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p ostco lo n i a l m o d e r n i sm

Art and Decolonization in Twentieth-Century Nigeria

Chik a Okeke-Agulu

Decolonization in


Art and


Duke University Press

Durham and London 2015

2015 Duke University Press

All rights reserved
Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper
Designed by Heather Hensley
Typeset in Scala and Meta by Tseng Information Systems, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Okeke-Agulu, Chika.
Postcolonial modernism : art and decolonization in
twentieth-century Nigeria / Chika Okeke-Agulu.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
isbn 978-0-8223-5732-2 (cloth : alk. paper)
isbn 978-0-8223-5746-9 (pbk : alk. paper)
1. Art, Nigerian20th century.2. PostcolonialismNigeria.
3. DecolonizationNigeria.I. Title.
n7399. n 5O394 2014
isbn 978-0-8223-7630-9 (e-book)
Cover: Demas Nwoko, Nigeria in 1959, oil on board, 1960.
Artists collection. Photo, the author. Demas Nwoko.
Frontispiece: Erhabor Emokpae, The Last Supper, oil on board, 1963.
Photo, Clementine Deliss. Estate of Erhabor Emokpae.
This publication is made possible in part from the Barr Ferree
Foundation Fund for Publications, Princeton University.

In memory of my father

vincent chike okeke-a gulu

(Nwokafor Ayaghiliya; 19291993)



List of Illustrations

xiii Acknowledgments

INTRODUCTION Postcolonial Modernism


CHAPTER 1 Colonialism and the Educated Africans
CHAPTER 2 Indirect Rule and Colonial Modernism
CHAPTER 3 The Academy and the Avant-Garde
CHAPTER 4 Transacting the Modern: Ulli Beier,
Black Orpheus, and the Mbari International
CHAPTER 5 After Zaria
CHAPTER 6 Contesting the Modern: Artists Societies
and Debates on Art
CHAPTER 7 Crisis in the Postcolony

291 Notes

313 Bibliography

327 Index



Aina Onabolu, Sisi Nurse, 1922, 46


Akinola Lasekan, Ajaka of Owo, 1944, 48


Raja Ravi Varma, Young Woman with a Veena, 1901, 49


Kenneth Murray, Kwami, 1936, 53


Kenneth Murray, Keta Girl, 1942, 53


Ben Enwonwu, Coconut Palms, 1935, 58


C. C. (Christopher Chukwunenye) Ibeto, Ibo Dancers at Awka, 1937, 58


Uthman Ibrahim, Bamboos, ca. 1935, 67


Sculpture studio with students work, ca. 19581950, 74


Paul de Monchaux, Head, 1958, 74

Group photograph showing Paul de Monchaux (center) and art students

of the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology (NCAST), ca. 1960, 79


Photograph of Tsoede bronzes, including the well-known seated figure

(right) from Tada, 1959, 80


John Danford with plaster figure of Emotan, in his Chelsea studio,

London, 1953, 81



Papa Ibra Tall, Royal Couple, 1965, 97


Uche Okeke, Egbenuoba, 1961, 100


Uche Okeke, Monster, 1961, 100


Uche Okeke, Christ, 1961, 102


Uche Okeke, Jumaa, 1961, 103


Uche Okeke, Ana Mmuo (Land of the Dead), 1961, 104


Uche Okeke, Nza the Smart, 1958, 105


Demas Nwoko, Beggars in the Train, 1959, 107

List of Illustrations


Demas Nwoko, Ogboni Chief, 1961, 108


Demas Nwoko, Nigeria in 1959, 1960, 109


Demas Nwoko, White Fraternity, ca. 1960, 110


Demas Nwoko, Bathing Women, 1961, 111


Bruce Onobrakpeya, Eketeke vbe Erevbuye (Two Laziest People), 1961, 113


Bruce Onobrakpeya, Landscape with Skull and Anthill, 1961, 114


Yusuf Grillo, Oloogun, 1960, 115


Yusuf Grillo, Sabada (Dance), 1964, 117


Yusuf Grillo, Harvest, early 1960s, 118


Akinola Lasekan, Portrait of J. D. Akeredolu, 1957, 119


Oseloka Osadebe, Lunch at the Park, 1961, 120


Okechukwu Odita, Sheep Grazing, 1961, 120


Clifford Frith, Fulani Portrait, ca. 1960, 121


Clifford Frith, Harmattan Landscape with Figures, 19601961, 122


Patrick George, Hausa Standing, 1959, 123


Okechukwu Odita, Female Model, 1962, 123


Oseloka Osadebe, Husband and Wife, 1964, 124


Jimo Akolo, Hausa Drummer, 1961, 125


Susanne Wenger, Iwin, ca. 1958, 135


Francis Newton Souza, Two Saints in a Landscape, 1961, 139


Francis Newton Souza, Crucifixion, 1959, 139

Okeke and Onobrakpeya working in Michael Crowders residence,

Lagos, summer 1960, 142


Bruce Onobrakpeya, sketch for a panel of his Covered Way mural (detail),
1960, 144


Demas Nwoko, mural, Arts and Crafts pavilion, Nigeria Exhibition,

Lagos, 1960, 144


Ben Enwonwu, Head of Afi, 1959, 146


Yusuf Grillo, Two Yoruba Women, 1960, 148

Demas Nwoko and Uche Okeke at the opening of the Mbari Ibadan
inaugural art exhibition, 1961, 152



Ibrahim El Salahi, Untitled, 19541957, 155


Ibrahim El Salahi, Prayer, 1960, 155


Ibrahim El Salahi, Untitled, 1961, 157


Vincent Kofi at Mbari-Mbayo, Osogbo, 1962, 159


Jacob Lawrence with Vincent Kofis Drummer, 1962, 159


Malangatana Ngwenya, Untitled, 1961, 163


Malangatana Ngwenya, To the Clandestine Maternity Home, 1961, 164


Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Kneeling Woman, 1914, 167

List of Illustrations


Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Girl before a Mirror (Mdchen vor dem Spiegel),

1914, 167

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration of the Negro, No. 22, 19401941, 170


