Critics’ Picks

Beast with Horn (Oja Suite), 1962.

Beast with Horn (Oja Suite), 1962.


Uche Okeke

The Newark Museum
49 Washington Street
February 1–July 20, 2006

That multiple modernisms occurred at different times in different places is a recent revelation in the West, and rarely do we see the actual evidence in museums and galleries. A sterling example of Nigerian modernism can be seen in these thirty works on paper by Uche Okeke, a key figure in the Nsukka School, a group of artists who draw on past traditions to create contemporary forms, following Okeke’s philosophy of “natural synthesis.” Small but diverse, the show progresses chronologically from Okeke’s early, slightly mechanized late-’50s naturalism to his artistic breakthrough using elements derived from traditional uli painting, a precolonial practice among the Igbo discouraged by the British in which women decorated their bodies and the walls of buildings with pictographic designs referring to everyday life and spirituality. (Okeke’s mother was an uli artist and appears in a video interview with her son.) In the spirit of modernism, Okeke adapted this feminine folk tradition to forge a new aesthetic, rebelling against his formal British training. The sparely delineated, gently caricatured types of Nok Suite (1958–59), the title a reference to ancient Nigerian terracotta sculptures, precede the more abstract Oja Suite (1962), which fully utilizes uli’s fluidity and dynamic interchange of line and space, while its designs suggest but avoid copying uli motifs. Linocut posters against the Biafran War, gouache sketches for a published book of folktales, and abstract woodcuts neatly outline Okeke’s artistic interests to the ’70s, and a timeline of important events in Nigerian modernism and Okeke’s life usefully caps the show.