“Anya Fulu Ugo,” curated by Chijioke Onuora, was an art exhibition that drew together artists from around the world who are professionally influenced by El Anatsui and Obiora Udechukwu. The Igbo proverb “anya fulu ugo jaa ya mma, na-adighi ahu ugo kwa daa” (“the eye that sees an eagle should adore it, for only rarely are eagles seen”) captured the spirit of the exhibition in honor of the outstanding geniuses of the two artists. The artist-celebrities Udechukwu and Anatsui were adored and celebrated as consummate eagles for their creative influence on several contemporary African artists. Their essential journeys started at Nsukka Art School after the Nigerian civil war, beginning in 1972 for Obiora and 1975 for Anatsui. The exhibition, held at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Library, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, was very accessible to the audience, with spaces revealing works of huge dimensions and exquisiteness. Works were accommodated in a wide array of media: sculpture, painting, textile design, installations, ceramics, and other experimental renderings.
El Anatsui is a Ghanaian sculptor whose creative weight has been thrown into practice and pedagogical enterprise at Nsukka Art School for about four decades. There, he established his sculptural method of pyrography and technique of assemblage of multiples in creating sculptural essays. More than being revered as possibly the most relevant living African artist of this time, and the subject of several books (Picton et al. 1998, Vogel 2013) documenting El's creative exploits in art beyond Africa, “Anya Fulu Ugo” created a forum for showing those who take after him.
For his part, Udechukwu is no small figure in African contemporary art discourse—a poet, curator, and critic as well as an artist, he has played a leading role in teaching many Nsukka artists (Ottenberg 2002:322). He is a painter and a creative draughtsman widely acclaimed as master of sensitive lines. He has remained a progenitor of the uli linear idiom for which the Nsukka academy is known. Ottenberg (2002:16) called Udechukwu “a student of Uche Okeke [who] has refined the use of Uli.” To celebrate the quintessential twosome, that was the reason “Anya Fulu Ugo” was held.
Artists raised under El Anatsui, such as Ekene Anikpe, Chijioke Onuora, Ngwu Kelechi, Eva Obodo, Alozie Onyirioha, and Uche Onyishi, among many others, participated in the exhibition with installations and other experimental sculptures, while those who were trained by Obiora Udechukwu showed paintings and conceptual works. It is ironic that most of the important sculptures in the show were not by artists who had direct contact with El, but those who were indirectly influenced. Works were thematically varied and strong in creative force, with evidence of Nsukka artistic leanings toward “ulist” visual language and expressions that revolve around politics, conflict, society, activism, terrorism, gender, and other issues.
One of the works on show, which captured Obiora Udechukwu's attention, was created by Ozioma Onuzulike, entitled hammering/crushing/slaking/wedging/kneading/slamming/ramming/pinching/cutting/buffeting/punching/perforating/shooting/firing/roasting/stacking/bundling (Fig. 1). A ceramicist, Ozioma here employs Anatsui's assemblage technique to convey his own idea of societal maladies. With arrays of unpromising words describing his work, Ozioma tries to capture current cruel issues across societies, especially Nigeria's, which leave many crushed, shot, roasted in fire, or eventually dead—physically, psychologically, economically, or legally. This idea follows strongly with his fairly recent suyascape series, in which he metaphorically compares people daily suffering and dying to the animals butchered to provide Nigeria's roasted meat delicacy called suya. Men and women are butchered—who cares! Nigerian roads are death traps and many lose their lives daily on them—who cares! Bodies are mangled, and mayhem continues—who cares! Perhaps some one is profiting. Maybe it is a delicacy for some unknown men.
A number of works reflected a strong followership of El Anatsui's “mural wood sculptures” and production method of assemblage of multiples (Onuzulike 2014:86)—Militants on My Wall by George Odoh (Fig. 2) and Heavy Rain by Iyke Okenyi (Fig. 3) were among many stand-outs. In Militants on My Wall, George Odoh assembles found plastic objects of various colors and apparently of equal sizes to compose a metonymy of conflict, violence, and oppression, seemingly speaking from the guts of Africa and Nigeria, where militia groups have arisen very noticeably in recent times. The work's theme agrees strongly with Bona Ezeude's Sambisa Forest (Fig. 4), which reminds Nigerians and world of the terror of the Boko Haram sect and particularly their abduction of more than 200 Chibok girls who have not yet been found after more than a year. Alongside Onuzulike's work, these themes express concern over the burgeoning situations of danger, terror, kidnapping, militancy, and wanton deaths across Nigeria. Although Odoh is a trained painter, in Militants on My Wall he rather employs three-dimensional objects as representing chains of bullets, in an exquisite chromatic organization.
Other groups of works visually orchestrated colors and paintings. Most of these works referenced the pastiche of the uli creative idiom, which Udechukwu carried on from Uche Okeke. In its visual expressiveness, Ascending Spirits by Chukwuemeka Okpara (Fig. 5) is a composition of painted clay pots finished in a symphony of reds and ochre, punctuated with uli motifs. Characterized by linearity, dots, amorphous shapes, and positive and negative spaces, uli motifs could be applied in various creative expressions—painting, textile design, sculpture, etc. In Ascending Spirits, the painter uses these motifs to enliven an African tradition religion in which clay pots serve functions in rituals of worship. He takes the audience away from a thought linked to ritualism to that which epitomizes visual aesthetics. The same application of Uli symbols is found in another work, Okoloto afrika gboo gboo iii (Fig. 6) where Chijioke Onuora expresses Udechukwu's uli tendencies. His expressive use of brilliant and pure colors in fearless skillfulness and the compartmentalization of his subjects in this painterly textile design agrees strongly with Udechukwu's color rendering technique as seen in his work what the weaver wove (1993).
In sum, “Anya Fulu Ugo” fulfilled its goal in grandeur and could be adjudged the most prolific and academic art exhibition at Nsukka, all the more so by assessing its choice catalogue. However, I want to say that it was not totally representative of such areas as digital arts and graphic design. This perhaps may be due to the fact that the celebrities do not practice their art in digital or design media, or that the organizer and curator were not fully informed.