An outstanding artist of international repute, Professor Uche Okeke remains one of the pillars on which contemporary Nigerian art rests, and the unarguable kingpin of Uli art practice in Nigeria. Born Christopher Uchefuna Okeke on April 30, 1933 in Nimo, Njikoka Local Government Area of Anambra State, Nigeria to Isaac Okonkwo Okeke and Monica Mgboye Okeke ( née Okoye) . Between 1940 and 1953, he attended St. Peter Claver’s (Primary) School, Kafanchan, Metropolitan College, Onitsha and Bishop Shanahan College, Orlu, during which time he had already begun to demonstrate an avid interest in drawing and painting. Before being admitted to read Fine Art at Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, now Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Uche Okeke had already exhibited taxidermy work during the Field Society meeting in Jos Museum, participated in the preparation and presentation of Nigerian Drawings and Paintings with Bernard Fagg as curator and had a solo exhibition of drawings and paintings, in Jos and Kaduna with Sir Ahmadu Bello in attendance.
As an undergraduate in 1958, Uche Okeke together with Yusuf Grillo, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Demas Nwoko, and others inaugurated the now historically significant Zaria Art society. In that same year he opened a cultural centre at 30 Ibadan Street, Kafanchan which later grew into the world famous Asele Institute, Nimo, where among other cultural activities a part of the Smithsonian-Institution sponsored educational film Nigerian Art-Kindred Spirits was shot in 1996. In the early 1970s when he was appointed lecturer and acting head of Fine Arts Department at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, he reviewed the entire course programme introducing new courses and research into Igbo Uli art tradition. In 1973, he also designed the first course programme of the Department of Fine and Applied Arts, Institute of Management and Technology, Enugu and initiated postgraduate courses in the Department of Fine Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He has been Director, Institute of African Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Visiting Professor to the Department of Creative Arts, University of Port Harcourt, Honorary Deputy Director-General (Africa) of International Biographical Centre, Cambridge, among numerous other engagements with many educational and cultural institutions in different parts of the world. Beginning from the 1950s, he has literally traversed the landscape of modern art in Nigeria, leaving in his stride bold, remarkable, and enduring foot prints which have inspired many Nigerian artists and Africanist art historians, including some of the world’s avant-garde. That Okeke carried the Uli experiment beyond the walls of Zaria and stood in the forefront of its transformation into a modern idiom in the 1970s, from the studios at Nsukka remains a feat of inspired originality. That his “natural synthesis” philosophy blossomed to become fount and factor in the development of modern art in Nigeria represents a logical and sustained triumph of both vision and imagination. All these have transformed him into a father figure in the history of Nigerian modernism and he has carried the burden of history so gracefully that his ideas and legacies are sure to find followers among generations of artists to come. Uche Okeke’s professional practice and academic career has been and continues to be very rich in content. This resume therefore encapsulates some key points in his artistic and scholarly pursuits.
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