Jacob Lawrence, War Series: The Letter, 1946, 170


Jacob Lawrence, Street to Mbari, 1964, 173


Jacob Lawrence, Four Sheep, 1964, 173


Ahmed Shibrain, Calligraphy, 1962, 174


Skunder Boghossian, Jujus Wedding, 1964, 176


Skunder Boghossian, Night Flight of Dread and Delight, 1964, 178


Agnaldo dos Santos, Nun, ca. late 1950s, 179


Agnaldo dos Santos, Untitled, ca. late 1950s, 179


Naoko Matsubara, Ravi Shankar, 1961, 180


Naoko Matsubara, A Giant Tree, 1962, 180


Uche Okeke, mural in the courtyard, Mbari Ibadan, 1961, 185


Some Uli motifs, 187


Uli mural, 1994, 187


Uli mural, Eke shrine, 1987, 188


Woman decorated with Uli, 1994, 188


Uche Okeke, From the Forest, 1962, 190


Uche Okeke, Head of a Girl, 1962, 190


Uche Okeke, Owls, 1962, 191


Uche Okeke, Munich Girl, 1962, 193


Uche Okeke, Birds in Flight, 1963, 195


Demas Nwoko, The Gift of Talents, mural, 1962, 197


Igbo artist, male and female figures, 198


Demas Nwoko, Adam and Eve, 1963, 199


Demas Nwoko, Adam and Eve, 1962, 200


Demas Nwoko, Adam and Eve, 19621963, 202


Head, classical style, Nok culture, ca. 400 bce200 ce, 203


Demas Nwoko, Titled Woman, 1965, 205


Demas Nwoko, Philosopher, 1965, 206

Bruce Onobrakpeya and Ru van Rossem at summer workshop,

Mbari-Mbayo, Osogbo, 1964, 209



Bruce Onobrakpeya, Man with Two Wives, 1965, 211


Bruce Onobrakpeya, Dancing Masquerader, 1965, 212


Bruce Onobrakpeya, Untitled, ca. 1966, 213


Bruce Onobrakpeya, Untitled, ca. 1966, 213


Bruce Onobrakpeya, Travellers, 1967, 214


Bruce Onobrakpeya, Bathers I, 1967, 215


List of Illustrations



Simon Okeke, Lady, 1965, 218


Simon Okeke, Off to Battle, 1963, 219


Jimo Akolo, Fulani Horsemen, 1962, 222


Jimo Akolo, Untitled, 1963, 223


Jimo Akolo, Man Hanging from a Tree, 1963, 224


Jimo Akolo, Northern Horsemen, 1965, 225


Ben Enwonwu, Sango, 1964, 230


Afi Ekong, Meeting, 1960, 232


Afi Ekong, Cowherd, early 1960s, 232


Ben Enwonwu, Beauty and the Beast, 1961, 244


Erhabor Emokpae, My American Friend, ca. 1957, 246


Erhabor Emokpae, Struggle between Life and Death, 1962, 247


Erhabor Emokpae, Dialogue, 1966, 249


Erhabor Emokpae, The Last Supper, 1963, 250


Colette Omogbai, Accident, ca. 1963, 254


Colette Omogbai, Anguish, ca. 1963, 255

Uche Okeke (seated right) and Lawrence Emeka (center), 262

Scene from the Eastern Nigeria Theatre Group production of Andre

Obes Noah, showing set and costumes designed by Uche Okeke, 262


Visitors at the opening of exhibition of work by Oseloka Osadebe

(second from right) at Mbari Enugu, ca. 1964, 262



Uche Okeke, Crucifixion, 1962, 266


Uche Okeke, Primeval Forest, 1965, 267


Uche Okeke, Nativity, 1965, 268


Uche Okeke, Adam and Eve, 1965, 269


Uche Okeke, Oyoyo, 1965, 270


Uche Okeke, Conflict (After Achebe), 1965, 273


Uche Okeke, Aba Revolt (Womens War), 1965, 275


Demas Nwoko, Crisis, 1967, 279


Demas Nwoko, Hunter in a War Scene, 1967, 280


Demas Nwoko, Combatant I, 1967, 281


Demas Nwoko, Combatant II, 1967, 282


Demas Nwoko, Soldier (Soja), 1968, 284


Demas Nwoko, Soldier (Soja), 1968, 285


Demas Nwoko, Enuani Dancers, 1968, 286


Demas Nwoko, Dancing Couple (Owambe), 1968, 287


THE MATERIAL AND IDEAS gathered in this book came to life two decades
ago, when in 1993 I organized a major retrospective of Uche Okeke in Lagos.
Since then I have benefited immensely from many individuals and institutions, but I can mention only a few here. First, I thank Obiora Udechukwu,
my teacher and friend, who, by convincing me to organize the Okeke retrospective, set me on a path that eventually took me from studio practice to
art history and, ultimately, to this book. I cannot overstate the role he and El
Anatsui played in shaping my intellectual life in Nsukka.
I thank Uche Okeke for granting me several interviews over the years,
especially for giving me unhindered access to his meticulous Zaria-period
diaries and to the Asele Institute library and art collection. I thank also Bruce
Onobrakpeya, Demas Nwoko, Jimo Akolo, Yusuf Grillo, Okechukwu Odita,
Felix Ekeada, Paul de Monchaux, J. P. Clark, and Clifford Frith for sharing
with me their archival materials, memories of Zaria, and information about
their work. Yusuf Grillo was particularly helpful in facilitating my access to
the FSAH Collection at the University of Lagos library. I am grateful to the late
Segun Olusola and to Frank Aig-Imoukhuede, who gave me invaluable information on art and culture in Nigeria during the early sixties; and to Nduka
Otiono for connecting me with J. P. Clark.
I thank Jerry Buhari, who made it possible for me to consult the NCAST
files in the Ahmadu Bello University art department storeroom; Dapo Adeniyi, for making my access to the Daily Times photo archives less of an ordeal;
Mayo Adediran, for facilitating my access to the Kenneth Murray Archives
at the National Museum, Lagos. I also thank Kavita Chellarams and Nana



Sonoiki, of Art House Contemporary Ltd, Lagos; Vilma Eid, of Galeria Estao, So Paulo; and Ulf Vierke and Sigrid Horsch-Albert, of Iwalewa-Haus,
University of Bayreuth; they all helped me find many of the rare images
published in this book. Many thanks to Chike Dike and the late Emmanuel
Arinze for giving me access to the collections of the National Gallery of Art
and the National Council for Arts and Culture, respectively. My appreciation
also goes to Afolabi Kofo-Abayomi for giving me access to his private art collection, and to Chinwe Uwatse, Ndidi Dike, Ego Uche-Okeke, Peju Layiwola,
John Ogene, Ngozi Akande, Teena Akan, Chuma Okadigwe, Kolade Oshinowo, Hilary Ogbechie, Oliver Enwonwu, Olasehinde Odimayo, and Chike
Nwagbogu; and to my dear friends Uche Nwosu and Tony Nsofor, who assisted me in my research in Nigeria.
In England, I benefited from the valued advice and assistance of John
Picton, Doig Simmonds, John Murray, Christopher Atkinson, and Grant
Waters. I thank Ibrahim El Salahi for granting me a three-day interview at
his residence in Oxford. My gratitude goes to Nnorom Azuonye and Eddie
Chambers, who accommodated me and helped me find my way around London and Bristol while on research in the summer of 2003. I appreciate the
assistance given to me by the following: Helen Masters, of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, Bristol; Malcolm Staig, the archivist at
Goldsmiths college library, London; Lucy Dean, Simon Lane, and Dorothy
Sheridan, at the University of Sussex; Catherine Russell, at the Otter Gallery of Art, University of Chichester; Lucie Marchelot, of Bonhams, London;
Jessica Iles, of Browse & Darby, London; and Martine Rouleau, of the University College London Art Museum, London. Thanks, too, to Akin Adesokan,
Koyo Kouoh, Alioune Badiane, Hamady Bocoum, and Joanna Grabski for
their assistance with research on images.

I MUST MENTION THE most rewarding time I spent with the late Ulli Beier
and with Georgina Beier in Sydney, Australia, in the summers of 2000, 2005,
and 2009. The interviews and conversations that often continued until early
in the morning remain most memorable. I thank them also for giving me access to the vast Ulli and Georgina Beier Archive and for the frequent discussions and exchange of mails on their incomparable experience of African art
and culture. In a way, this book is in part a testament to Ullis unparalleled
work in modern Nigerian art and literature.
In the United States, several people have been of tremendous help in the
course of my research for this book. These include Janet Stanley, of the Na-


