Uche Okeke's Legacy: Unifying Art through Natural Synthesis

Published 07 March 2024 in The Man

Uche Okeke Legacy Editorial

Uche Okeke, a luminary in the Nigerian art scene and a founding member of the Zaria Art Society, introduced a groundbreaking philosophy known as "Natural Synthesis." Originating in the early 1950s at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science, and Technology in Zaria, Natural Synthesis was a collective response by artists like Okeke, Bruce Onobrakpeya, and Demas Nwoko to challenge the dominance of Eurocentric influences in Nigerian art, and open a dialogue around the atmosphere of society and their environments. This philosophy would go on to reshape artistic discourse and bridge the gap between Western art teachings and indigenous African heritage.

Origins of Natural Synthesis

The birth of Natural Synthesis can be traced to the Zaria Art Society's inception in Zaria, a city in northern Nigeria. Here, a group of visionary artists at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science, and Technology (NCAST) sought to redefine their artistic identity.

Uche Okeke and his contemporaries recognised the need for a unique path that acknowledged both Western artistic techniques and the rich cultural heritage of Nigeria and Africa at large. This movement marked a departure from the prevailing Eurocentric norms and laid the foundation for a transformative artistic journey in the heart of West Africa.

Natural Synthesis still echoes deeply through Nigerian and African art and is carried forward by many notable individuals, such as the great Professor Bruce Onobrakpeya.

Read more about the movement in our blog Uche Okeke's Legacy: Unifying Art through Natural Synthesis!

Philosophical Foundations

At its core, Natural synthesis was a philosophy that aimed to create a homogenous art form and environment by harmonising the seemingly contradictory aspects - Western and Indigenous, modern and traditional, physical and spiritual. He was a truly boundless individual.

Okeke believed in the power of unity, advocating for an inclusive approach that celebrated the diversity of artistic traditions. The philosophy sought not only to challenge the existing norms but also to foster a deeper understanding and appreciation for the interconnectedness of global artistic expressions and life.

By incorporating indigenous patterns, symbols, and heritage into their work, artists within the Zaria Art Society created a distinct African modern art that resonated on a global scale.

Impact on the Art World

Uche Okeke's Natural Synthesis had a profound impact on the art world, challenging established norms and reshaping the discourse around cultural identity and artistic expression. It was an act of rebellion against the pressures of society and its norms.

The movement provided a platform for artists to express themselves authentically while contributing to the broader narrative of global art. The infusion of indigenous elements into contemporary art not only revitalized the Nigerian art scene but also inspired similar movements worldwide.

Natural Synthesis became a catalyst for change, encouraging a more inclusive and diverse approach to artistic creation, and is still taught and carried forward today in environments like Professor Bruce Onobrakpeya's Harmattan Workshop Series.

Global Influence on Art Education

The global influence of Natural Synthesis extended beyond artistic expression and permeated the realm of art education.

Okeke's philosophy prompted a reevaluation of curricula in art institutions worldwide, encouraging a shift towards more culturally inclusive approaches. A move that had a reverberating impact was the co-founding of Nsukka Art School during his 15-year period as head of the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN).

This transformative impact on art education ensured that future generations of artists would be exposed to a diverse range of influences, fostering a deeper understanding of the rich tapestry of human creativity.

Learn more in our blog Harmonising Horizons: Uche Okeke's Holistic Impact on Art Education and Mentorship.

Lifelong Application by Uche Okeke

Uche Okeke's commitment to Natural Synthesis was not a fleeting endeavour, but a lifelong dedication that transcended the early years of the Zaria Art Society.

Throughout his prolific career, Okeke consistently applied the principles of Natural Synthesis in his work, adapting the philosophy to suit the changing artistic landscape. His journey through the land of Igbo and Uliism was a cornerstone of his life and practice, and his art became a living testament to an enduring power, one of embracing diversity and preserving cultural heritage in the pursuit of artistic innovation.

Reception and Dismantling of Zaria Art Society

The Zaria Art Society, also known as the Zaria Rebels, were an exciting and boundary-pushing group made up of Simon Olaosebikan, Uche Okeke, Yusuf Grillo, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Ikpomwosa Omagie, Demas Nwoko, Oseloka Osadebe, Okechukwu Odita, Felix Ekeada, and Ogbonnaya 'Nwagbara.

The introduction of Natural Synthesis at the Zaria Art Society was met with both enthusiasm and scepticism by their teachers. While some embraced the innovative approach, recognising its potential to bring freedom from conventional artistic constraints, others were hesitant to deviate from established norms.

Despite internal and external pressures, the Zaria Art Society continued to thrive for several years, challenging artistic paradigms and fostering a new generation of artists. However, as the sociopolitical landscape evolved, Zaria faced challenges that eventually led to its dismantling. The legacy of Natural Synthesis, however, endured, leaving an indelible mark on the history of Nigerian art.

Uche Okeke's Natural Synthesis remains a compelling chapter in the history of art, showcasing the transformative potential of bridging cultural divides. By unifying Western and indigenous African artistic elements, Okeke and the Zaria Art Society created a legacy that transcends borders, inspiring generations of artists and reshaping the global art landscape. As we reflect on this profound legacy, we are reminded of the enduring power of art to unite, inspire, and celebrate the rich tapestry of human creativity.

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