Uche Okeke is one of the most cerebral artists to emerge in Africa in the 20th century. In over six decades of art practice, he has been an integral force in the evolutionary course and milestones of contemporary art in Nigeria: pioneering an art revolution in Zaria, establishing cultural institutions like the Asele Institute and the Mbari Club in Enugu, initiating the Uli art movement in Nsukka and midwifing the creation of art departments in Nigerian tertiary institutions. Like Asele, the mythical Igbo artist with great creative talent that transcends the physical and metaphysical, Okeke’s strong belief in the natural and organic assimilation of the ideas of Natural Synthesis (the fusion of old and new) continues to echo decades after he led the stylistic and ideological revo-lution in Zaria in 1958, providing an enduring compass for the bearing of contemporary art in Nigeria.
This idea of Natural Synthesis mani-fested beyond visual arts and Nigeria into literature and liberal arts in other African countries as the use of residues of history and time as a medium in the continued search for collective synthetized identity. The significance of the natural synthesis ideology and its manifestation into a globally recognised art movement is one of Okeke’s most significant achievements and an endowment to global modern and contemporary art cultures / movements.
A brilliant and outstanding artist of international repute, Professor Uche Okeke remains one of the pillars on which contemporary Nigerian art rests, and the unarguable kingpin of Uli art practice in Nigeria.
Uche Okeke was born on April 30, 1933 in Nimo, Njikoka Local Government Area of Anambra State, Nigeria. Between 1940 and 1953, he attended St. Peter Claver’s (Primary) School, Kafanchan, Metropolitan College, Onitsha, and Bishop Shanahan College, Orlu, during which time he had already begun to demonstrate an avid interest in drawing and painting. Before being admitted to read Fine Art at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, now Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Uche Okeke had already exhibited taxidermy work during the Field Society meeting in Jos Museum, participated in the preparation and presentation of Nigerian Drawings and Paintings with Bernard Fagg as curator and had a solo exhibition of drawings and paintings, in Jos and Kaduna with Sir Ahmadu Bello in attendance.
As an undergraduate in 1958, Uche Okeke together with Yusuf Grillo, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Demas Nwoko, and others inaugurated the now historically significant Zaria Art society. In that same year he opened a cultural centre at 30 Ibadan Street, Kafanchan which later grew into the world famous Asele Institute, Nimo, where among other cultural activities a part of the Smithsonian Institution sponsored educational film Nigerian Art-Kindred Spirits was shot in 1996. In the early 1970s when he was appointed lecturer and acting head of Fine Arts Department at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, he reviewed the entire course program introducing new courses and research into Igbo Uli art tradition. In 1973, he also designed the first course program of the Department of Fine and Applied Arts, Institute of Management and Technology, Enugu and initiated postgraduate courses in the Department of Fine Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Uche Okeke’s creative periods can be classified as follows; Formative years & Asele Period: 1958 – 1966.
Biafra Period: 1967 – 1970. Uli Period: 1971 – 1985 and Nimo Period: 1986 – 2006. Uche Okeke is referred to as painter, sculptor, graphic artist, poet, folklorist and academician. His works speak volumes of the power of their source – Ana (Mother Earth). Okeke believed that as long as a people can bring their past to bear on the present, there is hope for the future diversity of cultures.
He has been Director, Institute of African Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Visiting Professor to the Department of Creative Arts, University of Port Harcourt, Honorary Deputy Director-General (Africa) of International Biographical Centre, Cambridge, among numerous other engagements with many educational and cultural institutions in different parts of the world. It is certainly difficult to encapsulate all of Uche Okeke’s activities and contributions to contemporary art in a brief sketch such as this one.