tional Museum of African Art Library, and Simon Ottenberg, Rebecca Dimling Cochran, Peri Klemm, and Dianne Stewart. I thank Okwui Enwezor
and Salah M. Hassan, my colleagues and coeditors at Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, with whom I have shared and debated issues relating to
African artistic modernism and specific aspects of this work over the years.
I have benefited also from working with Enwezor on several art exhibitions
that have helped me think through some of the important arguments presented in this study.
I thank James Meyer, Clark Poling, and Bruce Knauft, whose intellectual
generosity shaped my scholarly life at Emory University and beyond. I remain ever grateful to Sidney Kasfir as my mentor and friend; she kept insisting that I finish work on this book before life happened to it. I must mention Kobena Mercer, Esther Da Costa-Meyer, Simon Gikandi, Steven Nelson,
Peter Erickson, Valerie Smith, Okwui Enwezor, Salah M. Hassan, Sidney
Kasfir, Obiora Udechukwu, and Ada Udechukwu, all of whom read earlier
versions of this books manuscript and provided invaluable comments on it.
Through the process of writing this book, since its earliest iterations, I
received invaluable research funding and fellowships from Emory University, the Pennsylvania State University, Williams College, the Sterling and
Francine Clark Art Institute, the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Foundation, and most importantly, Princeton University. Thanks to Hal Foster and
Thomas Leisten, at the Department of Art and Archaeology, and to Valerie
Smith and Eddie Glaude, at the Center for African American Studies, Princeton University, for allowing me generous research time and the resources I
needed to complete this book and bring it to its present form. I am especially
thankful to the Barr Ferree Fund, whose generous funding made the many
color reproductions in this book possible. I also wish to thank Monica Rumsey, my copyeditor; Ken Wissoker, the editorial director at Duke University
Press, for believing in this work long before it became a publishable manuscript; and Elizabeth Ault and Jessica Ryan for guiding me through the rigors
of manuscript preparation.
I will never forget Enee Abelman, Sarah, Sharon and Larry Adams, Olu
Oguibe, Simon Ottenberg, Toyin Akinosho, Jahman Anikulapo, Chinwe
Uwatse, Ndidi Dike, Janet Stanley, and Alhaji Abdulaziz Udefriends I met
along the way and who supported me and my work. My deepest gratitude
goes to Obiora and Ada Udechukwu, with whom I shared so many experiences before and after the dark days at Nsukka; and to Okwui Enwezor and
Salah M. Hassan, two most enduring friends.
Finally, I must mention here my deep gratitude to my mother, Joy Egoyibo




Okeke-Agulu (Aruagbala), my brothers, Okwudili, Ikechukwu, and Ejikeme, and my sisters, Ogoegbunam and Onyinyechukwu, for supporting me
during all these years. My late sister, Uzoamaka, and brother, Uchechukwu,
saw the beginning of this work but not its completion in the form of this
book. I offer it to their memory. To Marcia, my dearest friend and wife: no
words can express enough my debt to you for sticking with me through the
rough yet exhilarating years that began at the House of Hunger and the art
studios in Nsukka and for being the mother of our most precious children,
Arinzechukwu and Ngozichukwu, who have made my life complete.



THIS BOOK EXAMINES the emergence of postcolonial modernism in Nigeria

during the first half of the twentieth century and its elaboration in the decade
of political independence, roughly between 1957 and 1967. It covers the decades of colonization yet focuses on the Art Societya group of young artists
whose careers began while students at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science
and Technology, Zaria, and in whose work we find the first concerted articulation of artistic modernism in postindependence Nigeria. In revisiting the
debates within the contemporary art world that emerged in Nigeria during
this decade, this book argues that by proposing the idea of natural synthesis,
which basically meant the selective use of artistic resources and forms from
Nigerian/African and European traditions, these artists inaugurated postcolonial modernism in Nigeria.
Consistent with the idea of natural synthesis is the acknowledgment and
appropriation of technical procedures and sensibilities inherent in modernism, particularly the deployment of experimental rigor and zeal to develop


radically new formal modes. The results are works of art that show both a
deep connection with local artistic traditions and the stylistic sophistication
we have come to associate with twentieth-century modernist practices. In
embarking on this crucial work, these artists were inspired by the rhetoric and ideologies of decolonization and nationalism initiated by early black
nationalists Edward Blyden (18321912) and Herbert Macaulay (18641946)
and later by advocates of negritude and pan-Africanism, thus reminding us
that it is impossible to imagine modernism in Nigeria (and Africa) outside a
wider context of cultural nationalism. Notwithstanding that what I call the
independence generation of artists built on the achievements of their modern predecessors in Nigeria, their workas this book amply showswas
radically different in terms of both its formal ambition and the vigorous critical discourse it fostered. In mapping the emergence of this new work during
the period of national independence, this book demonstrates the specific
ways that aspiration to and experience of political sovereignty, in the hands
of young Nigerian artists, was translated into an artistic modernism closely
aligned to the experience and realities of Nigerias postcolonial modernity.
What is more, in the way it follows the antagonistic relationship between
the colonial regime and Lagos-based intellectual elite, the debates among
colonial art educators, curricular strategies within the art department at
Nigerias first art school at Zaria, where the Art Society was formed, and the
art criticism and national cultural programs in the early 1960s, the book
argues that modernism and political ideology, in the context of decolonizing
nations, were not mutually exclusive discourses. In fact, the books point,
mooted already by Elizabeth Harney and Geeta Kapur but without the directness attempted here, is that the conjunction of art and nationalist ideology is an important characteristic of postcolonial modernism as an international mid-twentieth-century phenomenon.1 This book thus crucially maps
the unprecedented, largely ill understood, yet fundamental artistic, intellectual, and critical networks in four Nigerian citiesZaria, Ibadan, Lagos,
and Enuguconnecting Nigerian, African, African diaspora, and European
artists, critics, and the cultural elite during the continents decade of independence.
The reader will also notice that this book goes beyond art as such, occasionally bringing into view my own reading of literature produced by Nigerian writers during this period. This approach is prescribed by the deep entanglements of modern art, literature, and drama as indexed in the journal
Black Orpheus and the Mbari Artists and Writers Club, Ibadantwo signal
forums of mid-twentieth century African and black artistic and literary mod-


ernism. Still, the books underlying premise is that it is impossible to develop a historical perspective on modern and contemporary African art of the
twentieth century and beyond without the sort of close examination of the
political, discursive, and artistic transactions and translations that brought
modern art from the margins of cultural practice during the colonial period
to the very center of debates about African artistic subjectivity and cultural
identity in the years after the attainment of political sovereignty.
My hope, therefore, is that this book might serve as a model of the kind of
much needed expansive history of modern African art. It lays bare the often
ignored yet critical connections between political developments and transactions in the cultural-artistic landscape, and it places the work of individual
artists or their intellectual motivations and ideas within a larger context of
similar or antagonistic positions advanced by other artists and stakeholders
of an evolving art world. In fact, it is this kind of studywhich maps the primary political and cultural scene of modern art but also engages in a focused
reading of the work of exemplary and leading artists involved in the making
of these historiesthat African art history scholarship urgently needs. To
be sure, dual attention to the big picture and close analysis in one book can
have its shortcomings, but I would argue that the gains of such an approach
are inestimable for two reasons. First is that to date our understanding of the
development of modernism in Nigeria and Africa remains at the very best
fragmentary; a most pressing task of art history is reconstructing that history not so much to understand the art of yesterday as to appreciate how it
shapes the more familiar landscape of contemporary art. Second, in order to
show the very processes and contexts from which modernism emerged, as
well as its ambitions, arguments, and visual rhetoric, we must perforce embark on a meticulous reading of particular artists and their works and ideas,
which are central to this history. These two considerations inform the architecture of this book in the sense that in it I begin with the making of anticolonial subjectivity and with colonial modernism as a way to situate intellectual
and ideological origins of the work associated with the Art Society during
the independence period. In so doing, I strike a balance between narrating
through a selective compression of a sociopolitical history of Nigeria and a
critical examination of contemporary writings, as well as a formalist analysis
of specific artworks and technical protocols deployed by key artists. In the
process, I sidestep deep engagements with biographies of the individuals,
except in the rare instance where such information is relevant to the ideas
associated with such persons.
From the vantage point of researching and writing this book, I can already


