|A Triptych painting from Prof Krydz Ikwuemesi's Village Square.|
After its Abuja celebration in April, The Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, which turned 50 years in 2011,continues the golden jubilee event in Lagos.
Established by the first President of Nigeria, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the Art Department, otherwise known as the Nsukka School, is one of the most revered art institutions in Nigeria.
From June 23 - July 2, 2017, at the former Lagos Business School buiding, Victoria Island, Lagos, the Nsukka School, according to its Associate Professor of Fine Art,Krydz Ikwuemesi, will continue the celebration with an art exhibition titled Nkoli Ka.
Prof Ikwuemesi, who was in Lagos few days ago stated: “At 56, the story of the Department of Fine and Applied Arts is co-eval with the story of the University of Nigeria. It is long, ambitious and inspiring. If jubilee is that point where we are able to begin again, the story affords us, at this point, the opportunity to reflect on our achievement and face up to the future with superlative optimism. Any wonder we have themed this celebration Nkoli Ka (recalling is greatest)? In the words of Achebe, “It is the story that outlives the sound of the war drums and the exploits of brave fighters…The story is our escort; without it, we are blind.”
“So, there is a song in our heart, a story on our lips. It is a song of victory and a story of achievement; the story of the story of success. And we have rolled out our drums in joyful celebration; we have roused our flutes to sonorous laughters. Come. Join us, as we celebrate in song, dance, lectures, exhibition and Golden Luncheon.
“But it is also a time of sober reflection, a time of critical stocktaking. Nkoli Ka! As we recall our achievement and accolades in time gone by, we also anticipate new vistas and gesture with renewed zest at new challenges that beckon at the frontier.”
The Nsukka school has begot many of Nigeria’s art greats and maestros, with a good number of them very active in the national and international art arena.
The Department of Fine and Applied Arts, initially called the Enwonwu College of Fine Arts, was established in 1961 as one of the earliest departments of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. The pioneer teachers of the Department instituted the Western academy approach of naturalism, which promoted pictorial observational realism. This brand of Western academic pedagogy was, however, effectively terminated when the expatriate art teachers left because of the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970). After the civil war, it was resolved that the art programme of the Department had to be reconstructed to meet the demand of a new Nigerian society. From this period, a new culture of exploration and experimentation with local environment in art teaching and learning dominated art activities of the school. Staff and students searched deeply into the nature and purpose of art and design in their communities as well as applying the proceeds of these intellectual and artistic endeavours to social and technological development.
Through its home-bred curriculum, the Department became the first to officially decolonise its programmes in a manner that was befitting of its position as the first degree-awarding fine arts school in Nigeria. Led by Uche Okeke, Chike Aniakor, Vincent Amaefuna and others in the post-war 1970s, this was achieved by the creative appropriation of the Igbo uli body and wall decoration into new modes of artistic expression. Since then, uli art has become synonymous with the Nsukka art school and has attracted a wide range of interests and studies, including major symposia, exhibitions and publications by such international cultural institutions as the Smithsonian.
The Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka has taken many firsts. It was the first art department in the country to introduce written projects in Fine and Applied Arts. Its 1965 graduate of graphics Babatunde Lawal, was the first Nigerian to bag a Ph.D. in Art History. The Department was also the first to award the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in Nigeria. Interestingly, the first MFA candidate, Obiora Udechukwu, an outstanding B.A graduate of painting in the Department, later rose to the position of a professor of painting and drawing in the Department. The Department was also the first to graduate a Ph.D. student (now Emeritus Professor Ola Oloidi) in the history of modern Nigerian art.
The post-civil war Nsukka Art Department has attracted some of the best art students and teachers, a number of whom have grown to become great names in world art. Professor El Anatsui, foremost African sculptor, is a key example. The Department has since established an artistic legacy that has continued to attract the best brains. Its products have been celebrated as award-winning poets, international art historians, art critics and curators. In visual arts practice, graduate artists of the Department have creditably sustained the artistic excellence for which the Nsukka Art department is known.
From the brief history highlighted above, the Department has contributed in good measure to the brand name of the University of Nigeria. In fact, the Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka is best known internationally for the quality of art and literature that have emerged from its rolling hills and inspiring valleys. Through the illuminating lights of art, the Department has continued to spotlight Nsukka in particular and Nigeria in general in the world art map. Uli, for example, has entered the art thesaurus through the creative legacies of the Art Department.
The mention of “school” here is very important and needs to be explained a bit for clearer perspectives. Very often the word is used, in Nigerian parlance, to refer to art training centres and departments in Nigerian universities and polytechnics. This is a rather bastardized usage if school rationally refers to a group of artists or creative people sharing commonalities in ideology, style and vision. If this notion is upheld, then “Nsukka School” stands out as a classic example in its experimentation with uli, not only for its own sake, but in conjunction with the wider concept of “natural synthesis” which can be interpreted as a variant of “glocalization”, the creative and instrumental fusion of self and other in the quest for new challenges at the frontier. This is the centralizing philosophy on which the Nsukka magic has depended.
Owing to the immense contribution of the Nsukka School to the development of art in Nigeria, and its well-known international accolades, it has been the subject of numerous studies. As Professor Emerita Sydney Kasfir recently put it in a seminar at the University of Nigeria, the art department at the university, from where the school emanated, has achieved international renown. Important monographs have been produced on some of its liveliest products; some of its most interesting personages have been the subject of international events and publications. Some of these events and publications have been championed by intimate outsiders.
Having attained fifty years in 2011, with six more years added in 2017, Nsukka School merits celebration. The present celebration is two-fold. It simultaneously provides occasion for self-congratulation on one hand, and an opportunity for self-appraisal on the other. It is an occasion to cherish the past, appreciate the present and gesture at the future with renewed enthusiasm. Not only that. The celebration provides a basis for a special conversation, a conversation between generations in the Nsukka School, especially in view of the Igbo saying that a moon waxes and gives way to another (Onwa tie, o chaalu ib’ ye). Thus, the centralizing question that arises in the proposed celebration is, after fifty years of a sustained victory dance, what next for the school and its numerous jewels? This question and other issues will be addressed through the various components of the jubilee, if jubilee is to be seen, in the words of Jonathan Sacks (2000), as that point where we are able to begin again.