Uche Okeke: A Pioneer of Modern African Art

Published 05 January 2023 in The Work

Abongile Matintela

Uche Okeke was a Nigerian artist and scholar who made a permanent impression on modern African art. Okeke, who was born in 1933, was a key figure in the Zaria Art Society, which was instrumental in the development of modern African art in the 1960s and 1970s. His work as an artist, art historian, and teacher paved the way for many other artists to come after him. We will look at Uche Okeke's life, work, and legacy in this blog post.

Okeke's life exemplifies a historical moment: born to Igbo parents in Kafanchan, near Zaria in northern Nigeria, Okeke grew up in a multi-ethnic environment. He later attended the Metropolitan College in Onitsha and the Bishop Shanahan School in Orlu. His motivation comes from deeply Igbo artistic forms; systems that he came to absorb after his Art education, as well as the experimental phase of his earlier work.

Uche Okeke, alongside fellow Nigerian artists Demas Nwoko, Bruce Onabrakpeya, Simon Okeke, Felix Ekeada, Jimoh Akolo, Okechukwu Odita, Sol Wangboje, and Yusuff Grillo, pursued his Art education at the prestigious Zaria Art School. In 1958, these students formed the Zaria Arts Society, with the aim of challenging the Eurocentric curriculum of the Arts program at the institution and advocating for the inclusion and integration of African aesthetic praxis. This movement gave rise to the concept of "natural synthesis," and these artists have since been known as the "Zaria Rebels," whose pioneering work in modern African art has been recognized by art historians.

Ana Mmuo, Uche Okeke, Oil on Board

Uche Okeke played a pivotal role in the "defiant" movement of the "Zaria Rebels," and his ideas embodied some of its most profound expressions in art. After graduating in 1960, these artists dispersed throughout Nigeria, with many becoming art teachers in secondary schools. Ekeada taught in Baza, Onabrakpeya at St. Gregory's Lagos, Grillo headed to Cambridge, Nwoko studied architecture in Paris, and Okeke established his studio at 30 Ibadan Street in Kafanchan before moving to Enugu to work in the government services and as an artistic consultant for the Enugu Musical Society. However, they soon came together under the Mbari movement, a crucial moment of transition in the post-colonial era of Nigeria, and the age of Azikiwe's "new" or "Renascent African" ideology that emphasized the importance of drawing inspiration from an authentic African sensibility for the renewal of the continent.

Following the collapse of the Mbari movement during the Nigerian civil war, Uche Okeke developed his personal artistic style based on the Uli motif, which became the foundation of his significant contribution to the Nigerian modernist aesthetic. After the war, Okeke played a critical role in re-establishing the Arts School at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, alongside Chike Aniakor, and led the exceptional group that came to epitomize Nsukka as one of the most prominent centers of contemporary art education and production. This group included renowned artists such as Obiora Udechukwu, El-Anatsui, and Ola Oloidi, among others, who have continued to make significant contributions to Nigerian and global contemporary art.