all images by George Odoh, reproduced with permission
The uli revivalist initiative, pioneered by Uche Okeke in Nsukka in 1970, flourished for about four decades. This idea reached its peak in 1997 when it was celebrated internationally in an exhibition, The Poetics of Line curated by Simon Ottenberg, at the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. Ottenberg also wrote an authoritative book about the origin and praxis of the uli artistic initiative, New Traditions from Nigeria: Seven Artists of the Nsukka Group.1 Beyond this exhibition and publication and others that precede and postdate them, the spirit of uli has not died completely. Like the phoenix, it has recrudescent powers. These qualities are found in the works of a new generation of Nsukka artists, especially in a body of illustrations of the themes of the novel Things Fall Apart2 (Achebe 1958) by George Odoh, a scion of the uli revivalist heritage. George Odoh's illustrations were produced in 2008—forty-four years after Uche Okeke's in 1964.3 I examine these illustrations in the light of the aesthetic and social fluxes supervening in Chinua Achebe's fictional community of Umuofia and in Igboland and the Nsukka drawing tradition.
NSUKKA DRAWING TRADITION: PREDECESSORS AND LEGACIES
From its ideation in 1958, through years of research, praxis, and distillation of its essences, Uche Okeke later grounded the uli revivalist mode of contemporary art in the Department of Fine and Applied Arts of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Uche Okeke's campaign to Africanize Nigeria's curriculum and pedagogy started there in 1970 with the assistance of his colleagues, among whom were Chike Aniakor and Chuka Amaefuna. Artists Obiora Udechukwu and El Anatsui and art historian Ola Oloidi were employed later. Beyond this crop of artists and teachers, the practice of uli developed a transgenerational impetus among their students and other artists who were trained in nearby institutions.
Drawing took on a life of its own as an autonomous mode and many inventive compositions resulted; artists developed recognizably distinct styles. Art from Nsukka was at the cutting edge of the Nigerian and African creative complex. Beyond aesthetics, Nsukka's uli revivalism took on a thrust of social commitment. Uli revivalist aesthetics is on the ebb today; its motifs no longer dominate the Nsukka creative space, but its design concepts persist. The creative firmament in Nigeria has broadened and deepened, with artists engaging new initiatives.
Many hands came together to bring the contemporary uli story into being. These artists took drawing seriously, as an independent art mode. In their bid to domesticate drawing, they established specific stylistic characteristics. These were linear inventions or peculiar domestication of uli motifs that enabled anyone who was steeped in the uli brew to identify the flavor of an artist's work. Because these elements were effective, they developed a life of their own and were passed down the line from lecturers to students. George Odoh—who is of a very recent generation of Nsukka students, admitted in 1994—never met Uche Okeke, who retired from Nsukka in 1986.
Uche Okeke's pioneering effort at configuring contemporary uli was based on an investigation of Igbo cultural mores. Ogbechie (2009: 133–46) problematizes Uche Okeke's narrative of uli revivalism. However, according to the artist himself, “The first thing I did was to take the total concept of the spirit world, the world of man based on Igbo lore. I had to find a way of reflecting this in my own work” (Ottenberg 1997: 49). His contribution, by way of orchestrating lines, may be called biomorphic linear invention. Obiora Udechukwu, who was Uche Okeke's student, taught Odoh painting during his undergraduate program. At this point Udechukwu had attained national and international recognition.4 He believes that “an analysis of Igbo drawing and painting reveals that space, line, pattern, brevity, and spontaneity seem to be the pillar on which the whole tradition rests. It is these qualities that I strive both intuitively and intellectually to assimilate in my work” (Ottenberg 1997: 111). The sum of his linear orchestrations may be called sublime minimalism. Chike Aniakor, who taught Udechukwu and Odoh art history and painting, attributes uli's strength to its “directness of execution, simplification, and then linear rendering of form in such a way that less is said and more is yet said.” Condensation and contour, he goes on to note, are both very important in uli (Udechukwu 1990: 60–63). Aniakor aims to compose curvilinear poetry with his drawings.