see the salience of its key arguments in the modern art of various African
countries, where groups of artists during the mid-twentieth century confronted similar colonial conditions and subsequently developed versions of
what this book calls postcolonial modernism. One need look only at the Old
Khartoum school in the Sudanwhere together with his colleagues, Ibrahim
El Salahi (born 1930), who figures in this study courtesy of the presentation of his work at Mbari, Ibadan, and in Black Orpheus, articulated a modernism built upon artistic resources from Islamic calligraphy, indigenous
Sudanese craftwork, and modernist pictorial techniquesor at the work of
the schools contemporaries, who formed the school of Casablanca and for
whom, in addition to everything else, Berber visual arts and ritual signs became primary sources for reimagining their work as modern artists. There
are other, similar manifestations in Egypt, Ghana, Algeria, Ethiopia, and so
on; what they have in common is that the impulse to rethink their work was
often catalyzed by their identification with the rhetoric of decolonization and
the attainment of national political independence. But these topics have yet
to be subjected to the kind of rigorous examination this book attempts on
Nigeria. What we have, instead, are isolated views of these important moments, studies of individual artists or groups, and writings that have inserted
these artists and their work into disconnected, ahistoric thematic rubrics.2
It is important to stress two other crucial points of this book, besides illuminating what until now has been a mythic, modernist era in Nigeria. First,
it is an attempt to plug a gaping hole in the art history of twentieth-century
Nigeria and, by extension, Africa. With the significant entry of contemporary
African artists into the international arena in the 1990s, and especially during the first decade of the twenty-first centurya phenomenon announced
by the 2004 ArtNews magazine cover Contemporary African art: The newest
avant-garde?understanding the genealogy of this new art has become
pressing. Is it really possible to fully understand, say, the magnificent metal
and wood sculptures of El Anatsui, the world-renowned Ghanaian-Nigerian
artist (born 1944), without any knowledge of his intellectual connections to
two Mbari artists, Uche Okeke and Vincent Kofi, and to Kwame Nkrumahs
politics and the rhetoric of African personality? The answer to this question will depend on how much we know about the influences that the artists presented in this book exerted on later artists, such as Anatsui in Nigeria and elsewhere, and about the ideas that informed their work during the
independence decade. Consider, for instance, that at the end of the Biafran
War (19671970), Uche Okeke (born 1933) became head of the art school at
Nsukka. He soon reorganized the art program and more or less institutional-


ized natural synthesis, thus becoming the leader of the Nsukka school, which
was famous for its exploration of Igbo Uli and other West African traditional
graphic forms. It was this new school of artists, with its growing international reputation, that Anatsui joined in 1975, convinced of the relevance of
its curricular ideology to his own artistic sensibilities, which were already
primed by his attraction to Nkrumahs cultural politics.3 Knowledge of this
connection between Anatsui and Okeke and, by extension, between Anatsui
and postcolonial modernism facilitates a longer historical perspective of contemporary African art and troubles the trope of surprising newness that has
tended to follow, like a wondrous shadow, the work of even the most accomplished African artists today.
The second reason the history narrated in this book is important has already been insinuated in the preceding paragraph: the profound impact that
the work of the Art Society artists and similar groups in other countries had
on late twentieth-century Nigerian and African art. Apart from the fact that
by the late 1960s, which marks one chronological bookend of this study,
these artists (and their colleagues in Lagos) had become the acknowledged
leading figures in modern Nigerian art, their influence grew exponentially
in the subsequent decades. Take, for instance, three key artists presented.
Along with Okeke and his work at the Nsukka school, Demas Nwoko (born
1935) established himself as a major architect who, perhaps more than any
other modern Nigerian architect, articulated through his designs the successful synthesis of traditional Igbo, Japanese, and Western architectural design and principles.4 Bruce Onobrakpeya (born 1932), building on the printmaking techniques he discovered in the mid-1960s (see chapter 5) but also
on the massive network of artists associated with his studio in Lagos, became
one of Nigerias and Africas most influential artists. The stature and influence of their other colleaguesamong them Yusuf Grillo, Erhabor Emokpae,
and Jimo Akolois no less illustrious. In short, even within the irrefutably
complex, multiple trajectories that constitute contemporary Nigerian art in
the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the idea of natural synthesis articulated by Okeke and the Art Society remains strong. This book
thus helps contextualize and historicize contemporary Nigerian and African
artists relationship with the postcolony and to make sense of the expanded
landscape of art since the last two decades of the twentieth century.5
The material presented here is the result of twenty years of sustained research, beginning with my very first major effort at organizing an art exhibition in the early 1990s. Sometime in 1992, Obiora Udechukwu, my former
teacher and colleague at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, suggested that I


organize a retrospective exhibition of Uche Okeke to mark his sixtieth birthday in April 1993. I had not met Okeke, but I was fascinated by the opportunity to get to really know him and his work, given his reputation as the doyen
of the Nsukka school and a mysterious national figure who at the time had
retired in near seclusion to his historic cultural research center, the Asele
Institute, Nimo. In the course of planning that exhibition I was led to an
era, in many ways a distant one, a meaningful appreciation of whose scope
and core motivations, politics and legacies, a reading of the major texts
Ulli Beiers Contemporary Art in Africa (1968), Marshall Ward Mounts African Art: The Years since 1920 (1973), Jean Kennedys New Currents, Ancient
Rivers (1992)had not prepared me. Nor did those texts help me understand
the relationship between the formal, discursive, and ideological dimensions
of the work of Okeke or other leading figures.6 Access to Okekes personal
archives, including his stunningly meticulous diary entries from the mid-
1950s through the 1960s, spurred my two-decade-long study, not just of his
work, but also of his surviving former Zaria colleagues and their contemporaries. In fact, it was this interest in the work of the Art Society artists and
their contemporaries that set me to writing this book; it also helped me conceptualize the curatorial collaborationwith my friend and colleague Okwui
Enwezorthat became the complex, traveling exhibition The Short Century:
Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 19451994, organized by the
Museum Villa Stuck, Munich, in 2001.7 Needless to say, The Short Century,
because of its continental scope, made me particularly aware of the similarities between modern art and the politics of decolonization in Nigeria and
Africa. It made me consider the broader, more challenging questions that
have dogged the perception of modern African art, all of which are connected
to its relationship with colonialism and Western art traditions, its apparent
inauthenticity and derivativeness, its supposed lack of comparative sophistication, its troubling intimacy with cultural nationalism, and its dubious
connection with African modernity. Let me address some of these matters
to better frame the critical challenges this book confronts.

Europe and Modern African Art

It is impossible to fully appreciate the stakes of artistic modernism in

twentieth-century Nigeria without close attention to the political and cultural implications of Africas encounter with Europe during the imperial
age. As this book argues, this modernism is a consequence of complex factors arising on the one hand from the political and discursive confrontation


between British indirect rule ideology and its attendant cultural practices
and on the other from theories and ideas associated with African decolonization in the first half of the twentieth century. In tracing the genealogy
and the political-discursive conditions that catalyzed this new work, as I do
in the first two chapters, my task is to question routine assumptions about
the origins of modern art in Nigeria (and Africa) by resituating and reframing its ideological relationship with colonialist thought. This is an important
art-historical problem, no less because it had been normal for historians of
modern African art to see a seamless, unproblematic link between the establishment of art teaching in colonial schools or in workshops established by
European artist-teachers and the rise of modern art in Africa. The usual argument is that since formal art teaching began under the watch of colonial
regimes and since easel painting and academic art was imported into colonial Africa through these encounters, it follows that the art made by Africans
after this European type of art education is a product of colonialism and colonialist visions. Against these notions, this book sets out to disentangle artistic modernism from this supposed colonial imagination, returning it to the
long history of anticolonial, self-affirmative theories, practices, and visions
that began at the turn of the twentieth century. For it is all too clear, as I detail in the first chapter, that with the entrenchment of formal colonialism on
the continent, African and black intellectuals in fields as diverse as religion,
sociology, literature, art, and politics set for themselves the task of imagining
an African modern subjectivity defined primarily by their own need for self-
assertion and their visions of political and cultural autonomy. Even when this
task was not vociferously anticolonial, it often staked a claim to an alternative
position at odds with the schemes and propositions of colonial regimes and
their apologists. This will to self-definitionwhich characterized the African anticolonial and decolonization movementslaid the grounds for the
work of that generation of artists in Nigeria and elsewhere who participated,
midcentury, in the making of what this book calls postcolonial modernism.
The assumption of a causal link between colonialist thought and modern African art has resulted in the long-standing underestimation of or outright disregard for the artistic accomplishments represented by this work,
as well as doubts about the significance of its contribution to the expansion
of the horizons of modernisms of the twentieth century. It is in fact necessary to return to this rather old problem, precisely because its damning effect
on the reception of African modernist work remains with us today. Let me
cite three examples of how a particular perspective on the colonial history of
Africa has undermined the reception and appreciation of modern African art


