The Legacy of Professor Christopher Uchefuna Okeke

Published 22 November 2023 in Press

Horcelie Sinda - Art News Africa

Written by Horcelie Sinda for Art News Africa

Many people think that African art is sculpture only; however, there is a range of art in the contemporary field. The traditions of spontaneity are reasonably known within Africa, and in Nigeria, it is seen in the Igbo culture called Uli. The Igbo people created this artistic technique that combines the art of the past and the present. Many Igbo artists embrace and celebrate the practice; one of many is Professor and artist Christopher Uchefuna Okeke.

Uche Okeke

Born in Northern Nigeria in 1933 to an Igbo family, Okeke attended the Nigerian College of Art, Science and Technology (now Ahmadu Bello University) from 1958 to 1961. Okeke’s early curiosity about the Igbo culture was whetted by his mother and at secondary school in the Igbo region. Okeke was one of the founding members of the ‘Natural Synthesis’. The name emerged as a rebellion against the notion of former British artistic training in Nigeria. It was also his style of essays on notions of Pan-Africanism and Negritude that earned the group at the University the title ‘Zaria rebels’. The resistance inspired undergraduate artists and others, and they founded the Zaria Art Society. Among these artists were Jimoh Akolo, Simon Okeke, Bruce Onobrakpeya and others with whom they fused their local heritage with Western art techniques. 

From 1962 to 1963, Okeke went on to Munich, in Western Germany, to study mosaic stained glass techniques, of which he created three murals and mosaics and stained glass for Franz Meye and Company. When he returned from Munich, he worked as a publication artist at the Federal Ministry of Information. 

The art of intentionality in Okeke’s artwork draws the viewer to his fascination with the mythology of the Igbo culture. These themes are depicted as paintings, sculptures and drawings while drawing in elements of the Uli technique. Okeke’s manipulation of the rigorous linearity of Uli art in his practices is done to relate to our environment. They are sometimes portrayed as drawings in simplistic forms; other times, they are seen in three-dimensional forms. Despite the surface, the art of Okeke is a reflection of his Igbo heritage, and his experimentations are a reflection of localistic art and modernism.