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MARCH 2021

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On Uche Okeke's “Natural Synthesis.”

Uche Okeke,<em> Self-Portrait</em>, 1959. Oil on board, 36 5/16 x 23 7/8 inches. Courtesy Skoto Gallery, New York.
Uche Okeke, Self-Portrait, 1959. Oil on board, 36 5/16 x 23 7/8 inches. Courtesy Skoto Gallery, New York.

  1. In 1959, Uche Okeke painted a portrait of himself. He was a student at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science, and Technology, two years shy of graduation. Throughout the rest of his career, he painted no other known portrait with the same fidelity to realism, showing the careful stylization of two-thirds of his body. He is small bodied, naked from the waist up, with a square, cross-eyed glare. He is an umber figure at the edge of a washed-out wall. He is calm, yet he pouts as though intent on settling a grudge. I wonder if this is a clue to the manner of man he was—or the man he considered himself to be—while he wrote “Natural Synthesis.”
  2. Sixty years have passed since Uche Okeke wrote “Natural Synthesis.” Much of what the manifesto suggests is the novelty of the era—the fact that, when the young artists of that generation sought to classify themselves, they felt they were incomparable to their predecessors, and arguably, to those who were yet to come.
  3. On October 1, 1960, days or weeks before “Natural Synthesis” was presented as an address to the student-led Zaria Art Society, Nigeria became independent of British rule. It is impossible for me to estimate the euphoria of the young and educated of the time, how quickly they allotted themselves roles in shaping the future.
  4. According to Uche Okeke, the author of “Natural Synthesis,” the colonial phase in Nigerian art can be differentiated as follows: An early period, consisting of photographic naturalism, a middle period in which a British art teacher influenced his students to produce naïve, naturalist depictions of rural life. And the latter, post–World War II decade when artists became involved with trade unions and political parties as they clamored for self-rule, and focused their work on reflecting the restive spirit of the general population.
  5. The members of the Zaria Art Society—which held its inaugural meeting on October 9, 1958, and disbanded in June 16, 1961, when they graduated from the college—are sometimes referred to as “Zaria Rebels.” Most of them dispute this characterization, which they consider beside the point, arguing that, even if they broke with their British instructors, it was based on principle and not on unreasoned provocations. Nigeria, as Uche Okeke wrote in “Natural Synthesis,” needed “a virile school of art with new philosophy of the new age,” and they felt they were up to the task.
  6. “Nigeria needs a virile school of art with new philosophy of the new age,” is, I think, one of three consequential sentences in Uche Okeke’s “Natural Synthesis.” The other two are broad declarations of mandate, as well: “We must grow with the new Nigeria and work to satisfy her traditional love for art or perish with our colonial past”; “Our new society calls for a synthesis of old and new, of functional art and art for its own sake.” The word that recurs is new. Just as in his 1959 self-portrait, each member of the Zaria Art Society had intense and cerulean concerns, young people who fixed their attention on a blue horizon of promise.
  7. For the members of the Zaria Art Society—or to be precise, for Uche Okeke—the need for a new philosophy of art came from an evaluation of the historical situation. Generally speaking, in a little more than a half-century of active colonization, art had evolved from the ritual or communal practice of a traditional group or society into individual creative practices. To consider the old ways useless was unhelpful, and so the idea was to forge a way of thinking and working that reflected a synthesis. After all, “new Nigerian artists can neither go back in time nor space,” as Okeke argued in a 1964 essay on the need for a national collection of contemporary Nigerian art. For his part, he completed several experimental drawings based on traditional Igbo uli art, championing its use as a foundational drawing technique in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he taught from 1970 until 1985.
  8. Sixty years have passed since Uche Okeke wrote “Natural Synthesis.” Debates surrounding the manifesto’s influence—who is right to be named a member of the group, which younger artists are favored descendants, etc.—eclipse, to my mind, a greater dilemma. That is, are the opportunities for synthesis as available to artists today as they were to their forebears? What can be said of the resources available right now for those who wish to model their practice after the idea of a “natural synthesis”? Perhaps—as I do not wish to imply that there is no traditional life today for Nigerian artists to work with—I ought to ask these questions in a different way. What philosophies of art are required for Nigeria’s current historical moment?
  9. There is no need to exert pressure on Nigerian artists to develop philosophies of art such as Uche Okeke’s “Natural Synthesis.” The temperament of this epoch is different: Nigeria is no longer a new nation, and its history is a storied mix of coups d’état, ethnic squabbles, and an almost de facto rule by kleptocracy. An ungenerous view is that artists stumble as if in a stupor, tinkering with individual style in order to outcompete their peers. A more ambivalent view is that Nigerian artists at work now—a disparate mix of specialists in all mediums—have outgrown the need for a collective, art society–type manifesto. A third view, which I favor, is that artists can choose to crystallize the manifesto into its barest creed: the new never replaces the old, only synthesizes it.


Emmanuel Iduma

Emmanuel Iduma is the author of A Stranger's Pose, a travel book, and The Sound of Things to Come, a novel. His honors include an arts writing grant from the Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation and the inaugural Irving Sandler Award for New Voices in Art Criticism from AICA-USA. He contributes essays and stories to a wide range of magazines, journals, and exhibition catalogues, and divides his time between Lagos and New York City.


The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2021

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