While El Anatsui did not teach Odoh directly, he taught two of his lecturers, Chijioke Onuora and Chika Okeke-Agulu. He has, however, left quite an impression on Odoh and other Nsukka students and a huge body of mostly working drawings. Olu Oguibe insists Anatsui's style of drawing had a great influence on him (Ottenberg 1997: 226). Anatsui's drawings are characterized by geometry and formal sculptural proportions.5 Similarly, Seth Anku, who spent about a decade at Nsukka, created many disciples who adopted his characteristic drawing style. In trying to bring a systematic or scientific approach to drawing, Anku employed Socratic didacticism to his classes: “The continuous asking and answering of questions underlie the whole process of drawing” (Odoh 1998: 61). Similarly, he argued, “Drawing is a thinking process and an orchestration of marks where each mark carries its own energy” (Chikelu 1998: 17). Anku's drawings are characterized by a combination of fluid broad strokes and linear incisions, made with compressed charcoal.
Anku made a huge impression on Chijioke Onuora, who has taught drawing and sculpture for nearly two decades at Nsukka. He has said, “As a student under Seth Anku I drew with freedom, unburdened by strict mathematical methods of measurement and graphing” (Onuora 2004: 68). Onuora has developed an imprint denoted by stylized semirealism, characterized by broad, sensuous swathes and swirls.6 Similarly, Chika Okeke-Agulu, another of Anku's students, developed a style of drawing informed by his skill, sensitivity, and learning as a sculptor. According to Obiora Udechukwu, who taught him, “With a few strokes, our artist is able to capture the spirit of a given situation—tenderness, pathos, tension, urgent motion—often counter-balancing pure lyrical lines with controlled patterning or linear clusters in a field still replete with breathing spaces” (Udechukwu 1992: 2–3). Chika Okeke-Agulu's drawings display a delicate combination of corporeal mass, space, and sensitive deployment of organic lines. Nsukka faculty member C. Krydz Ikwuemesi was also Seth Anku's student and taught George Odoh, organizing drawing workshops and art activities in which Odoh participated. While trying to underscore the relationship between a work of art and its public, Ikwuemesi asks rhetorically: “And what cannot uli paintings and drawings inspire in the course of such aesthetic interaction? After all, they have souls, they can speak; they have in them all the force which expresses the transport of the mind; they constitute a vehicle for all the fire of the artist's passions” (1992: 38). Ikwuemesi's drawings are an essay in linear lyricism.7
Several artists from Nsukka have sought ways of extending and enlarging the uli paradigm by conjoining it with other Igbo aesthetic traditions and modes from their Nigerian and African neighbors. They have given uli an eclectic national and international flavor. Some of these aesthetic traditions are mbari, omabe, nsibidi, and adinkra. El Anatsui commenced this campaign upon his arrival to Nigeria by conjoining adinkra with uli and nsibidi. He came with adinkra in his arsenal of art methods from Ghana, in 1975 (Picton 1998: 19). Adinkra is cloth made of different printed motifs consisting of geometric designs and symbols expressing proverbs, allegory, mysticism, and history (Akatsu 2010b: 162–63). In 1977 Udechukwu began using nsibidi motifs in his works while also studying Chinese calligraphy (Okeke-Agulu 2016: 13–23). Beyond its usage by the Ekpe cult for communication, nsibidi motifs are also used on ukara cloth worn by the society's members (Ottenberg 1997: 125–54). In the late 1970s Raymond Obeta began to infuse aspects of omabe masquerade aesthetics into his orchestrations.8 He sat down with his students to draw and teach them during drawing sessions. This was novel. His paintings and drawings are a study in eclecticism: “Maybe that is why my style derives from various sources. I see beauty and aesthetics in everything. I draw inspiration from many things” (Ikwuemesi 1992: 121). Olu Oguibe introduced the conjoining of uli with mbari motifs principally and other African visual idioms. Chika Okeke, in trying to rationalize Oguibe's decision for this visual synthesis, insists, “The problem he seems to have is that uli does not readily yield itself to the needs of an artist whose mission is to communicate literally with his audience. So, Oguibe combines uli and mbari aesthetics with a powerful communicative element the written word” (Okeke 1995: 70). His drawings, which are mostly autobiographical, are characterized by stylized figures with square shoulders and unusual heads, rendered with frugal linearism. Aspects of mbari include geometrics comparable to stained glass orchestration.9
All these artists—and others not mentioned here—have contributed to the development of uli aesthetics, lexicon, art history, and especially drawing in the Nsukka school as students, lecturers, and studio artists. They also influenced George Odoh's development as a draftsman and artist, directly or indirectly.
