Uche Okeke – of legacies, interactive artworks and minting NFTs

Published 01 August 2023 in Press

Lucinda Jolly for the DAILY MAVERICK

Artwork, Uche Okeke. (Image: Supplied)

Creating a legacy is demanding enough. But sustaining it - keeping it fresh, tight, and relevant in an ever-trending, dog-eats-dog art world is much harder.

"Young artists in a new nation, that is what we are! We must grow with the new Nigeria and work to satisfy her traditional love for art or perish with our colonial past" Uche Okeke, Zaria Art Society Manifesto," Natural Synthesis, (1960 Nigeria’s independence from Britain).

It was the father of African Modernism and a Nigerian National Treasure, the late Professor Uchefuna Christopher Okeke’s deepest desire to leave behind a living legacy. Okeke was an artist, academic writer, illustrator, sculptor, prolific art collector, and most importantly a "bridge builder.” No one quite knows how this idea took hold, but his daughter Salma Uche-Okeke suspects that it may have been planted through her father’s “ferocious reading."

A living legacy is a bit of a contradiction with its old school, more dead than alive, connotations.  But Okeke's legacy was not an investment in self-importance or even about his artworks or limited to the visual arts. Rather it was one seated in a deeply held, humanitarian philosophy of improving humanity through connection, expansion, and open-mindedness. In a true democratic approach he "wanted his facilities and intellectual property to be made available to the world." Salma explains that her father's direction was “not about producing art” so much as "it was about creating an enabling environment for artists in Nigeria and outside Nigeria." He "developed a curriculum for them helping to push Nigerians outside of these shores. He wanted it (art) to be a career path that anybody would be proud to be involved in, and be sustainable." 

Salma explains that her father “wanted to project his ideas further”, and he knew that the best way to go about it was to institutionalise his ideas. What he wanted to leave behind could not go as far if it was just embodied in his own personal achievements so he needed to be bigger than that. He was already collecting other artists' work; he had large archives, a library, and people who donated from all over the world."