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Nigeria in Paint and Poetry

Work of modern Nigerian artists comes to Sherman Gallery

Click on the slide show above to see art by the Nigerian artists Obiora Udechukwu and Uche Okeke.

A massive painting of bright textured blocks of red, green, gray, and yellow stands on the back wall of the GSU’s Sherman Gallery — the canvas split by a column of poetry written in ink that begins, “To keep Nigeria one.” Titled Where Something Stands, Another Thing Will Stand Beside, the 5-foot-by-21-foot painting by Obiora Udechukwu was created for a joint exhibition of his work and the work of his teacher, Uche Okeke, exploring the influence of modernism on Nigerian art.

Udechukwu will speak tomorrow night about his and Okeke’s work and the continuing influence of the Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo, who died in 1967. The talk, at the CFA Concert Hall, will be followed by the art exhibition’s opening reception, at the Sherman Gallery. The exhibition and the talk are part of the International Conference Celebrating the Life and Poetry of Christopher Okigbo, which is being held September 19 to 23 and is sponsored by Boston University, Harvard University, the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and Wellesley College.

“There’s a sense of action and audience participation with Udechukwu’s art,” says exhibition curator Cynthia Becker, a College of Arts and Sciences assistant professor of art history. “He pays homage to tradition, but shows the energy and vital movement of African art.”

Part of the traditional knowledge Udechukwu draws upon came from his teacher Okeke, who was educated by western professors about western techniques during the 1950s in northern Nigeria. Okeke was one of the first Nigerian artists to challenge the western idea of modernism, including in his art oral history characters and indigenous techniques from the Igbo region of Nigeria.

“Okeke’s work is called Another Modernity, because it really deconstructs what modernity means,” says Becker. “We usually think of modern as a term that defines European art beginning in the last half of the 20th century, instead of a global movement. And people say, well what is modernity in an African context? Are Africans just copying European artists or is there something else going on here?"

The exhibition follows the development of the artists, starting with Okeke’s break from European theory and his move toward traditional symbols and spacing with uli, a form of body and wall painting practiced by Igbo women. “This exhibition breaks down stereotypes people have about African art,” Becker says. “It’s not just the wooden mask or the carved sculpture. This is a more accurate portrayal of what’s going on in Africa today.”

The exhibition’s timeline covers Okeke’s propaganda posters, influenced by Okigbo, for the war for Biafran independence from Nigeria. It also shows the wood block prints he created when he ran the fine arts department at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he taught Udechukwu in the 1970s.

“You can’t look at these works of art and not look at African culture, social structures, or political history,” says Becker, who studied African anthropology before studying African art history. “For example, after the war, to make his wood block prints, Okeke used soft planks of wood, because materials were so scarce. I find it fascinating all these things you can find out while looking at a work of art — the things you have to consider.”

Another Modernity: Works on Paper by Uche Okeke and Nigerian Poetics: Works by Obiora Udechukwu are on display through October 19 at the GSU’s Sherman Gallery, 775 Commonwealth Ave., second floor. The opening reception is at 7 p.m. on Friday, September 21, at the gallery, preceded at 6 p.m. by Udechukwu’s talk, Odinana na Ihomna [Tradition and Search for Beauty]: Art and Okigbo’s Poetry, at the CFA Concert Hall, 855 Commonwealth Ave. The Sherman Gallery is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 1 to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. For more information, call 617-358-0295.

Kimberly Cornuelle can be reached at kcornuel@bu.edu.