Uche Okeke’s art emerged at a critical juncture in Nigeria’s history: the twilight of British colonialism and the arrival of political independence, which came in 1960. Okeke was part of an important cadre of artists who recognized the moment and sought to devise a new modality for modernist art, introducing the beginnings of Africa’s postcolonial landscape and jettisoning the colonial orthodoxy that had dictated Okeke’s training at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, Zaria (now Ahmadu Bello University), an important center of the emerging art. Okeke invented a modernist vocabulary that drew from the indigenous aesthetic traditions and worldview of the Igbo, his ethnic group, combining them with his formal exposure to artistic sensibilities from elsewhere in what he termed “natural synthesis.” He was guided by the renascent African spirit that at that time found an anchor in Pan-Africanism ideologies of reinventing the body politic, reclaiming agency, and, ultimately, restoring the dignity of the African person after decades of colonial subjugation. Okeke’s philosophy of natural synthesis called for creating art that was locally relevant and at the same time could serve the larger goal of advancing Black and African perspectives of modernity in a global context.
Okeke fills the entire picture surface of Savannah Landscape with thick but tentative marks that give the appearance of disembodied or ghoulish forms. Inspection reveals them, however, as the bold outlines of trees and shrubs, and the work is actually a nostalgic ode to the artist’s growing years in Kafanchan, a railway town in Northern Nigeria (he was born farther south, in Nimo, in 1933). He recuperates the rolling vegetation of the region, scorched and scanty from the impact of the sun during the dry season. As a student at Zaria, Okeke had spent the summer of 1958 studying the compositions of lines in the Jos Museum’s ethnographic collection, whether as scarifications on the human body or as design patterns on cultural artifacts. Savannah Landscape examines the inherent expressive qualities of elemental line, and the brevity of statement and economy of space that it offers. Okeke takes a minimalist approach, eschewing the superfluous without loss in composition and meaning. This investment in line is characteristic of his work of the first half of the 1960s, an experimental phase in which, seeking to establish an original language, he also worked in a range of mediums, including oil, ink, linocut, and others.
Okeke considered drawing fundamental to the creative process. It also offered him the closest approximation of uli, the graceful linear mark-making practiced by Igbo women in traditional settings, adorning the body for beauty or the walls as murals. Okeke’s mother drew uli designs when he was growing up. Now a dying tradition, uli captures the essence of a line that gives form to a void. Savannah Landscape and other works of the period reveal Okeke’s increasing confidence in reducing reality to essence, and in line he found a perfect tool. Created with bold, voluminous strokes, Savannah Landscape demonstrates the artist’s search for a nonconformist yet compelling formal language that could hold two realities: tradition and the befuddling modern.
Originally published in Among Others: Blackness at MoMA, ed. Darby English and Charlotte Barat (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi, Steven and Lisa Tananbaum Curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture