Chika Okeke-Agulu's Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth-Century Nigeria examines the emergence of postcolonial modernism following Nigeria's independence from Great Britain. He focuses on the arts discourse within Nigeria from 1957 to 1967. Because any discussion of postcolonial modernism must acknowledge Nigerian sociopolitical and intellectual landscapes, Okeke-Agulu grounds his thesis in historical context. He addresses art historical discourses that have shaped the reception of Nigerian modernism, and he offers new interpretations of the fraught relationships between the educated classes of Nigeria and British colonial administrators while introducing the thread of hope that connects each chapter (p. 2). Nigerians on the cusp of independence hoped for political and economic freedom that would be pan-Nigerian in terms of both representation and governance (p. 19). This hope had all but disappeared within six years of independence and Okeke-Agulu concludes his book by discussing how that euphoria devolved into ethnic regionalism and civil war.
Okeke-Agulu's premise is that Nigeria's artistic modernism should reflect its own origins, rather than those of a hierarchical Western system. He asserts that Nigerian modernism is a conjunction of the art and politics of decolonization and that the term “postcolonial” should be used not only to identify the literary discourse and practice that came after independence, but also the continuing realities of imperialism (p. 12). The author takes up debates raised by Simon Ottenberg in New Traditions from Nigeria: Seven Artists of the Nsukka Group (1998) and Olu Oguibe in The Culture Game (2004). Okeke-Agulu's particular strengths lie as a first-generation artist and historian of post-independent Nigeria who can explain the lingering effects of paternalistic colonialism upon the Nigerian psyche. He provides new interpretations and in-depth historical and ideological analysis of how Nigerian modernism is intertwined with the sociopolitical landscape of educated Nigerians and expatriate stakeholders. He deftly utilizes the language of the colonizer to demonstrate how prevailing imperial biases became entrenched in discourse about African modernism. This is riveting.
The first half of the book discusses conflicts amongst artists and scholars living in Nigeria. While Okeke-Agulu makes clear the parallels between the intellectual ideals in select countries in Anglophone and Francophone Africa, he dismisses assertions that Nigerian modernity is a clone of imported Western ideologies. The second half of the book examines the Zaria Art Society, abstraction, and the emergence of other advanced-study art programs in Nigeria. The last chapter, “Crisis in the Postcolony,” raises questions about the legacy of modernism following Nigeria's civil war.
In chapter 1, Okeke-Agulu draws parallels between early twentieth-century British colonial policies and those of the US after Reconstruction. In providing the complex cultural interplay between the ideas of self-expression in Nigeria and W.E.B. Du Bois's call for self-determination, Okeke-Agulu broadens the argument across the Atlantic. He links mimicry, double consciousness, and “Ali Mazuri's idea of a triple heritage” together, but says that all these concepts still do not adequately explain what he calls “the African strategy of becoming” (pp. 10–11). The author argues that because Africans embrace neither Western absolutes nor worldviews, terms such as “hybridity,” “homogenization,” and “syncretism” are similarly inadequate as explanations of postcolonial Nigerian modernity. Instead, he suggests that the artists create their agency through their use of a “compound consciousness that constantly reconstituted itself by selective incorporation of diverse, oppositional, or complimentary elements” (p. 11).
In chapters 2 and 3, in purposeful references to several other African countries and to India, Okeke-Agulu draws parallels between Nigerian nationalism and self-identity and the larger pan-African and Negritude movements in Africa's diaspora. According to Okeke-Agulu, Nigerian modernism owes its emergence to a triumvirate of pivotal individuals: Aina Onabolu, Kenneth Murray, and Ben Enwonwu. Onabolu, the first Nigerian to paint in a Western style, was an anticolonialist and held beliefs opposite to Murray's, who promoted colonial nativism. This fundamental opposition, which started in the 1920s, set the stage for the post-independence struggle for power and for the first graduates of the Nigerian College of Arts, Science, and Technology (NCAST) in Zaria. To argue his core theory that it was Onabolu, not Murray, who was the catalyst for the ideas that the Zaria Society students would come to explore, Okeke-Agulu painstakingly details the rise of Natural Synthesis in Nigerian modernism.
Onabolu was the first known Nigerian to conduct reverse appropriation (p. 64). Zaria picks this up in the 1960s, but he had been doing it for at least forty years, before it was labeled anticolonial or nationalist. This, in my opinion, is why Okeke-Agulu's research is so important: If the African was incapable of original thought, there was no way that Murray could have spurred that type of creativity. Essentially, Okeke-Agulu is asking why it is permissible for the European to appropriate Africa, but the reverse becomes mimicry (pp. 98, 99, 243). I agree with Okeke-Agulu that Onabolu could both be authentic and claim agency with the use of Western aesthetics.
Chapters 4 through 6 contain complex interplays between critical readings in history, literature, artworks, and the artists themselves. Chapter 4 details the growth of critical writings and exhibits. Equally revealing is the criticism of Ulli Beier by a Nigerian (pp. 147, 154, 196). Although Okeke-Agulu acknowledges the intellectual depth brought to the discourse by Beier's work, the first time, we are witness to a thoughtful reassessment of Beier's ideologies. He does not dismiss Beier; rather, he suggests a more nuanced narrative on this scholar's contributions (pp. 158, 166). Chapter 5 is focused on the careers of a number of Zaria Art Society members (p. 183). Chapter 6 highlights the Lagos art scene between 1960 and 1965 by detailing the conflicts (pp. 229, 234, 241–43) and vigorous debates (p. 236) that took place among artists' groups. Comprehensive and enlightening, his analysis of some of the leading artists of the Zaria Art Society and abstract modernism, however, raises a number of questions. I wonder what cross-currents of modernism similarly existed within the workshop or self-trained artists who were interrogating the same issues. His selective study of studio artists (primarily male) and two-dimensional arts also brings up questions about the importance of female artists, as well as representational and other mediums including mixed media and sculpture. Three female artists are included, but Okeke-Agulu only selects elements of their work that support his larger narrative. Colette Omogbai, the first Nigerian woman to receive a British arts education, receives the most scrutiny (pp. 253–56). Clara Ugbodaga-Ngu, the only Nigerian and female faculty member at Zaria prior to independence (pp. 82, 236), seems to be included primarily because her work fit within the author's preference for abstraction (p. 127), and Afie Ekong because she wielded considerable political influence on the Lagos arts scene.
In the concluding chapter, Okeke-Agulu examines the “pathologies of newly independent Nigeria” (p. 260). He does not include artists who were not overtly trying to influence Nigeria through their art. Must all postcolonial modernist art be critical of Nigeria's political morass to be considered contributions to this discussion? This question is underscored by his use of Demas Nwoko's works Nigeria in 1959 (1960) and Soldier (1968) as bookends of hope and despair. While it is important to connect the early modernist conceptual models established by 1961 in Ibadan to the artists' achievements in the “eastern region” (and here he points to pre-independence colonial terminology), other nodes of cultural production would yield insights as well. For instance, expanding upon the works of Yusuf Grillo—a Yoruba, representational artist, and colleague—could have strengthened Okeke-Agulu's arguments. Thorny issues of regionalism arise, as in his discussion of how Uche Okeke moved his cultural center from northern Nigeria to Enugu, and later we read that the art of Biafra must await systematic study (p. 261).
Other locations do not receive the same level of attention as do Zaria and Enugu. Representational artists such Onabolu heavily influenced subsequent generations of representational artists, including Enwonwu and Grillo. This is interesting because Grillo, a member of the Zaria Art Society, was chair of the art department at Yaba Technical College, located in Lagos. Where is the next generation of academic realists who came after Grillo? Their presence would have been felt prior to Nigeria's civil war, and discussion of them might have served to offer a more inclusive and thus more complete picture. Zaria begat Nsukka, but what about Auchi Polytechnic (established 1963)? Who else taught in Lagos or Ife? Does Okeke-Agulu believe that Nigeria has reverted to the colonial regionalist paradigm, and that pan-Nigerian modernism no longer exists? I suggest, from his tone, that he does.
Historically complex, thought-provoking, and beautifully illustrated, this book is a valuable resource for scholars of African modernism and Nigerian art who want to unravel the messy and often uncomfortable threads of colonialism. It is not cluttered with complicated theoretical rhetoric, for which I am personally grateful. I eagerly await to learn how the threads Okeke-Agulu skillfully wove up to 1967 take shape in his continued scholarship.