My art is my diary’
Seven years ago, renowned art scholar, Prof Christopher Uchefunna Okeke was struck by stroke. Last Sunday, he defiled all odds and joined friends and relations to celebrate his 80th birthday at the Fredom park, Lagos. Assistant Editor (Arts) reports.
The select audience, comprising renowned art scholars and patrons such as Prof John Pepper-Clark, Prof. Bruce Onobrakpeya, Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi, Prince Yemisi Shyllon, Joe Obiago and Oliver Enwonwu, were unmoved by the long wait. The celebrator, Prof. Uche Okeke, who turned 80, was yet to appear at the venue of the birthday celebration hours after the 4pm start off time. Still, in his absence, speakers took turns to reflect back on the doggedness and resilience of the art scholar who has been on a wheel chair since February 2007 following a stroke attack.
Last Sunday, Prof. Okeke ‘stood’ tall among his associates and relations who gathered to celebrate him. It was an evening of prayers and encomiums from friends, associates and relations who recalled the works of the great artist, poet and illustrator. The venue of the party organised by his children as part of activities to mark his 80th birthday, was the Kongi Gallery Hall, Freedom Park, Broad Street, Lagos. One of his children, Mr. Chindo El-Farid Uche-Okeke, was the compere.
At exactly 6.51 pm, about three hours into the celebration, supported by his wife, Kaego, and children he rode triumphantly on the wheel chair into a cheering audience that stood up singing. Okeke, who wore a top made from earth-colour Ankara on a pair of milk trousers, offered a broad smile to all in appreciation of the honour. Though he did not say ‘thank you’, his body language and the expression on his face, said it all.
The retired art teacher at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and founder, Asele Institute, Nimo in Anambra State, who is famed for illustrating the late Chinua Achebe’s popular book, Things Fall Apart, considered his art as a visual diary of ideas he has nurtured over time.
“Time is, therefore, of utmost importance to me, taking pride over place in my scales of values. Yet, I am an environmentalist of some sort, for I believe I can create my own world out of elements from my past and from the history of man on earth. For me, art has always signified the search for values. These values do not necessarily change but fall and rise with historical man as he tarries here and returns to the place of the dead,” he said in a graffitti on the wall of the hall.
Prof. Pepper-Clark described Prof Okeke as a versatile artist who got published by Mbari Club as a writer before his contemporaries. He also noted that Okeke’s pioneer group of visual artists from Zaria was larger than the writers association and that they made their mark more than the poets. Prof. Clark recalled that Prof. Okeke was one of the early pioneer visual artists who came to the University College Ibadan, when the Mbari Club was just formed.
The literary icon also used the reminiscences to talk about their school days at Ibadan. He recalled the old rivalry between the then Principal of University College, Ibadan and the Rector of the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, Zaria saying ‘there was rivalry between the two heads of the colleges on who has more degrees than the other. But, all the campuses of the Nigerian College of Art, Science and Technology, Zaria were looking up to us at Ibadan.’
Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka who came midway into the celebration observed that the creative energies and the camaraderie enjoyed by artists and writers in the days of the Mbari Club at Ibadan cannot be replicated today. “Unfortunately, it is impossible to replicate what happened when the Mbari Club started at Ibadan. We can’t enjoy the same things again. But, there is a muse of creativity that I happened to be here without notice,” he said. Soyinka who joined the celebration later was at his office to pick up his mails when he knew about the celebration.
Founder of Omooba Yemisi Adedoyin Shyllon Art Foundation, Prince Yemisi Shyllon, said Prof. Okeke pioneered the development of Uli art that gave birth to great disciples such as El Anatsui, Obiora Udechukwu among others at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
“I have benefitted from the great works of Okeke. We pray God to grant him good health and long life,” Shyllon added.
Prof Onobrakpeya, a classmate of Prof Okeke at Zaria, described the evening as an occasion to thank God for Okeke’s life and all his endowments as a visionary artist, father and citizen. “We pray God that he should get better, well and the artistic endowments should be productive and extend from now till future. We are asking that Asele Institute should be upgraded in order for his legacies to spread,” Onobrakpeya said in an emotion-laden voice. President, Society of Nigerian Artists, (SNA) Oliver Enwonwu said Prof. Okeke ‘s extraordinary career saw him rise from his student days (1957- 61) at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, now Ahmadu Bello University, to one of the most important figures in the history of modern Nigerian art.
“His career begins as a clerk in the department of labour at Jos, takes off as the head of the Visual Art Section, Refugees Affairs Committee of the Biafran Directorate of Propaganda in 1968, and reaches its climax as the head of the Department of Fine Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Indeed, much of his legacy rests not only on his role as a founding member of the Zaria Art Society which later became the Society of Nigerian Artists, but his contribution to a modern Nigerian visual language,” he said.
Continuing, he said: “Prof Uche Okeke, we the executive of the Society of Nigerian Artists and indeed all our members are here to celebrate you.Enduring success never comes easily. It takes the struggles of life to grow strength. It takes a good fight for principles to build fortitude. It takes crises to gain courage and it takes singleness of purpose to reach a goal. This, Prof Christopher Uchefunna Okeke, describes your life story. On this occasion of your 80th birthday, we all salute you and say; May God bless you. May you prosper and live long in good health.”
Others who spoke included Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi, Mr. Ashim Nwoko, son of Demas Nwoko.
The family used the evening to announce the launch of Uche Okeke Foundation holing next year as well as the publication of a book on Uche Okeke’s seminal works. Also, a giant birthday cake was cut by the celebrant in an evening that witnessed lots of back slapping and exchange of pleasantries among arts community members present.