of the type covered in this study. In their classic 1964 book on African sculpture, two eminent ethnologists, the Briton William Fagg and the American
Margaret Plass, summarily dismissed the work of African modernists thus:
we are not concerned here with contemporary African art, which for all its
merits is an extension of European art by a kind of involuntary cultural colonialism.8 More than three decades later, a European museum curator confidently justified the marginalization of contemporary African art in international art exhibitions by noting that it seems like third-rate artwork to
us because the art presented here emulates the Western traditionthis is
a criterion for selectionand because it is always lagging behind, regardless of how commendable the effort might be basically.9 And finally, only a
few years ago the British scholar Rasheed Araeen declared the naturalistic,
colonial-era portrait paintings of Aina Onabolu to be a form of mimicry
under the tutelage of colonial paternalism.10 Central to these three assessments of modern African art are two important, unflattering assumptions
about this work: first, the idea that it is a weak copy, a product of involuntary
mimicry of European art; and second, its apparent belatedness, that is to say,
its perpetual condition of being out of time, quintessentially anachronistic,
and completely evacuated of any radical potential.11
But these arguments about mimesis and modern African art miss a crucial aspect of mimicry, which, as Homi Bhabha has suggested, produces
the representation of difference that is itself a process of disavowal.12 In
other words, they ignore the radical potential of self-consciously deployed
mimesis. Moreover, they sidestep the rather complex strategies adopted by
colonial subjects committed to asserting, even within the limited political-
discursive space available to them, their right to determine and articulate
their own visions of modernity. Indeed, early-twentieth-century radical nationalists saw native beliefs and cultural practices as important elements of
a modern subjectivity that was quite comfortable with negotiating, against
all odds, its relationship with Europe. Thus my argument in this book is that
this model of colonial-nationalist subjectivity informed the work of the independence generation of Nigerian artists who invented a modernist artistic
identity from a rigorous and confident synthesis of Western and indigenous
techniques, design elements, and styles. In doing so, they asserted that modernist and progressive artists must be willing to acknowledge in their work
the diverse contradictory local and foreign elements that constituted Nigerian and African modernity.


Nationalism, Modernity, and Compound Consciousness

In his influential study on nationalism, Benedict Anderson introduced a

useful concept, what he calls colonial pilgrimage, which refers to the movement of colonial subjects, initially to European metropolises and later to
regional bureaucratic centers, to attend school. Often, he writes, they met
fellow bilingual sojourners from other colonies, with whom they shared
notions of nationalism drawn largely from Western models.13 Andersons
point here is to draw a direct, uncomplicated line between Western education during the colonial period and the colonial subjects mental conversion
to everything European. Yet it is clear that, although many of the African intelligentsia, with no viable options for higher education at home, embarked
on the colonial pilgrimage to Europe (and later to the United States), their responses to the experience varied. For instance, in his autobiography Kwame
Nkrumah describes his meetings in Europe with other African students and
nationalists, including Jomo Kenyatta (18941978), Flix Houphout-Boigny
(19051993), and Lopold Sdar Senghor (19062001)who, respectively,
became the first presidents and prime ministers of Kenya, Ivory Coast, and
Senegalbefore and after the Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester
(1945).14 However, while Senghor and Houphout-
Boigny demonstrated
their infatuation with la civilisation franaise and political commitment to
Franafrique, Kenyatta and Nkrumahs view of and relationship with Western culture were very different. Senghor ruled Senegal with the support of
French advisers, maintained strong ties with France, and after two decades
as president, stunningly retired to a French village, where he died in 2001. In
contrast, upon Nkrumahs return from England, he revived the idea of African personality and his own concept of decolonization through consciencism
as guiding principles for political pan-Africanism.15 He also colorfully placed
Ghanas cultural traditions at the fore of national politics, taking the honorific Osagyefo, in addition to adopting the kente cloth as an assertion of his
new, independent personhood. Even so, Nkrumah also wore Mao suits to
establish his socialist credentials, while his friend and colleague, the Kenyan
nationalist Jomo Kenyatta, took the honorific Mzee and combined Savile
Row suits with a leopard-skin hat, fly whisk, and Muslim sandals. In both
instances, there is an unquestionably deft sartorial hybridization and manipulation of populist imagery for political capital. Yet it was in Nkrumahs
and Kenyattas recognition rather than rejection of the symbolic and tactical
values of these unstable multicultural fusions that their sartorial sense parallels their nationalist political ideologies and their identity politics.



This tendency to embrace native cultures and to publicly express ones

attachment to them after a pilgrimage to the Westall this while appropriating usable ciphers of Western economic and political modernitysuggests
a more complex, even paradoxical, response to the metropolitan encounter.
Put differently, the pilgrimage might have produced what Anderson calls
Anglicized colonial subjects, but the pilgrim cultural nationalists returned
home with the confidence to regard Western and African cultures and resources as permutable and fungible elements for the construction of a new,
hybrid postcolonial subjectivity. These West Africans thus remind us of Chatterjees Indian nationalists, for whom the road to modernity had to begin
with an assertion of cultural difference without which any claim to independence from Europe might not be completely justifiable or meaningful.16
But how to make sense of this will to synthesis, this idea of modernity in
which combinatory nativisms and Westernisms yielded what could easily be
mistaken for a crisis-prone, unstable, and inauthentic postcolonial subjectivity? One thing is certain: theories of mimicry, W. E. B. Du Boiss notion
of double consciousness, or Ali Mazruis idea of triple heritage do not sufficiently explain how self-aware Africans synthesized autonomous and competing pressures of ethnic, religious, national, and racial identities as part
of what I want to call strategies of becoming. I suggest that this attitude to
modernity is especially unproblematic among African peoples, given that
their cosmologies tend to run counter to the very metaphysical and ontological absolutes at the basis of Western worldviews. This kind of subjectivity is
refashioned through and constituted by constant negotiation with others
humans, deities, spirits. Also, it is the essence of Ife kwulu ife akwuso ya, a
common Igbo adage, which affirms the belief that the self and the other are
not necessarily opposed but instead are signposts in a cyclical network of social, ritual, and cosmic relations.17 The ideas encapsulated in this Igbo proverb also occur in a Xhosa proverb, umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (a person is
a person through persons), which, according to the South African philosopher Augustine Shutte, means that the self and world are united and intermingle in a web of reciprocal relations.18 One might call this the principle
of complementarity at the basis of Igbo and African philosophies of being.
This, it seems to me, helps explain the disposition on the part of African
peoples to open up to and incorporate new religions, cultures, and ideas,
whether before, during, or after the colonial encounter. This sensibility is
further instantiated in an episode in Chinua Achebes novel Arrow of God,
in which the priest Ezeulu, an appointed protector of his communitys traditions against the onslaught of alien Christian-colonial culture, admonished