George Odoh was born in Emekuku, Owerri, Imo state, Nigeria, in 1973. He is one of a new generation of Nigerians, born and bred in an urban setting, devoid of the indigenous cultural trappings of Nigerian rural cultures, where life was determined by the seasons. He did not grow up listening to folktales and songs, participating in rituals, rites, and celebratory ceremonies with the attendant display of masquerades with music and dance. He learned them all vicariously from tales his parents and older relations recounted and from the nascent mass media, books, masquerade displays, and festivals in Enugu and annual visits to his home town Adda, Obollo Etiti in Udenu Local Government Area of Enugu State, which lies within the Odo and Omabe cultural territory. Odoh had his formal education in Enugu State and has worked there since, after his one-year compulsory national service in 1999 in the northern city of Kano. He is well informed about traditional Igbo cultural practices.
He specialized in painting during his undergraduate studies in the Fine and Applied Arts Department, University of Nigeria Nsukka, where he graduated in 1998. It was at Nsukka that Odoh's talent as a draftsman blossomed. In addition to his courses in drawing, he attended several drawing workshops held within and outside the university. He complemented these with personal efforts to hone his skill through practice, reading books on drawing, and studying the works of master draftsmen. He capped his undergraduate studies with a research project on the drawing tradition of the Nsukka art department (Odoh 1998).
Odoh worked for five years in an advertising agency in Enugu as a visualizer and illustrator under the influence and supervision of Tayo Adenaike and Nnaemeka Egwuibe.10 Both artists studied painting and graphics, respectively, at Nsukka. During this period, Odoh was able to combine private studio practice with the pressure of advertising. This enabled him to participate in several group exhibitions. In 2005, he completed his Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) degree program in painting and submitted a research report, The Nude as an Idiolect (Odoh 2005). He was employed as a lecturer in the department same year.
Odoh's decision to illustrate Things Fall Apart was based on the need to complement Uche Okeke's effort. He felt that Uche Okeke's four illustrations and pen-and-ink portrait of Okonkwo on the book cover were not enough, numerically, to match the epic proportion of the novel. Hence, Odoh decided to provide an illustration for each chapter of the novel, based on selected phrases within it. In so doing, Odoh tried to explore the relationship between text and image, using text as catalyst: “I tried to extend the boundaries of meaning and imagination and also to highlight my conceptual and technical abilities.”11
THE MAKING OF OKONKWO
The first illustration is of the initial chapter and is titled Unoka the Grown Up (Fig. 1). It is a frontal portrait of Unoka, Okonkwo's father, that approximates the portrait of Okonkwo on Uche Okeke's book cover design. The design formats are similar, but Odoh introduces more flourish and variety to his lines and dots. He tried to essay a physiognomy that displays Unoka's “haggard and mournful look” (p. 4)12 in addition to his complacency and improvidence, corroborated by two insignificant huts in the background as against the richly thatched house that signifies Okonkwo's wealth in Uche Okeke's illustration. Note the tendency towards realism in Odoh's drawing, in contrast to the severe but abrupt lines in Okeke's.
Umuofia Kwenu (Fig. 2) is a depiction of the gathering of Umuofia at the market place in chapter 2 (p. 8). Here Ogbuefi Ezeugo addresses the gathering. Odoh has successfully crafted the crowd enraptured by Ogbuefi's oratory. The massed stylized figures indicate more detail compared with Okeke's more schematic illustrations. The landscape and scant vegetation form a backdrop. Odoh's fidelity to Achebe's words is vivid in his depiction of the orator's toga-like garment. However, there is a significant drawback, indexed by Ezeugo's headdress. This is an anachronism, an infidelity to Achebe's description of this character (p. 8). Apart from the masquerades, the only instance where any headdress is mentioned is when Okonkwo prepares for war (p. 141). At this time, when colonialism was merely incipient in Igboland, the felt cap with a plume was not an aspect of Igbo garb—it was a later development that emerged outside the milieu of this story.
