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Biography of Uche OKEKE

Nigeria > Arts : Uche OKEKE

Born on 30/04/1933 (format : day/month/year)

Biography :

Uche Okeke(b. April 30,1933), is a Nigerian artist of an international repute.

Uche Okeke is the founder of the Nsukka art movement.  He received his formal art training at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science, and Technology (later to become Ahmadu Bello University) at Zaria in northern Nigeria.  His teachers were expatriates and he was one of the students who originated the Zaria Art Society, also known as the "Zaria Rebels".  Outside of class, he and other students put aside the western artistic styles they were being taught and chose to draw directly from the art forms of their various cultural backgrounds.  They called it Natural Synthesis.  It was a marriage of the best of African and Western aesthetics and forms.  For Okeke it meant returning to the art forms of the Igbo and this included the folktales and uli.
Okuku's Chicken

For Okeke, as an artist, he was able to find his artistic freedom in his Igbo heritage.  He began by investigating and illustrating the Igbo folktales told by his mother and his sister when he was a child.    His images are of grotesque and fantastic creatures, the eyes, mouths, and noses are exaggerated, outlined and filled with patterns.

He also learned about uli and evolved his drawing technique until he had developed a lyrical and organic form of drawing based upon the uli tradition.   Both of these were a direct attempt to return to his roots and bring them into the present in a contemporary way while retaining their design integrity.

UliBody Uli

Uli was practiced by the Igbo women, his mother included, as a way of decorating homes and shrines as well as their bodies.  It is a purely decorative art form with a wide variety of abstract motifs based on things from everyday life.  Uli painting on the exteriors of buildings were done  in reddish brown, yellow, black, and white.  It was painted on women's bodies with juice from local plants.  In former times, uli designs could be seen on the bodies of women on major market days.  It was their way of dressing up to go out.

Until recent times, uli was largely ignored by anthropologists in favor of the more exotic masks and figures made by the Igbo men.  Today it has largely died out among the women as they dress in a more western fashion and  building styles change.  So uli survives in the work of contemporary Nsukka artists, most of whom are men.

It is certainly difficult to encapsulate all of Uche Okeke’s activities and contributions in contemporary art in a brief sketch such as this one. Beginning from the 1950s, he has literally traversed the landscape of modern art in Nigeria, leaving in his stride bold, remarkable, and enduring foot prints which have inspired many Nigerian artists and Africanist art historians, including some of the world’s avant-garde.


That Okeke carried the Uli experiment beyond the walls of Zaria and stood in the forefront in its transformation into a modern idiom in the 1970s in the studios at Nsukka remains a feat of inspired originality. That his “natural synthesis” philosophy blossomed to become fount and factor in the development of modern art in Nigeria represents a logical and sustained triumph of both vision and imagination. All these have transformed him into a father figure in the history of Nigerian modernism and he has carried the burden of history so gracefully that his ideas and legacies are sure to find followers among generations of artists to come.


Last update : 07/02/2008

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