his school-bound son to thoroughly master the white mans system of writing
upon which colonial governance is based, such that he could write with his
left handin other words, so he could do what he wished with this acquired
knowledge.19 Despite his antagonism for the colonial regime, Ezeulu saw in
the written word not just a gateway to the new world order but also a tool for
self-enunciation and navigation through the maze of confounding modernity. He was, like many an African cultural nationalist, fiercely protective
of his ancestral heritage and cognizant of the inexorable value of aspects of
Western modernity to the constitution of his sons subjectivity in the new,
colonial world. This same incorporative, compound consciousness of African subjectivity was what the proponents of negritude, African personality,
and similar anticolonial ideologies sought to recoup when they argued for
the inclusion of Africa and African traditions in the making of postcolonial
modernity. In proposing this idea of compound consciousness, my intention
is to place emphasis on the agency or choice-making facility of the individuals involved; in other words, they are simultaneously products and agents of
history. In this sense I agree with the art historian Henry J. Drewal, who has
argued that what he calls multiple consciousness of Afro-Brazilians is not
to be mistaken for syncretism, which implies a blending and homogenizing process. As he notes: I would suggest we recognize the distinctiveness
of each faith, the simultaneous interplay and juxtaposition of multiple beliefs and practices for persons whose histories demanded a refined, subtle,
and effective facility for multiple consciousness.20
The work of artists presented in this book, I reiterate, was motivated by
the need to imagine the postcolonial self as a compound consciousness that
constantly reconstituted itself by selective incorporation of diverse, oppositional, or complementary elements. This might help us come to terms, for
instance, with what can seem an intriguing incidence of Christian themes
in the work of many of these artists. The Christians among themsay, Uche
Okeke and Bruce Onobrakpeya, who are practicing Catholicsdepicted
themes from the Old and New Testaments as well as from Igbo and Urhobo
religions and folklore, as if to assert their equal sympathies for the doctrine
and legacies of both religions traditions. Similarly Yusuf Grillo, a devout
Muslim, executed many major commissions for Lagos churches, to the extent that we must imagine his having a considerable understanding of and
familiarity with Christian iconography and ritual aesthetics. What we take
from this is that the modernism of these artiststo cite Biodun Jeyifos argument about parallel developments in modern African literatureis a product of a replete African world which derives its deepest truths and resources




endogenously, not in exclusivist, racial-chauvinist terms but all the same as

a distinctive presence in the world on its own terms.21

Postcolonial Modernism

Why do I insist on calling the work of these Nigerian and African artists
postcolonial modernism? This question is especially pertinent since, for
nearly two decades now, art history and visual culture scholarship has seriously engaged the question of how this work by African (and Third World)
artists fits into the narrative template of modernism, which is traditionally
understood to be the aesthetic manifestation of Western modernity. What
we can see clearly is that, years after the final waves of decolonization blew
over the world in the mid-twentieth century, the scholarship began, slowly at
first, to consider the cultural implications of the sovereignties won by what
would be known as Third World countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean,
and elsewhere. Important work on the African diaspora and Latin America
exemplified by that of Paul Gilroy, Nestor Garcia Canclini, and David Cravensought to name, describe, and analyze the art, literature, and other
forms of expression produced within a context of colonial and postcolonial
modernity. Quite pertinently, there is a general consensus that in these parts
of the world, the tapestry of modernity and modernism was not just woven
from diverse multicultural threads but was forged during the colonial encounter, as well as from the intermixture of histories, cultures, and subjectivities before and after colonialism.
The question that confronts us, then, is how to describe the foundational
concerns of artists whose work was catalyzed by ideas of cultural and social modernity and informed by visions of progress within the context of
a sovereign nation. I am convinced of the appropriateness of calling this
work postcolonial modernism for two reasons. For one, it reflects my belief
that, given what we know today about the specific political, cultural, intellectual, and discursive contexts of the work of twentieth-century avant-gardes
everywhere, all manifestations of artistic modernism ought to be qualified
in some way to reflect their origins, particularities, and horizons. Moreover,
it makes sense to name all modernisms, so long asthis is importantsuch
acts do not tempt us to view them in hierarchical order. This is so simply because nothing I have seen in the histories of modernisms around the world
makes any particular one, whether it manifested earlier or later in the century, any more or less profound.
In proposing postcolonial modernism as an analytical concept for this


study of the conjunction of art and the politics of decolonization in twentieth-

century Nigeria, I am inspired by Kobena Mercers idea of cosmopolitan
modernisms. For him, this term describes two related experiences: first, the
two-way traffic of bodies and ideas between colonial peripheries and Western
metropolises and the relocation of modernism from European cities to New
York; second, the threefold interaction among non-Western artists, minority
artists in the West, and Western art movements that have engaged different
cultures. However, if Mercers cosmopolitan modernismsdrawing on postcolonial theorys onslaught against the hegemonic and universal ambitions
of what now looks like an insular strain of Western modernismserves as a
conceptual tool for articulating a broad-based, global theory of modernism,
then postcolonial modernism as used in this book describes an aspect of the
cosmopolitan specific to Nigeria and other (African) locales with similar cultural histories and modernist work that is deeply inflected by the experience
and rhetoric of decolonization.
But what is the status of the postcolonial? What do I mean by this term?
In thinking about the postcolonial, I recall Kwame Anthony Appiahs description of postcoloniality as the condition of the elite, college-trained writers and
intellectuals who, because of their dual access to Western and African knowledge systems, act as mediators between the two supposedly distinct worlds.22
Unlike their less-educated compatriots, who in fact constitute the majority
and who are more or less unconcerned with transcending the colonial condition, Appiah argues, the elites embrace postcoloniality as a means of clearing the space previously occupied by colonial, cultural modernity. While I
agree with Appiahs association of postcoloniality with the African intellectual elite, I also see the postcolonial as describing sets of critical practices
by elite writers, artists, political theorists, philosopherssimultaneously
directed at dismantling the ideological foundations of colonialism and anticipating the consequences of its end. In this sense, the postcolonial does
not necessarily depend on the hard temporal markers of colonialisms end; in
other words, it is not restricted, in Nigeria for instance, to literary and artistic
discourses and practices that came after 1960. Rather, I use it as Robert J. C.
Young has described it: a dialectical concept that marks the broad historical
facts of decolonization and the determined achievement of sovereigntybut
also the realities of nations and peoples emerging into a new imperialistic
context of economic and sometimes political domination.23
To be sure, the concept of postcolonial modernism made its first appearance in literary criticism, specifically to address, as Bart Moore-Gilbert has
put it, both the critical conjunction of postcolonialism and modernism and




the wide-ranging reassessment of the cultural politics of [modernism] inaugurated in the late 1980s.24 In this book, I recuperate and reanimate the
critical ambitions of literary postcolonial modernism as a way to give analytical rigor to the work of artistic modernisms in Nigeria and the African
continent. As I detail in this book, the literatures that have been subjected to
analyses as exemplary of postcolonial modernism were produced in the same
discursive spaces and contexts as the works of art with which I am concerned
here. Whether in the pages of the literary journal Black Orpheus, founded
at Ibadan, Nigeria, in 1957, or within the Mbari Club in the 1960s, African writers (Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Eskia Mphahlele, Christopher
Okigbo, for instance) shared the same concerns with their artist-colleagues
(Uche Okeke, Demas Nwoko, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Ibrahim El Salahi, among
others) about the implications and impact of political decolonization on the
thematic and stylistic directions of their work. Despite the fact that debates
on these questions were undoubtedly more developed and vociferous in the
field of literature, closer examination of contemporary art criticism, which I
offer in this book, convinces us that conversations of similar motivation and
substance occurred on the subject of art during the same period.
Given the above considerations, it is clear as day that the work of the Art
Society and their colleagues elsewhere on the continent in the independence
decade was decidedly postcolonial, in the sense that they initially imagined
their art as constituting a critical space in which the exhilarating drama of
cultural decolonization was enacted, and subsequently thought of it as a platform for articulating the contradictions of political sovereignty and crises of
postindependence nationalism and subjectivity. These two sequences of the
postcolonial, as I describe them in chapters 5 and 7, respectively, are evident
first in Uche Okekes Oja Series, a suite of drawings inspired by Igbo Uli traditional drawing (and in Achebes Things Fall Apart);25 and second, in Okeke
and Demas Nwokos crisis paintings (as well as in Christopher Okigbos
poems Path of Thunder), from the late 1960s. In conjunction with its postcolonial status, the work of these artists manifests the formal and discursive
sensibilities that have come to define artistic modernisms. First among these
is their belief in the significance of the artists role in fashioning a new art
and culture for the new nation and society, as a harbinger of the new. It is in
this sense that I describe Okeke, Nwoko, and their cohorts as constituting an
avant-garde. Second is their attempt to articulate and reframe their relationship with tradition and the past. Third is their focus on the invention of
formal styles unlike any developed before them. Fourth is the artists turn to
critical analyses and commentary on the postcolonial state as it was eclipsed
by political crises from the late 1960s onward.


