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Nkoli Ka…Celebrating 50 years of Nsukka art

Installation and paintings by Chinyere Odinukwe


Rolling out the drums to celebrate 50 years of Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN), Enugu State, transcends the four walls of a school of art. The art school at UNN, perhaps, was not so loud in the periods of Nigerian modernism compared to that era’s other formal institutions of art academia.

But the cotemporary period that is currently radicalising art in Nigeria no doubt has a revered spot for the celebrant. And when the celebration moved to Lagos with the touring art exhibition titled Nkoli Ka (Great Recalling), shown at former building of Lagos Business School, Victoria Island, a profound statement on the school’s direction towards breeding art that shifts the paradigm was made.

However, squeezing Nkoli Ka into converted space of small rooms at the surprise venue suggests a quiet intimidation by conservative Lagos art scene. For decades, Lagos has stubbornly stuck to its modernist texture. Even in contemporary expressions by younger generation of artists bred by the old masters, the Lagos conservative aura still radiates on the walls of most art galleries across the state. With the National Museum, Onikan, Lagos Island, as the only public non-commercial space to dispense art, organisers of Nkoli Ka, preferred to take its rich contents into those disused rooms across the other side of the two Islands.

Politics of art schools and influence on the mainstream practice outside the academia cannot be wished away; it’s real. And when Prof Uche Okeke (1933 – 2016) and his colleagues revived native Igbo design and motif known as uli, they created an identity-direction for UNN art school. Decades after, that seed sowed by the modernists and aimed at replenishing uli, germinated a kind of movement for artists from across Eastern Nigeria. But in the last two decades, a new texture of art, largely woven on the strength of materials implored, has been emerging from the same Nsukka art school. For example, in a short period, the installation style work of Prof El Anatsui seems to be gaining more popularity, even faster than the decline of uli, among younger generation of artists. Surprisingly, the curatorial contents of Nkoli Ka differ from the Anatsui-influence or fad.

Perhaps in creating a balance of what the school stands for in radical art, generally, a broad representation is presented by the curator and Prof of Fine Art at UNN, Krydz Ikwuemesi. Dismissing AnatsuI’s unprecedented rise in profile at international stage, courtesy of his well-celebrated large bottle tops sculpture series as non-Nsukka product, could be pardoned. Yes, the Ghanaian-born ‘Nigerian master’ and lecturer at UNN was not trained at the school. But his loud influence on the works of some younger artists trained at UNN such as Nnenna Okore and Eva Obodo, among others cannot be denied. In fact, the quiet Anatsui art movement has been infesting conceptual ideology of other young artists such as Gerrald Chukwuma, Victoria Udondian and others who have nothing to do with the master’s formal tutelage.

Perhaps, Nkoli Ka attempts to bring a relief and surprise by getting out of the shadow of the spreading Anatsui influence. However faintly, the emphasis on materials in boosting thematic focus would not disappear, so suggest the works on display for the Lagos exhibition.

Given the revered spot of UNN art school on Nigerian academia space, the prospect of the future – the next half a century and beyond – lies in the hands of its young artists. Interestingly, the crowded Nkoli Ka exhibition, which displays artists from two generations, unveils what the future holds, in a combined installation and wall mixed media paintings by Chinyere Odinukwe.

At a period when the Nigerian political landscape is being heated with hate-filled agitation for secession and Quit Notice, there seems to be no confusion in the direction, which young Odinukwe’s future is headed, so explain her installation and paintings titled At the Heart of Sacred Clothes and Songs: Metaphor for Flags and Anthems. A section of Odinukwe’s work, interestingly is subtly laced with green and white, welcoming guests among works of over 20 other artists in the group exhibition that made its Lagos stop-over after showing in Abuja. Over 70 artists in all showed at the Nsukka, Abuja and Lagos exhibitions.

Placing Odinukwe’s work at the entrance that leads into the rooms where the exhibition’s creative energy are mounted, makes for a deep curatorial path into the large gathering. The young artist represents innocent – not ignorant – minds of Nigerian youths as regards issues of nationalism. Her composite of hanging flags against a wall spread of mixed media piece induce intellectual debate on presentation of national flags and anthems as analogy to test the potency of nationalism.

For Odinukwe b. 1984, her theme is not interested in belonging to either side of the divides of hate-inspired political agitations in her country of birth. But she probes into national flags and anthems, questioning the traditional pattern of display. Based in Abuja, she has observed, across nations, “a number of torn flags,” the artist shares her thoughts during my visit to the exhibition. She notes for example, the political heritage of salute to the Union Jack as something of just more than national patriotism. “Some people have denounced their countries leaving for other places or burning of their flags in protest,” she cites examples of nationalism complexity. “In the midst of so many flags one is stirred to lookout for his/her national flag and have a sense of belonging,” she explains the installation.

Apart from providing a window into the innocent minds of Nigerian youths, Odinukwe’s work also suggests how vibrant is the future of UNN’s art school in leading the radicalisation of art in the past one decade.

Further into the rooms of the exhibits are twin busts of large dimensions titled Heavy Rain by Iyke Okenyi, Benjamin Akachukwu’s mixed media painting Forms From My Sky as well as Sebastine Ugwuoke’s prize wining installation, amomg others. These works confirm an art school that is injecting elaborate materials onto new narrative of medium application.

