By Tajudeen Sowole
One of the early sets of higher insitution-trained visual artists in Nigeria, Prof Uche Okeke has passed on. Okeke, aged 82, died in his native home, Nimo, Njikoka Local Government, Anambra State after many years of battle with stroke, which confined him to wheel chair.
The artist's daughter, Salma-Uche Okeke stated he died in his home town on Tuesday afternoon. Her father, she explained, left Lagos January last year and has been "struggling" with his health issue since then.
Okeke came into limelight as one the young students from the then Nigerian College of Art Science and Technology, (now Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaeia in the late 1950s, who were later known in the art parlance as 'Zaria Rebels'. Among other colleagues of Okeke were master printmaker, Dr Bruce Onobrakpeya; master painter and sculptor, Yusuf Grillo; and architect, Demas Nwoko. The artists, specifically were known for their art philosophy called 'natural synthesis', which was then seen as a deviation from the focus of the westernised teaching in art academia.
Born in Nimo, (now under Njikoka Local Government Area of Anambra State), Okeke started his education at St. Peter Claver’s (Primary) School, Kafanchan, proceeded to Metropolitan College, Onitsha; and Bishop Shanahan College, Orlu.
As Head of Fine Arts Department at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) in the 1970s, Okeke introduced Uli art tradition into the institution's programmes. Among other notable strides of Okeke, outside the Zaria environment was his promotion of ulism, an art identity of native Igbo women. In fact, one of his students at UNN, Ndidi Dike. shortly after his death described him as Uli master and patriarch of many art movements: "Prof Uche Okeke was a unique trail blazer, Artist, Historic pioneer of Uli, natural synthesis and modern contemporary Nigerian Art," Ndidi, a prominent contemporary artist said.
Okeke was Director, Institute of African Studies, UNN; Visiting Professor to the Department of Creative Arts, University of Port Harcourt; Honorary Deputy Director-General (Africa) of International Biographical Centre, Cambridge, among other strides in academia. In 1981 to '82 he was Honorary Fellow, Department of Textile and Clothing Design, and Art History, University Minnesota, USA (1 year sabbatical leave).