Let me return to Appiahs description of the postcolonial as a space-

clearing gesture simply to retrieve an earlier point about my view of the relationship of the Nigerian modernists of the independence decade and coloniality. It is quite evident that once inspired by the thrilling, powerful wave
of decolonization that set off at full speed soon after the end of the World
War II, young, progressive artists and writers set about reimagining and recalibrating their relations with imperial Europe, its ideologies, cultures, and
knowledge bases. It is not so much that they rejected Europe or replaced
it with native cultures; rather, in marking both the locus and the horizons of their artistic imagination, they outlined a new, multidimensional
space in which the complex drama of their postcolonial subjectivities played
out. It was no longer about whether they spoke the artistic language of
Europe or that of their ancestors or whether they aligned themselves with
the monovalent pulls of blackness, Africa, the nation, or the ethnos. What
the artists presented in this book demonstrate through their work is the
constitution, during the years around political independence in Nigeria, of
compoundmessy, fraught, and inevitably distinctivepostcolonial modern subjectivities.

BEFORE I SUMMARIZE this books chapters, let me explain the logic of its

architecture. From the onset I had to confront the option of compressing the
scope by zooming closely into the independence decade, paying only passing attention to the context of modern art of the previous decades. There is
no doubt some sense in this approach. But the alternative route, taken here,
allows me to examine the longer historical, ideological, and intellectual context of the work that emerged in the late 1950s; otherwise we might miss or
fail to fully appreciate, as has been the case in the literature, the stakes of the
latter. Besides keeping the modern art of the independence decade in dynamic alignment with the preceding six decades of Nigerian art and political
history, the narrative arc of this book frequently swings between sweeping
intellectual and social-historical accounts to meticulous formalist and critical readings of particular artworks and texts. This is my way of insisting on
an approach to writing modern and contemporary African art history that
depends on the scholarly virtues of research-based critical storytelling and
close reading of works of art in order to reveal not just their visual intelligence but also how they relate to the world of the artist and his society.
This study is divided into seven chapters, the first of which sets the colonial context from which the postcolonial modernism of the midcentury
emerged. It argues, following the work of the historian Taiwo Olufemi, that




even in colonialisms most altruistic guise, the oppressive infrastructure of

British imperial enterprise forced upon the political and cultural guardians
of empire a denial and suppression of an emergent sovereign African modernity. This book also sketches the ideological antagonisms between colonial
apologists and anticolonial nationalists, noting how early notions of African
personality contributed to the cultural nationalism and pan-Africanism of
W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Nnamdi Azikiwe. These same ideas
ultimately set the philosophical and ideological grounds for the emergence of
the postcolonial modernism of the Art Society and its Nigerian and African
contemporaries during the independence decade. This chapter is thus both
an attempt to outline the intellectual origins of the art that defined modernism in Nigeria in the 1950s and 1960s and a gesture toward the production
of a more meaningful account of modern art of twentieth-century Nigeria.
Building on the first chapter, the second situates the work of pioneer Nigerian modernist painter Aina Onabolu (18821963) and the British art teacher
Kenneth Murray (19031972) within the oppositional imperialist and anticolonialist views not just of modernity and subjectivity but also of the role of
art in their articulation. Where Onabolu called for a complete break with the
traditional arts of Nigeria and the production of a modern subject through
the new medium of academic easel painting, Murray argued for a return to
the glories of traditional art against the onslaught of modernity and artistic
modernism. My task in this chapter is to show precisely 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. Although this matter becomes much magnified in the art and politics of the independence decade,
chapter 2 shows that it was already there at the very onset of modern art, as
the competing ideas and pedagogies of Onabolu and Murray reveal. Moreover, the chapter maps the earliest attempts to articulate the meaning, scope,
and directions of modern art in Nigeria during the 1940s and early 1950s,
as the students of Onabolu on the one hand and the British teachers sympathetic to Murrays visions on the other jostled for visibility and leadership in
an emerging art world that was soon ruptured by the art and theory of the
Art Society and the criticism of Ulli Beier.
Chapter 3 reconstructs the history of the countrys first tertiary-level art
program at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology (1954
1961) to highlight its participation in a national conversation about the role
of fine art in a decolonizing society and the tensions and anxieties within the
school about institutional credibility at a time when Londons control of colo-


nial education was confronted by growing discontent in the colony about the
reaches of imperial power. I also examine how questions about relevance of
local content in the design of the art schools curriculum provided the critical context for the radical work of the Art Society. It is impossible to overstate the historiographic significance of engaging this history of Zaria, much
of which has been occluded from art historys view of a period that I insist is
most fundamental to our understanding of the stakes of twentieth-century
Nigerian art. The second part of this chapter dwells on the Art Society and the
sources of its ideas, particularly the theory of natural synthesis proposed by
its leader, Uche Okeke, as the organizing principle of the groups future work.
The chapter concludes by resituating the work of the Art Society within the
history of Nigerian art, arguing that it represents an advancement of Onabolus brand of colonial modernism (and a critique of Kenneth Murrays).
This context is important, for it goes against what the scholarship tells us,
which is that Murray, not Onabolu, must be credited with initiating the sets
of ideas championed by the Art Society artists.
The fourth chapter examines the emergence of Nigerian/African modernist and postcolonial art practice and discourse through detailed analysis
of the art criticism, reviews, and portfolios published in Black Orpheus, the
magazine that gave voice to a new generation of Anglophone African and
black diaspora writers and artists in the 1950s and 1960sas well as of the
exhibitions and workshops at the Mbari Artists and Writers Club, Ibadan.
This chapter affords us a view into the process of internationalizing an incipient postcolonial modernism through the work of Ulli Beier and his network
of international writers, critics, and artists. Chapter 4 specifically shows how
the journal, the club, and Beiers work fostered a community of emerging
contemporary artists and writers, now more aware of their collective cultural
and artistic experiences and objectives. It also discusses how this loose network to which the Art Society artists belonged fit into and participated in the
politics of modern Nigerian art and culture around 1960. It is inevitable that
Beier, a controversial, incomparably important art and literary critic and impresario, looms large in this chapter. But the narrative is less about him than
about his participation in the making of an increasingly complex, sophisticated art world that in just a few years saw a new generation of Nigerian artists and writers at its helm.
A key premise of chapter 4 is that the cultural and literary arguments of
negritude and pan-Africanism, disseminated through Beier, Black Orpheus,
and the Mbari Club, became major influences on postcolonial artistic (and
literary) modernism. This is important because it returns us to the claim,