A poetic illustration of the Evil Forest describes Unoka's Fate (Fig. 3). In the novel, Achebe characterizes him thus: “Unoka was an ill-fated man. He had a bad chi or personal god, and an evil fortune followed him to the grave or rather to his death, for he had no grave” (p. 13). The dying Unoka was deposited at the Evil Forest. Odoh's illustration of the evil forest is poetic. Here the flora is peopled by anthropomorphic components, alongside gnomes that evoke the forest's potent evil attributes. Unoka is depicted lying in a clearing, clutching his flute, while hands, as synecdoche or personification of the evil spirits that infest the forest, make a grab for him and hold him down. The foliage is characterized by flagellating lines and spirals that elicit movement. The uli motifs akalaka, ntupoagu, and agwolagwo are ominous indeed. Akalaka represents a man's fate or destiny and ntupoagu the paw prints of a leopard, representing the courage Unoka lacked. Are the leopard paws a prayer asking him to come back in his next incarnation with courage? Agwolagwo, the path of python or spiral, could mean a difficult situation or dire straits. All these invite the viewer into the illustration, into a dialogue, subject to interpretation, according to the experience and knowledge one comes to it with.
Like a Son (Fig. 4) illustrates the unique employment of stylized sinusoidal lines dotted with elements of the landscape to depict the distance traversed by Okonkwo and Ikemefuna. This drawing is based on the text, “Sometimes when he went to big village meetings or communal ancestral feasts he allowed Ikemefuna to accompany him, like a son, carrying his stool and goat skin bag” (p. 20). Similarly, To the Beat of the Drums (Fig. 5) illustrates, with a combination of realism and surrealism, a dancing Okonkwo caught “in time and space” (Arnheim 1986: 78–89). Time signifies being and motion, while space signifies milieu and corporeality. Music is illustrated by wavy linear notations of rhythm on the drums alongside geometric motifs. Motion is indicated by surreal kinetic hands, a synecdoche which represents the drummer, the swirls of tree branches and the notion and motion of the dancer. This motion also signifies time, through which the dance is concretized.
Odoh depicts the atmospherics of Achebe's account of Okonkwo's wrestling skills in Quick as the Lightening of Amadioha (Fig. 6) (p. 36). He follows the design format of Uche Okeke's illustration of the wrestling scene in the frontispiece of Things Fall Apart. Odoh's drawing suspends the sensation of perspective to give prominence to the wrestlers by their increased scale. He leaves enough space in the foreground to avoid this anomaly by increasing the scale of the spectators that occupy this formal space, as Uche Okeke did successfully. He also suggests with the agwolagwo spiral the taut air and tension generated by the excited crowd and musicians. The illustration is, however, hobbled by the jarring effect of the outsized wrestlers, weakly rendered.
The illustration Dazed with Fear (Fig. 7) shows the crucial moment Okonkwo draws his machete and cuts down Ikemefuna “because he was afraid of being thought weak” (p. 43). The brutal murder of Ikemefuna takes place at the conceptual center of this drawing, defined by the intersection of several lines. Is the broken pot of wine a symbolic foreboding of Things Fall Apart, echoed in the words of Ogbuefi Ezeudu? “That boy calls you father. Do not bear a hand in his death” (p. 40). The foliage and sprawling stems akin to tongues of flame reveal that that portion of the forest is alive with malevolence leading to or emanating from the violence wreaked on an innocent boy. Dazed with Fear is a powerful illustration, full of sinister and symbolic energy.
The illustration of Ozoemena kneeling at the threshold to pay her last respects to her late husband Ogbuefi Ndulue (Fig. 8) does not elicit the pathos of Achebe's words in the text (p. 47). It is a mere literal orchestration, in spite of the linear expressiveness in rendering the raffia palm mat his corpse is laid on.