Perhaps, it takes such a landmark exhibition to give Lagos a two-week change of taste in art exhibition, the inadequate presentation not withstanding. For whatever it was worth, Lagos as an important art hub could not have missed hosting Nkoli Ka.It is also of interest to note that Lagos is not just a physical distance from Nsukka, but a difficult hub to assert some kind of art content that has no roots in the aquatic city. However, Nsukka has been asserting its virility – indirectly – from a non-commercial window of African Artists Foundation (AAF)-led yearly national art competition. In fact, artists from Nsukka appear to have dominated the top prize-winners of the nine-edition-old competition. Except the last two or three years, the competition, which is Lagos-based, coincidentally, had Anatsui as the Jury chair for most of its editions. More interesting, unnamed observers suspected covert plans to use the competition in subverting populist art among young artists in Lagos. But the organisers, had severally denied such ‘hidden agenda.’

Ahead of Lagos opening of Nkoli Ka, Ikwuemesi reminds select preview guests that UNN “has created a number of landmarks and art greats.” He also notes that from being “The Enwonwu College of Art in 1961, the school building has survived” many challenges including the civil war. In fact, “it has created a kind of Renaissance, which revived uli art.”

However, Ikwuemesi worries that uli as a major landmark for the Nsukka school has been on the decline as contents of artistic expression in the last decade or more years. “The problem of uli goes beyond my generation,” he laments. “I tried to convince people that uli should be promoted outside the ivory tower.” The UNN art school was actually 50 years in 2011. But the art exhibition aspect of the celebration has been ongoing. The UNN was established by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe (1904 -1996), former President of Nigeria.

Excerpts from the exhibition’s curatorial statement: The pioneer teachers of the Department instituted the Western academy approach of naturalism, which promoted pictorial observational realism. This brand of Western academic pedagogy was, however, effectively terminated when the expatriate art teachers left because of the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970). After the civil war, it was resolved that the art programme of the Department had to be reconstructed to meet the demand of a new Nigerian society. From this period, a new culture of exploration and experimentation with local environment in art teaching and learning dominated art activities of the school. Staff and students searched deeply into the nature and purpose of art and design in their communities as well as applying the proceeds of these intellectual and artistic endeavours to social and technological development.

Through its home-bred curriculum, the Department became the first to officially decolonise its programmes in a manner that was befitting of its position as the first degree-awarding fine arts school in Nigeria. Led by Uche Okeke, Chike Aniakor, Vincent Amaefuna and others in the post-war 1970s, this was achieved by the creative appropriation of the Igbo uli body and wall decoration into new modes of artistic expression. Since then, uli art has become synonymous with the Nsukka art school and has attracted a wide range of interests and studies, including major symposia, exhibitions and publications by such international cultural institutions as the Smithsonian.

The post-civil war Nsukka Art Department has attracted some of the best art students and teachers, a number of whom have grown to become great names in world art. Professor El Anatsui, foremost African sculptor, is a key example. The Department has since established an artistic legacy that has continued to attract the best brains. Its products have been celebrated as award-winning poets, international art historians, art critics and curators. In visual arts practice, graduate artists of the Department have creditably sustained the artistic excellence for which the Nsukka Art department is known.

From the brief history highlighted above, the Department has contributed in good measure to the brand name of the University of Nigeria. In fact, the Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka is best known internationally for the quality of art and literature that have emerged from its rolling hills and inspiring valleys. Through the illuminating lights of art, the Department has continued to spotlight Nsukka in particular and Nigeria in general in the world art map. Uli, for example, has entered the art thesaurus through the creative legacies of the Art Department.

The mention of “school” here is very important and needs to be explained a bit for clearer perspectives. Very often the word is used, in Nigerian parlance, to refer to art training centres and departments in Nigerian universities and polytechnics. This is a rather bastardized usage if school rationally refers to a group of artists or creative people sharing commonalities in ideology, style and vision. If this notion is upheld, then “Nsukka School” stands out as a classic example in its experimentation with uli, not only for its own sake, but in conjunction with the wider concept of “natural synthesis” which can be interpreted as a variant of “glocalization”, the creative and instrumental fusion of self and other in the quest for new challenges at the frontier. This is the centralizing philosophy on which the Nsukka magic has depended.

Owing to the immense contribution of the Nsukka School to the development of art in Nigeria, and its well-known international accolades, it has been the subject of numerous studies. As Professor Emerita Sydney Kasfir recently put it in a seminar at the University of Nigeria, the art department at the university, from where the school emanated, has achieved international renown. Important monographs have been produced on some of its liveliest products; some of its most interesting personages have been the subject of international events and publications. Some of these events and publications have been championed by intimate outsiders.

Having attained fifty years in 2011, with six more years added in 2017, Nsukka School merits celebration. The present celebration is two-fold. It simultaneously provides occasion for self-congratulation on one hand, and an opportunity for self-appraisal on the other. It is an occasion to cherish the past, appreciate the present and gesture at the future with renewed enthusiasm. Not only that. The celebration provides a basis for a special conversation, a conversation between generations in the Nsukka School, especially in view of the Igbo saying that a moon waxes and gives way to another (Onwa tie, o chaalu ib’ ye). Thus, the centralizing question that arises in the proposed celebration is, after fifty years of a sustained victory dance, what next for the school and its numerous jewels? This question and other issues will be addressed through the various components of the jubilee, if jubilee is to be seen, in the words of Jonathan Sacks (2000), as that point where we are able to begin again.

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Nkoli KaNsukka art


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