made in chapters 2 and 3, that the work of Art Society artists and many of
their Nigerian and African contemporaries followed the political and cultural ideologies associated with pan-Africanism and negritude rather than
the adaptationist ideas of British indirect rule educational policies.
In chapter 5 I engage in some detail the key individual work of some of the
Art Society members in the years following their graduation from Zaria. In
1962, during his short stay in Lagos and throughout his one-year residency
in Munich, Uche Okeke began a series of experimental drawings inspired
by traditional Igbo Uli art, thus realizing the full formal and conceptual implications of natural synthesis. Similarly, Bruce Onobrakpeya developed a
formal style that depended on the manipulation of designs and motifs of
his native Urhobo arts (Yoruba arts, too) even as he was experimenting with
printmaking techniques following his participation in summer art workshops organized by Beier at the Mbari Clubs in Ibadan and Osogbo. For his
part, Demas Nwoko developed a figural stylemanifest in his wood sculptures and in a suite of paintings on the theme of Adam and Eve while on
a one-year visit to Paris in 1962/63influenced by traditional Igbo figural
sculpture. On the other hand, their Art Society colleague Simon Okeke relied
on techniques and styles borrowed from early modern Western art to create
enigmatic, monochromatic watercolors, while in his canvases Yusuf Grillo
explored postcubist figuration and palette. Finally, Jimo Akolo, who was all
but an official member of the Art Society, continued to experiment with diverse Western modernist painting styles, particularly in the suite of paintings he produced in London in 1963. Chapter 5 reveals the society members
different attitudes toward the theory of natural synthesis and the role of indigenous art forms in their own evolving styles and suggests that the value
of the theory is not so much in its potential to authorize a unified nationalist art as in its enabling an unprecedented, diverse, and ambitious art that
defined the landscape of Nigerias postcolonial modernism.
Chapter 6 shifts the focus from the specificity of the Art Society artists
and their work to the intellectual and cultural firmament and art world of
Lagos, especially after 1963, when that city effectively replaced Ibadan as
the center of postcolonial artistic production and debate. Four important
factors guaranteed Lagoss new significance as the hub of modern art and
culture during this period. First was the radical transformation in 1962 of
Nigeria, a general-interest journal during the colonial period, into a powerful
cultural magazine with ample coverage of contemporary art and literature.
This shift took place under its first Nigerian editor, the novelist and amateur
anthropologist Onuora Nzekwu. Second was the establishment of the Lagos


center of the American Society of African Culture, which hosted African

American artists and writers in the city and facilitated their participation in
Mbari Club events and exhibitions. Third was the work of the Lagos branches
of the revamped Nigerian Art Council and the Federal Society of Arts and
Humanities. And finally, the establishment in 1964 of the Society of Nigerian Artists, in fulfillment of the Art Societys dream of translating the modest college-era group into a national organization. Chapter 6 also examines
the debates, in Nigeria and elsewhere, around the work of young artists from
Zaria and their contemporaries in Lagos, particularly the irreverent painters
Erhabor Emokpae, Okpu Eze, and Colette Omogbai. This excursion reveals
crucial fissures between the so-called young Turks and the older generation
of artistsrepresented by Ben Enwonwu, Akinola Lasekan, and the novelist/critic Cyprian Ekwensiabout what constituted ambitious art and, more
crucially, about the direction of postindependence Nigerian art.
Chapter 7, concluding this book, argues that postindependence political crises, the military intervention in 1966, and the civil war the following
year all adversely affected the sense of cultural nationalism that earlier inspired the Art Society and other artists in Lagos. In other words, the resurgence of regionalism in the postindependence era, which reached a climax
by the middle of the decade, left its mark on the art and culture sector, the
most obvious instance being the formation of Mbari Enugu by artists and
writers from the eastern region, many of whom had previously associated
with Ibadan and Lagos. I argue in this chapter that the crisis in the postcolony underwrote the dramatic shift in the style and themes of politically
conscious artists (and writers) who themselves had become increasingly disillusioned about the prospects of the new nation. The works of Uche Okeke
and Demas Nwoko from 1965 exemplify this change. Into my reading of
their crisis paintings and sculptures of this period, I interpolate analysis of
the prophetic, contemporary poetry of their Mbari Club colleagues Christopher Okigbo and Wole Soyinka, the point being to demonstrate that the most
compelling late-1960s postcolonial Nigerian art and poetry, which had their
roots in the Mbari and Black Orpheus world, index the unraveling of the euphoria of political independence and anticipate the postcolonial crisis that
led to civil war (19671970). Apart from the fact that these works, in terms
of their formal ambition and conceptual complexity, marked a watershed in
Okeke and Nwokos oeuvre as artists, they moreover exemplify the fundamental changes in the stylistic and thematic preoccupations of postcolonial
modernism in the course of that thrilling, heady, phenomenal decade.



1. For similar arguments, see Kapur, When Was Modernism, and Harney, In Senghors Shadow.
2. See, e.g., Vogel, Africa Explores.
3. See Okeke, The Quest, 4175, and Ottenberg, New Traditions and The Nsukka
4. See Godwin and Hopwood, Architecture of Demas Nwoko; Okoye, Nigerian Architecture, 2942.
5. See Enwezor and Okeke-Agulu, Contemporary African Art.
6. See Beier, Contemporary Art in Africa; Mount, African Art; and Kennedy, New
7. See Enwezor, The Short Century.
8. See Fagg and Plass, African Sculpture, 6.
9. See Hassan, The Modernist Experience in African Art, 216.
10. Araeen, Modernity, Modernism, 278.
11. Shohat and Stam, Narrativizing Visual Culture, 28.
12. Bhabha, Location of Culture, 122.
13. Anderson, Imagined Communities, 114116.
14. Nkrumah, Autobiography, 5263.
15. Nkrumah defines consciencism as the map in intellectual terms of the disposition of forces which will enable African society to digest the Western and the
Islamic and the Euro-Christian element[s] of Africa, and develop them in such a
way that they fit the African personality. The African personality itself is defined
by the cluster of humanist principles which underlie the traditional African society. See Nkrumah, Consciencism, 79.
16. Taylor, Two Theories of Modernity, 183.
17. John S. Mbiti famously asserted the status of the individual in Africa with the

Notes to Chapter 1


dictum, I am because we are; and since we are, therefore I am. See Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy, 109. The tenability of this assertion has for years
been a matter of intense philosophical debate. But there is ample evidence from
popular sayings, proverbs, and aphorisms of diverse African peoples to suggest
that individual subjectivity is for the most part strongly linked to an awareness
of its dependence on a network of relations with other human and metaphysical
18. Shutte, Philosophy for Africa, 47.
19. See Achebe, Arrow of God, 234,
20. Drewal, Memory and Agency, 242243.
21. Jeyifo, Perspectives on Wole Soyinka, 117.
22. See Appiah, Postcolonial and the Postmodern, 62.
23. Italics added. See Young, Postcolonialism, 57.
24. Moore-Gilbert, Postcolonial Modernism, 551.
25. See my Politics of Form, 6786.

Chapter 1: Colonialism and the Educ ated Afric ans

1. Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk, 243244.
2. Taiwo, How Colonialism Preempted Modernity.
3. Taiwo, How Colonialism Preempted Modernity, 11.
4. Carland, Colonial Office and Nigeria, 108.
5. Frenkel, Edward Blyden, 288.
6. Colonial government in southern Nigeria blamed the mission-trained Africans for the massive consumption of alcohol responsible for the illicit liquor
trade. For her part, the nineteenth-century ethnographic writer and explorer
Mary Kingsley thought that mission education made the African the curse of
the Coast. Several other commentators emphasized the threat these mission-
trained Africans posed to the colonial system and its regime of racial and social
hierarchy. For more, see Lyons, Evolutionary Ideas and Educational Policy,
7. Lyons, The Educable African, 17.
8. Lyons, The Educable African, 17.
9. Lyons, The Educable African, 17.
10. Lugards influential book, Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa, in which he
laid out the principles and practice of indirect rule, became a manual of sorts for
colonial officers in colonial British Africa. See Lugard, Dual Mandate.
11. See Porter, Critics of Empire, 151.
12. Mary Kingsley once stated: I regard not only the African, but all coloured races,
as inferiorinferior in kind not in degreeto the white races. Quoted in
Porter, Critics of Empire, 151152. Porter discusses Mary Kingsleys influence on
the development of indirect rule colonialism.
13. [W]e are certain that the publication of the Report will add the last nail to the
coffin of the Nigerian System, falsify the aspersions which have been cast upon
the educated Native by daubing him an agitator who is denationalized by virtue