Ekwefi's acceptance of Ezinma With Listless Resignation (Fig. 9) (p. 56) is premised on her experience of losing nine children before Ezinma's birth. So as she clutches her only surviving daughter, the center of her world, in a pose reminiscent of the Madonna and Child, her head is encased in a halo. The nimbus over her head, like a specter, is peopled with nine stylized figures, depicted in positive and negative silhouettes, that symbolize the ogbanje children made shadowy and anonymous because of their cycles of births and deaths (Achebe 1986; Soyinka 1963: 152). This cycle has made life bitter and bleak for Ekwefi. The stylized illustration depicts her face set with hard edges and a lacerated, faceless child cradled in her bosom, along with a single foot deployed as a metaphor of her physical and psychological restlessness.
The Egwugwu House (Fig. 10) depicts the emergence of the column of masquerades that represent the ancestral spirits or the pantheon of Umuofia. Odoh's illustration displays neither the variety that Achebe's text describes (pp. 63–64) nor the variety and specialization that exists in reality in every Igbo community (Ottenberg 1988: 72–82; Reed 2005: 50–59).13 Despite this homogeneity, the illustration is effective, with the spirit house so depicted illustrating the murals, set in the middle of a background made up of a vibrant and verdant forest. The column of masquerades bisects the page in a near diagonal orientation that describes the grounds.
Agbala Do-o-o-o (Fig. 11) is an effective linear execution of Chielo, the priestess of Agbala, the oracle of the hills and caves, chanting incantations in praise of her deity. Odoh's sinusoidal notations trace her trajectory through the community at night as she prophesies. The orchestration of her physiognomy evokes Ichii and Mburubu cicatrization (Basden 1921: 68–77; Cole and Aniakor 1984: 24–61). This conceptual rendition of her progress at night is circumscribed by three elliptical halos. The first wraps up aspects of the night and landscape that trace her path, the second describes the halo that encases half her head and the nocturnal landscape, while the third wraps up her body just above her bosom. The houses are evinced schematically with positive and negative geometric notations, while the night is denoted with hatches, crosshatches, and planar geometrics. This is an effective attempt to simulate, visually, Achebe's description of an evanescent night peopled by heavenly bodies, Chielo's strident voice, and Ekwefi's agitated mind.
Life to All of Us (Fig. 12) (p. 82) is a visual delight in terms of composition, consisting of figures that are skillfully rendered in stylized and schematic realism. A group of animated elders are presented frontally, mid ground, while aspects of Obierika's compound and family members form the background. The foreground is occupied by wine vessels presented by Obierika's in-laws. It is a well-crafted composition showing depth of field, foreshortening, perspective, lyricism, and decorative modes. Beyond this beautiful rendition is the issue of visual fidelity to the novel's text. The novel states: “All together there were fifty pots of wine. … They sat in a half moon thus completing a circle with their hosts. The pots of wine stood in their midst” (p. 81). Odoh's illustration does not show fidelity to the text. He drew wine kegs as against ceremonial wine pots, which are usually well-crafted, stately, and exquisite terracotta vessels (Cole and Aniakor 1984: 62–82).
Ezeudu Is Dead (Fig. 13) is a composition encased in three almost concentric spheres that seem to indicate that “A man's life from birth to death was a series of transition rites which brought him nearer and nearer to his ancestors” (p. 85). Each sphere indicates symbolically the movement from outer world to life and then death. The three spheres also indicate that “Ezeudu has taken three titles in his life. It was a rare achievement” (p. 86). Ezeudu's corpse lies outside the three spheres or realms until he is called home into “ancestorhood.” His call to this realm is dependent on his children's performance of the funeral befitting a man of his social rank. Ezeudu's son's corpse wedges the ekwe (wooden gong) symbolically to denote that his father's burial rites cannot continue until he is buried (Cole and Aniakor 1984: 83–110). “Go-di-di-go-go-di-go. Di-go-go-di-go. It was the ekwe talking to the clan” (p. 84). It was announcing the death of Ezeudu before Okonkwo killed his son accidentally during his funeral. The moon and the sun are represented by a globe and an agwolagwo spiral. The three realms intermingle, pointing at the imperceptible oneness of the land of the living and the spirit world.
