unique identity

Nigeria: Can today’s young artists live up to the masters of modern Nigerian art?

By Joseph Omoh Ndukwu

Posted on May 26, 2023 14:01

 © Painting by Yusuf Grillo
Painting by Yusuf Grillo

The 1960s and 70s were an interesting time for Nigerian art. The artists who would become the vanguards of modern art in the country had just completed their studies and were brimming with creativity and enthusiasm. And within those years, they began to chart a new course for Nigerian (and African) art.

A number of these artists formed the Zaria Art Society (1958 – 1961) while they were still students at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology (now the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria).

As members of this society, they sought a new aesthetic for their work; one that would embrace their training in European artistic styles and ideas as well as their indigenous artistic styles and traditions as Africans. This was to ensure that their own sensibility and insight as Africans were not lost.

‘Natural Synthesis’

They hoped to fuse, in a manner of speaking, who they were and what they had learned to create a new and organic style. They called this fusion and this ideology Natural Synthesis.

Armed with this ideology and moved by a vision to lift African art to great heights, these artists went on to make works that have remained some of the finest to come out of Africa.

Children on Cycles, a painting by Demas Nwoko, made in about 1961, showing three children on bicycles is an example of such work. It is greatly admired for its stylistic beauty, its earthy richness, and its evocative portrayal. It was work that not only showed talent, but also great skill and genuine introspection.

image © Children on Cycles by Demas Nwoko (around 1961)

Nwoko, was born in Idumuje-Ugboko a town in Delta State in 1935. He attended school in Zaria, but later went to Paris for further studies.

Being educated this way nurtured his cosmopolitan outlook and approach. It was an approach he applied to his own brand of natural synthesis, borrowing from the Nok culture of Northern Nigeria, his native home in Delta State, and his experience of the local art forms in Ibadan. This borrowing was done with sophistication. The aim was to reach something greater than the sum of the original influences.

Yusuf Grillo, born in Lagos in 1934, exemplified this sophistication very distinctly. Possessing a high level of formal education, he employed geometry and formal techniques to great effect. His work, done in blue (after the Yoruba adire techniques), combines a feel for line, scale, and tone. The mastery is evident in a fascinating and unforgettable mix of complexity and minimalism.

Another artist who worked impressively with Western and traditional art forms is Uche Okeke. Born in 1933 in Nimo, Anambra State, he was strongly influenced by the philosophies and ideas of the Igbo regarding art. Drawing on this worldview, he made art that had strong evocations of nature and Igbo aesthetics. One way he did this was by incorporating the use of uli lines and symbols popular in Nsukka and other areas of Igboland.

© ‘Agwoi’ by Uche Okeke, 1960 (Courtesy of the artist and Skoto Gallery)

As a member of the Zaria Art Society, Okeke formulated and began developing the philosophy of Natural Synthesis. In addition to creating African authenticity, Okeke intended natural synthesis to stir a strong political consciousness. For him, artists were not only meant to define identity, but also make work that fuelled national pride, powering effective self-rule. Okeke intended his philosophy of art to be a philosophy for a new age.

Voice of the new generation

Times have changed and the approach to art should change with it. Like the masters of modern Nigerian art, young Nigerian artists have to find an idiom to speak poignantly to their own time.

For these artists, it is hard to say whether they have found such an idiom or are even searching for one. It would be somewhat ludicrous to ask contemporary Nigerian artists to create a unique identity for Nigerian art today. It may be a little too much to ask them to develop rigorous philosophies and art movements to chart the course for the future. However, it wouldn’t be too much to ask for a deeper commitment to their craft and artistic vision.

This is not to say that they entirely lack commitment. There’s still some good work being done. However, in many instances, their work reveals everything: a desire for money; for recognition; for wide acceptance – everything but a desire for genuine artistic creation.

It seems that for the current crop of artists in Nigeria, especially the young ones, achieving a fair mastery of the popular styles and trends is enough. They don’t seem to care about imbuing their work with the complexity, honesty and rigorous artistry that characterises great art.

A postmodernist inclination might make such an approach seem just fine, even laudable, but this is gradually depleting the quality and eroding the soul of the works of young Nigerian artists today.

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