OKEKE UNSONG OLDEST ARTIST
By Ozolua Uhakheme
Unlike his peers Demas Nwoko, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Uche Okeke, Yusuf Grillo etc who studied fine arts when very few did, Theodore Kanaenechukwu Chukwukandu Okeke, 85, a painter, pilot and art teacher ranks among the least known Nigerian artists. Yet, he is the oldest trained and practising artist in the country.
Okeke studied art through correspondence course with the Rapid Result College and EMI School of Careers, both in London before enrolling at the Academia Di Belle Arti, Massa Carrara, Italy (The School of Fine Art) in April 1966.
His trip to Italy to read art did not come on a platter of gold. Six years before leaving for further studies, he held numerous art exhibitions and executed many commissioned works, mostly sculptures. In 1957 for instance, he sculpted a water fountain for Chief A.D. W Jumbo of Bonny, which was unveiled by the then Premier of Eastern Region, the late Dr. Michael Okpara. These creative efforts attracted the government of the region to him. Subsequently, he got a scholarship from the government to study in Italy. His other works include life size statue of Herbert Macaulay in 1963 at the NCNC headquarters in Lagos, life size statue of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe executed in concrete at 187 Niger Street, Port Harcourt in 1964, life size of Owelle of Nkpor, Chief Ogoka Okeke sculpted in 1982.
But his exploits in Italy were not without hindrances. On arriving the Academy of Fine Arts, Florence, Italy, he discovered that the school did not have his choice of material, marble, for sculpting. So, Okeke opted for a change of school to Academia Di Belle Arti, Massa Carrra, Italy
"My desire was to study sculpture in the famous methods of the Italians. But there, marble was scanty. Marble, the material I needed for sculpting in Florence, was not available. There was no marble mine in Florence. As a result, I applied for a transfer to the Academia Di Belle Arti, Carrara. That was where Michealangelo, Pietra Ottecka and other famous sculptors studied and worked. I also wanted to know how marble was found," he recounted.
What is spectacular about Carrara marble in Italy? You may want to ask.
According to him, Carrara has an ancient marble tradition. The peaks that dominate Carrara and Pietrasanta in north central Italy are geologic rarity. There, the mountains are made of marble. Nowhere else in the world can such a concentration of this noble material be found. Substantial marble deposits, the experience and professionalism of local workers and the quality of technology used here have won the district the role of world stone marketplace.
"The ancient Romans exploited local stones for construction and sculpting. Carrara’s white statuary marble is especially beautiful. In 1505, Michealangelo came here to choose blocks of fine-grained marble without any veining or defects, which he used in sculpting some of his most celebrated masterpieces. The ancient art of marble carving did not survive in many places. Yet, thanks to its resources, to the ability acquired by master craftsmen through centuries of experience, and to artists who came here to tap local knowledge, Carrara and Pietrasanta can rightly be called a great marble academy," Okeke, who hails from Ububa Village, Nkpor in Idemili North Local Government Area, Anambra State, said.
While at Carrara, he took evening classes in design, painting, architecture and geological studies of various stones, soils and sands. He described sculpture as his most interesting course, which he left Nigeria to study at the expense of becoming a lawyer or medical doctor.
Beyond change of school, Okeke’s days at Carrara were not easy. Communication barrier was one major setback in his studies. In fact, communication with Nigeria was completely out of the picture, surviving was tough and the worry about the safety of his family members back home, in the wake of the civil war, disturbed his studies. Also, his scholarship was severed because of the civil war. In the heat of these worries, he got some financial assistance from the Italian government, which he complemented with proceeds from sales of his sculptures.
Another challenge that would have compounded his dilemma was the language programme, which would have lasted six months as part of his study, was waived by the school authority. He was fortunate to have English speaking professors as lecturers. Again, a few of the practical courses were also waived for him because he had completed a certificate course before leaving Nigeria.
But as the civil war raged at home, his status as a Nigerian or Biafran citizen in Italy became a big puzzle. At a point, the Nigerian Embassy in Rome invited him and asked to sign an identification paper as a Nigerian citizen. He turned down the request asking the Students Affairs Officer at the embassy "why should I sign a form to identify myself as a Nigerian when I have a Nigerian passport?" When he was told of the secession of Eastern region, Okeke chose to identify with Biafra, an action that cost his scholarship grant.
As if the economic hardship was not enough, the Nigerian Embassy in Rome recalled and repatriated him to Lagos, ostensibly for his refusal to sign the identification paper. On arrival at the Lagos airport, he tried to prove his loyalty to the Nigerian government by presenting a photograph of Herbert Macaulay’s marble bust he sculpted to security officials at the airport. Unfortunately, that did not sway the security men who handed him over to the police to be detained. There he was searched and his 1966 diary was found on him. In it was an appointment he had with Sir Louis Ojukwu (KBE), father of General Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, leader of the break-away Biafra, to erect his statue in Italy. As a result, Okeke became a ‘suspect and dangerous character’ in the estimation of security agencies. who detained him at Ikoyi Prison.
Three weeks after, he was released from the prison following investigation about his case. But one of the conditions of his release was never to go to the Eastern region until the war was over. To Okeke, returning to Italy was more paramount than going to the war zone.
He recounted how he returned to Italy: "I immediately contacted Mr. FSM McEwen of the African Continental Bank, Lagos, who knew more of my affairs as a student in Italy. £100 pounds were then paid, and my passport was released, my travel ticket issued and I flew back to Italy."
Driven by his strong belief in the Biafra project, Okeke enlisted into the Italian Aviation School, Toscana, where he ran a four-month part-time training in aviation. However, running two parallel courses without adequate funding took its toll on him. He resorted to selling his carvings and collecting relief materials as a war refugee. On completion of his aviation programme, he undertook a volunteer service as a civilian pilot with the Biafran authorities from 1967 to 1969 during which he flew in relief materials to the Biafran enclave through the Uli airstrip on the Onitsha and Owerri highway.
However, in 1969, he dumped the volunteer service because it was becoming very risky flying into the Biafran enclave. He then went back to his fine art programme and graduated with diploma and a master of art degree, specialising in Sartura (sculpture), Anatomia Artistica (Artistic Anatomy) and Storia Della’ Arte (World History of Art).
For 14 years, he worked as a lecturer at the Institute Nationale Des Arts (National Institute of Arts), Ministry of Cultural Affairs, Abidjan, in affiliation with the University of Abidjan. He returned to Nigeria in 1984 to take up employment at the Institute of Management and Technology, Enugu as an art teacher in the Fine and Applied Art Department. Among his colleagues then were Chike Ebebe, Chinedu Njoku, late Salvator Onyeanu, Chid Okoye, Ben Onyemaobi and late Anthony Onwughalu.
However, the life and time of Okeke as the oldest living practising Nigerian artist deserve the attention of the art historians who must research into the artist’s professional career and works for generations to learn from. It is now that he is alive that vital information on him and his works can be extracted from him, not when he passed on. In fact, he is not too small to celebrate or honour with an award.