Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 28, 2016
Chika Okeke-Agulu Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth-Century Nigeria Durham: Duke University Press, 2015. 376 pp.; 129 color ills. Paper $29.95 (9780822357469)

Chika Okeke-Agulu’s thoroughly researched and beautifully illustrated Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth Century Nigeria significantly advances an understanding of modern African art. He considers a key time period in Nigerian art history, from the late 1950s eve of independence (Nigeria gained its independence in 1960) to roughly 1968 at the beginning of the Nigerian Civil War (1967–70). The term “postcolonial modernism,” Okeke-Agulu rightly insists, means that the artistic developments of this time cannot be disentangled from prevailing nationalist ideologies. He sees postcolonial modernism as an “international phenomenon,” and throughout the book highlights the connections of Nigerian ideas and movements with those around the world. This placement of Nigerian art within a broader global context is a major contribution to art-historical studies. Okeke-Agulu invokes a complex network in which artists, critics, and theorists were looking beyond as well as within Nigeria’s borders for ways to shape their art and new nation, including African American theorists, the Khartoum School, and Senegalese Négritude, to name a few. The book’s organization provides a holistic account of various artistic concerns and currents in 1960s Nigeria, as Okeke-Agulu deftly moves between broader discussions of milieus, organizations, schools of thought, and close analysis of specific works.

In the first two chapters, Okeke-Agulu examines British indirect rule, Nigerian nationalism, and prevailing colonial educational programs, arguing that the independence decade cannot be isolated from what came before. He pays particular attention to the artistic and educational approaches of Aina Onabolu and Kenneth C. Murray. Onabolu, widely regarded as the first modern Nigerian artist, developed a naturalistic style that in part aimed to dispel European racist claims that no African could successfully paint with “Western” technique. Murray was sent to Nigeria in 1927 by the British government to teach formal art classes. He believed that his students’ artwork should express their African identity, and did not teach them “European” formal techniques such as three-point perspective.

The majority of art-historical accounts position Murray as the predecessor of “Natural Synthesis,” the most salient line of thought in Nigerian postcolonial modernism. Developed by students at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology (NCAST), it encouraged artistic integration of Nigerian indigenous art forms with Western media and techniques. The foremost artist and chief theorist of “Natural Synthesis,” Uche Okeke, denounced Onabolu’s work and celebrated Murray for his “permanent legacy to modern Nigeria which is the creation of the awareness of art as an instrument of self expression” (Uche Okeke, “History of Modern Nigerian Art,” Nigeria Magazine 128/129 (1979): 110). Okeke-Agulu, however, argues that the foundational tenets of “Natural Synthesis” follow Onabolu rather than Murray. He insists that Onabolu’s use of art as a “vehicle and tool for asserting the African’s modernity and as a means for pictorial performance of his modern subjectivity” is continued in the work of postcolonial artists, while “Murray’s vision of African art mirrored the antimodernist ideological basis of Britain’s colonial policy in Nigeria and other parts of Africa” (40). Critically reevaluating the accepted narrative that Okeke himself helped advance, Okeke-Agulu constructs a convincing counter-argument. By tracing the theoretical underpinnings of Murray’s teaching program, the author shows that Murray’s curriculum was built upon racist ideology and encouraged the production of craft rather than modern art. While Okeke-Agulu does not discuss Okeke’s influential contribution to the narrative he challenges, his compelling analysis should incite further study and debate.

Okeke-Agulu continues this argument into the third chapter, which provides the most insightful study to date of the seminal Zaria Art Society. To situate the society in its environment within the fine arts department at NCAST, he tracks the program since its inception in 1953, tracing its ideologies and colonial anxieties up until the majority of the Zaria Art Society students graduated in 1961. Yet, while Okeke-Agulu discusses the roles and ideas of numerous white male teachers and administrators, a discussion of Clara Ugbodaga is surprisingly lacking. Her role as the only indigenous staff member and one of the department’s few women would have been fertile ground for Okeke-Agulu’s claim that “what constitutes the political in modern Nigerian art is not so much the depiction of political themes as the engagement by artists with the question of subjectivity, of who has the right to articulate it and in what language” (16). Mentioned only in passing, Ugbodaga’s near absence is a missed opportunity, and speaks to modern Nigerian art’s entrenched patriarchal narrative.

