the 30th of April, 1933 in Nimo, a town in Njikoka Local Government Area of Anambra State, Nigeria, was the son of Isaac Okonkwo Okeke and Monica Mgboye Okeke. His passion for drawing and painting started during his schooling years between 1940 to 1953, when he attended St. Peter Claver's (Primary) School in Kafanchan, Metropolitan College in Onitsha, and Bishop Shanahan College in Orlu, Nigeria. Okeke's flair for art was evident from an early age, while his education provided the foundation on which he built his future success.

Okeke had already made notable achievements in the art world before being accepted to study Fine Art at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science, and Technology (NCAST). He had displayed his memorabilia work at the Jos Museum during a Field Society meeting, and had also assisted in the preparation and presentation of Nigerian Drawings and Paintings, curated by Bernard Fagg. Okeke also held a solo exhibition of his drawings and paintings in Jos and Kaduna, which was attended by Sir Ahmadu Bello.

Okeke and other art students (Demas Nwoko, Bruce Onabrakpeya) rebelled against formal British artistic training and the work of earlier contemporary artists in Nigeria while attending the Nigerian College of Arts, Science, and Technology in Zaria from 1958 to 1961, contending instead for the "natural synthesis" of indigenous aspects with topical issues.

Uche Okoke was appointed Professor and Head of the Department of Fine and Applied Arts at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka in 1971, where he worked with colleagues and students to develop a distinct style that became known as the Nsukka School. He was a key figure in shaping the artistic and aesthetic foundations of Nigerian modernism in the 1970s, alongside Chike Aniakor and Obiora Udechukwu.

Okeke's early work ranged from pen and ink paintings to magnificent figures based on Igbo legends, to a series of gouache images published in Tales of Land of Death (1971). In various media, he has created images of Igbo spirits, mythical figures, and masqueraders. Oil paint was used to depict a scene from Chinua Achebe's famous novel Things Fall Apart.

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