Uche Okeke

  • Born 1933 in Nimo, Nigeria
  • Died 2016 in Nimo, Nigeria

Born in northern Nigeria to an Igbo family, Uche Okeke (Christopher Uchefuna) co-founded the Zaria Art Society while studying at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science, and Technology (now Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria) in 1958. The group’s focus on indigenous art and culture countered Zaria’s Western-oriented colonial curriculum. In 1960, the year that Nigeria achieved independence from Britain, the Zaria Art Society published a manifesto written by Okeke. The screed advocated “natural synthesis,” a method of artistic creation bringing together elements of European and African traditions to forge individual expressions of a modern Nigerian art. Okeke created his “Oja” series—inspired by Igbo uli drawings, a swirling, linear tradition of wall decoration and body painting—in 1962, during time he spent in Lagos and Munich. In 1963 Okeke co-founded the Mbari Cultural Center Enugu in Nigeria’s eastern region, serving as director from 1964 to 1967. During the 1960s, Okeke produced expressive paintings examining Igbo myths, Christian themes, and alienation. After the Biafran War (1967–70), Okeke was appointed head of the art department at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he institutionalized “natural synthesis,” creating courses in Igbo uli techniques. His students included the artist El Anatsui (b. 1944).