When he turns to the artwork of the Zaria Art Society, Okeke-Agulu builds upon his previous research, arguing that while in school the group drew far more from European modernism than Nigerian culture (see Chika Okeke-Agulu, “Nationalism and the Rhetoric of Modernism in Nigeria: The Art of Uche Okeke and Demas Nwoko, 1960–1968 [With Commentary],” African Arts 39 (2006): 26–37, and 92–93). This initial outward-looking production, he continues, further connects them to the work of Onabolu rather than Murray. It was not until they finished their studies at NCAST and left Zaria, as he discusses in chapter 5, that these artists began to create work that reflected their “Natural Synthesis” philosophies. Here, Okeke-Agulu examines in-depth the ways Uche Okeke, Demas Nwoko, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Simon Okeke, and Jimo Akolo embraced the ideas of “Natural Synthesis” in their post-NCAST work. While “Natural Synthesis” was an overarching artistic approach, Okeke-Agulu shows that its individual manifestations were quite varied. For example, Uche Okeke drew from the Igbo art form uli to create a linear polysemic drawing style, and Nwoko invented his own kiln to make terra-cotta figures inspired by Nok sculpture. Meanwhile, Simon Okeke’s imagery stemmed from an imagined precolonial culture, but he continued to work in a figural academic style.

Chapter 4 looks at the influential art critic Ulli Beier’s agenda and its impact on postcolonial Nigerian art, specifically through his writings in Black Orpheus and the exhibitions he organized at Mbari Artists and Writers Club, a cultural center in Ibadan that he founded with artists and writers such as Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Uche Okeke, and Nwoko. Beier supported artists, Okeke-Agulu explains, “whose work showed a formal or conceptual synthesis of modernist avant-garde techniques and the sense of enigma he identified with indigenous art and religions of Africa” (136). Although his ideas were often tinged with primitivism, their basis aligned with the “Natural Synthesis” of the Zaria Art Society, and many of the artists found in Beier a strong supporter and promoter as they began their post-NCAST careers. Perhaps Beier’s most important contribution to postcolonial modernism was his international exhibition program at Mbari Ibadan, which simultaneously reinforced his conception of modernism and introduced Nigerian audiences to numerous artists, including Ibrahim El Salahi and Jacob Lawrence.

In chapter 6, Okeke-Agulu mines what was at stake for the nascent artistic community in Lagos between 1960 and 1965, focusing on organizations’ and individuals’ competing attempts to shape Nigerian contemporary art. Within federal organizations, especially in the Nigerian Council for the Advancement of Arts and Culture, conflict arose between Nigerian elite, expatriate, and artist members. The artists’ call for the organization’s professionalization eventually led to the establishment of the Society of Nigerian Artists in 1964. Additionally, an intergenerational conflict arose between the old guard and avant-garde artists, in which the prominent artist Ben Enwonwu became a chief critic of the younger generation’s supposedly abstract style. Younger artists, such as Erhabor Emokpae and Colette Omogbai, challenged the status quo. Emokpae scandalized the Lagos art world with his large abstract and highly priced paintings, while Omogbai openly confronted perceptions of beauty, the merit of narrative realism, and femininity.

Okeke-Agulu ends with the work Uche Okeke and Nwoko made around the time of the Nigerian Civil War. Here, he also weaves together the social and political concerns of Nigerian literature with visual art. This approach is crucial, as artists and writers often shared artistic visions and worked together in settings such as Mbari Ibadan. Okeke-Agulu focuses primarily on the poetry of Christopher Okigbo and Soyinka, and finds themes and concerns in their work similar to those of Okeke and Nwoko as they engaged with the increasing political and social turmoil that developed between a 1966 coup and the beginnings of the civil war. With this chapter, Okeke-Agulu ends his study with a suggestive shift. As artists became disillusioned in the face of their fracturing country, the political nature of their work was no longer informed by the assertion of their artistic subjectivity and autonomy, but became characterized by a critique of Nigeria’s social and political structures.

Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth Century Nigeria is a major contribution to the fields of modern African art and global modernisms. For readers unfamiliar with modern Nigerian art, it serves as a comprehensive introduction. For those who study modern Nigerian and African art, the figures, movements, and artistic concerns will be largely familiar, but Okeke-Agulu examines them with unprecedented depth and complexity, while situating them within a broader global context.

Rebecca Wolff
PhD student, Department of Art History, University of California, Los Angeles