New York

Uche Okeke, Nok Suite – Bornu Woman, 1958, ink on paper, 7 1/2 × 5". From “Nok Suite,” 1958–59.

Uche Okeke, Nok Suite – Bornu Woman, 1958, ink on paper, 7 1/2 × 5". From “Nok Suite,” 1958–59.

Uche Okeke

Uche Okeke, Nok Suite – Bornu Woman, 1958, ink on paper, 7 1/2 × 5". From “Nok Suite,” 1958–59.

Born in 1933, Uche Okeke is one of the leading figures in Nigerian art. He remains little known in the United States, despite a 2006 exhibition at the Newark Museum. That show was called “Another Modernity,” and while I understand the thinking behind the title—a plea for an expansion of the conventional understanding of modernism, a reminder to stop forgetting to look beyond the familiar terrain of Europe and North America—there’s something misleading about it, too. At least so it seemed to me after visiting this eye-opening survey of Okeke’s works on paper from 1958 through 1993. It’s misleading because, as this exhibition showed, Okeke’s modernity was not an addendum to the modernity that had been defined elsewhere, neither a regional variant nor an independent parallel case, but a personal contribution to a global modernity that still remains to be synthesized, and of which his art is as much a part as the work of his better-known Western precursors and contemporaries.

The year 1958 represents an important starting point. It was the year when Okeke, still a student, cofounded the Zaria Art Society, a group of young artists whose goal was to renovate the art of not-yet-independent Nigeria in simultaneous awareness of international modernity and local values. Okeke counts himself “a student of Igbo lore and thinking,” and believes that “going back in time is progressive rather than regressive.” Still, there is no doubt that he has studied European modernism closely. His intricate line drawing Design for Work II, 1959, with its canny dissembling of an implicit underlying grid through a profusion of curved forms, may reflect the influence of Paul Klee, while certain, more wayward drawings, such as Oja Suite-Monster, 1962, or Yet Another Lease on Life, 1960, recall Surrealism in their apparent automatism as well as in the cultivation of latent images within the apparent one. Elsewhere, affinities with Matisse, Picasso, and Arp seem to appear. But in every case, these resemblances (assuming they are not accidental) have been fully assimilated to Okeke’s own capacious style.

The key is Okeke’s sympathetic understanding of the magic of line, whether it be wiry and ductile, as in the undated Oja Suite, Head of Egbenuoba; disguised under shades of gray, as in the gouaches of the series “Sketches for Tales of Life and Death,” 1970; or bluntly declarative, as in the masterfully concise Beggar, 1963, in which the figure, boxed in by the paper rectangle, pushes massively against it. No matter what, the power of Okeke’s line is not so much to describe things as to manifest them, to conjure them into existence. This is already the case even in the caricature-like drawings of the 1958–59 “Nok Suite”; these early works clearly depend on social observation, but for all that, one detects a fancy that really invents its subjects under the pretense of anatomizing them. As Pierre Schneider put it, thinking of Matisse, “[r]epresentation looks back to something, recalls a model; an image invents a presence.”

Along with drawings in ink, conté crayon, watercolor, gouache, and charcoal, the exhibition included a number of prints—etchings, woodcuts, linocuts. These, especially the linocuts, were less consistently strong than the show’s drawings; sometimes they fell into decorative clichés (Agwoi, 1960) or anecdotal sentimentality (Baptism, 1974). The works in gouache, meanwhile, more densely textural than those based solely on line, kindled a desire to see what he’s done in painting. Still, anyone who appreciates drawing as an independent art will find in Okeke one of its outstanding exponents.

Barry Schwabsky