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The NSUKKA School

The University of Nigeria, Nsukka, commonly referred to as U.N.N, is a Federal University located in Nsukka, Enugu State, Nigeria. Through an engaging and inspiring gathering of many Nigerian leaders, with the principal motivation of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe – the erstwhile Premier of Eastern Nigeria, there came the endorsement of law which was passed in 1955 for the institution of a University in the Eastern Region of Nigeria. By the 7th of October, 1960, the University of Nigeria was officially opened. The University of Nigeria has four campuses – Nsukka, Enugu and Ituku-Ozalla – located in Enugu State and the fourth in Aba, Abia State, Nigeria.

The former Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, Enugu, was incorporated into the University in 1961, and its buildings and land covering about 200 hectares now form the Enugu Campus of the University located in the heart of Enugu, the administrative capital of Enugu State, Nigeria.The University of Nigeria Nsukka, especially its Department of Fine and Applied Arts is renowned for the Nsukka group – seven artists associated with a system of traditional Igbo designs and styles known as Uli. The seven artists viz. Uche Okeke, Chike Aniakor, Obiora Udechukwu, El Anatsui, Tayo Adenaike, Ada Udechukwu, and Olu Oguibe are the artists historically credited as the founding members of the Nsukka Art School, though it is noteworthy that the concept, practice or propagation of this art movement is not limited to these few. The Nsukka artists’ use of Igbo uli painting acts to synthesize indigenous aesthetic preferences and Western art technology.

The arts programme at Nsukka initially covers a wide area of basic design and gradually narrows down to specialization in painting, sculpture, visual communication design, textiles, ceramics, history of art and art education.

A school of art critics and/or historians contend the premise that the Nsukka group’s common denominator consists of a fusion of uli aesthetics and Western art technology, while others claim uli is the basis and inspiration for the school. In a publication of the Smithsonian Institute Press, titled ‘The Nsukka Artists and Nigerian Contemporary Art’ edited by Simon Ottenberg, Sarah Adams posits that the attention given the indigenous expressive forms association between Nsukka artists and ”ulism” are often conflated. This view she argues, emerged out of close examination of Igbo women’s uli art, Nsukka artists’ paintings, and the artists’ exposes for the exhibition on which the publication is based. In the same publication, other scholars also point out that Nsukka artists’ reworking of uli painting distorts uli aesthetics beyond recognition and that all but the first generation of Nsukka artists, as they deploy uli strategies, signify membership in an elite group, rather than concern with indigenous art forms. Thus, bringing to light that the Nsukka artists themselves focus very little of their discussion on uli.

In the earlier cited exhibtion ”The Poetics of Line: Seven Artists of the Nsukka Group” (Oct. ’97 – Apr. ’98) and the symposium that followed, Obioro Udechukwu avoided ”ulism” in regards to his paintings even though they evidence more direct uli and nsibidi quotations than those of the other artists. Udechukwu instead centered his discussion on ‘works of art constructed … out of the debris of socio-political cleavages’. In the same seminar, Adenaike described Uche Okeke as a very uninvolved instructor who was primarily feared for his strong criticism, never mentioned uli art, nor advised his students to incorporate it into their art. Adenaike’s expose thus reinforces the notion that the continued close identification of Nsukka art with ”ulism” today is a construct.

Uche Okeke, a Zarianist and founding member of the Zaria Art Society joined Nsukka in 1970. Professor Okeke’s tenure as Head of Department; Department of Art at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka aided this style, consequently propagating this distinctive school and art form through his students and colleagues. The Nsukka Uli culture or the Nsukka School of art is not today by Okeke alone; it is a result of the agglomerate success of all working within and beyond this style. As Uche Okeke claims. ”it was the predisposition, the consequence of the Nigerian-Biafran Civil War, and the productivity of some of the post-war generation of the art faculty (and the students as well) that truly brought Igbo cultural base to the Nsukka Art Department.”

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