And the legend finally comes to an end; Professor Uche Okeke - the great master and pioneer finally goes home to his maker leaving the ‘sensitive lines’ with us. As the originator of Ulism, the great son of Okeke worked the lines to frenzy as he ‘doodled’ his way right from the formative days in the 1950s, to the lofty heights we behold of him and his rich legacies. It was in the 1950s when as a student in the fine art department of the Nigerian College of Arts, Science, and Technology (which later became the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria) that his modernist tendencies shone clearly whiles he experimented with the motifs and philosophies of his native Igbo folklore.
|Uche Okeke (1933 - 2015). Photo: Shelley Kusnetz|
The avant-garde ‘movement’ was later carried down to Nsukka in eastern Nigeria to perfect the new style at home from where the Uli art style took its mental roots. By the prodigious deftness of the young Okeke, line art grew from the early experiments to a crescendo no one imagined. And so the ‘Zaria rebel’ took form when he and his student colleagues worked tirelessly from their non-conformist postulations, and concept of Natural Synthesis; it was this which propelled a radical departure from the conventions of the day. Thus the ‘rebels’ began a march that birthed much of the nuances and creative vistas that we refer today as the different schools and styles, or art movements in Nigeria.
Professor Uche Okeke as a pioneer academic and scholar took the traditional Igbo body and wall decoration to the (art) schools, and then to our canvases, stretched papers, and to the galleries and collections the world over.
In a mental journey to his roots while training in Zaria, Uche Okeke, drew so much inspiration from the stories his mother and sister told him; he was thus enthralled with the folklore of his native Igbo background, and with it etched out a unique personal direction. He took this new found predilection back home to Nsukka and entrenched finally and propagated the Uli movement while advancing the Nsukka style of art in the 1970s. The Uli bug was that infectious as it took firm roots and bore fruits of adept proponents and adherents even from beyond the rolling hills of Nsukka and its environs.
|Art by Uche Okeke|
The Uli giant is fallen, but the lines keep branching out, and etching out new songs in a forest of thoughts and kindred spirits. Oh the big tree is fallen; ‘oke osisi dachiri uzo’; the great Iroko that stood at the market square is no more! And now he lies before us, like a pillar gone down - the landmark that towered Nsukka and beyond the hills. Uche Okeke’s oeuvre encapsulates the whole gamut of the traditional Igbo women’s art of decoration. The hues of earth colours and white lines that embellished bodies of traditional folks - prepared for outings, events, and communal rituals are captured in a new language; these are the indelible legacies of the master.
Uli decorations are usually applied on traditional huts and walls of buildings, but this is also fast becoming a dying culture due to modernisation. Uche Okeke’s landmarks and legacy is that he and his disciples have elevated and preserved this abstract art form for all times. Nsukka has ever remained a haven and fertile ground for the preservation and dissemination of the effervescent Uli spirit owing to the vision and creative verve of the irrepressible grand master.
|Artwork by Uche Okeke|
Silence beckons; and a moment for the great lines as we pay our last respects - treading the paths of Uli, and to Nsukka. And so it is the time of the big masquerades as Oke Osisi goes home. Omabe, Nnukwu mmanwu, Ijele, all come out to play, and his resplendent soul goes marching on.
Uche Okeke - the pioneer legend, and master artist was the grand exponent and originator of the Uli movement, and giant of the Nsukka School. Now he draws the lines no more; sweet repose to the great Uli master, the creative soul of beautiful lines.