The drawings discussed so far illustrate the first part of Things Fall Apart, made up of thirteen chapters. In these artworks Odoh employed conceptual and plastic imagery or a combination of both in his attempt to illuminate a major incident in each chapter.
EXILE AND ABLUTION
The second part of the novel chronicles Okonkwo's life in exile in his motherland after committing manslaughter, ochu. Odoh's illustrations in this section aspire to sublime creativity: His lines are more assured and his compositions evince visual harmony. His muse, anya eji a kwa nka, seems to have been influenced by the empathy gained from the calm and reflection life in exile has brought upon Okonkwo, as against the vigorous and violent life he had lived in Umuofia.
The first illustration is aptly titled Like A Fish on a Dry Sandy Beach (Fig. 14) (p. 92). This captures Okonkwo's psyche when he gives in to despair while in exile in the motherland. Okonkwo's portrait forms the base of the illustration, with his back turned to his clan, Umuofia. The furrows on his forehead and creases on his cheeks describe a face set in deep thought. Above his head is a surreal composition in which fishes aggregate and are tied together by linearist and pointillist orchestrations. At the apogee of the composition floats Okonkwo's truncated dream of rising to become a lord of his clan, represented by the silhouette of a lonely or abandoned homestead, sequestered by an arc, and the sun, denoted by an agwolagwo spiral. The illustration describes the fluidity of ambition amid the vagaries of fate.
The illustration Three Moons Ago (Fig. 15) is a conceptual narrative of the events that occurred after British colonial soldiers on a punitive expedition sacked Abame (p. 97). Odoh appropriates these three moons as a platform upon which he situates his illustration of the aftermath of Abame's sacking. From the first moon, a band of fugitives emerge from a deserted group of huts as they flee from their assailants and commence their walk to Umuofia. In the second moon, the most prominent head load is denoted by the isinwaoji, which represents the kola nut and reiterates the Igbo proverb that “He who brings kola nut brings life.” These people in flight re-echo the Igbo word osondu, which means flight from fright or affliction (osundu literally means “run for your life”). At the proximal curvature of the third moon, elders of Umuofia are depicted in animated discussion about the massacre at Abame. The diagonal displacement of the composition on paper also displays the creative management of space, through which the linear and spatial intersection of the three moons weaves the illustration together.
The words of the Oracle made manifest is the theme of Efulefu, Worthless Empty Men (Fig. 16) (p. 101). This illustration is similar to Uche Okeke's depiction of this incident. Odoh, however, goes further to illustrate the atmosphere symbolically. The sky above the figures and the foliage is overcast with a surreal image that can be read on multiple levels. According to Obierika, the white men were locusts (p. 97). Is the image in the sky a representation of colonial soldiers, or an approaching horde of locusts, or a metaphor of the destruction in the wake of their arrival? There is a lot of literal and conceptual space to draw meaning from, as against Uche Okeke's closed-up composition, which presents the preacher and his interpreter frontally, surrounded by the gathering. Odoh's illustration does not portray a sense of gathering.
This surreal landscape of the previous illustration also applies to Evil Forest (Fig. 17) which Achebe describes and mentions several times in Things Fall Apart:
Every clan and village had its “evil forest.” In it were buried all those who died of the really evil diseases, like leprosy and small pox. It was also the dumping ground for the potent fetishes of great medicine-men when they died. An “evil forest” was therefore, alive with sinister forces and powers of darkness (p. 105).
Odoh portrays the evil forest with huge trees whose trunks describe human physiognomy and with branches that present like a windswept coiffure. In the foreground of the illustration lie decomposing corpses cast in inverse silhouettes. The proximal ground is hemmed by fernlike leaves, which merge with climbing vines to make the composition unitary. Here, lines are woven together to evoke a potent forest. The shadows, while not dominating the illustration, are effectively displaced spatially to convey the adjective “evil,” in a composition dominated by white space. Space plays the triple functions of providing visual balance, a resting place for the eyes and emphasizing the images.14
The illustration of a python's trajectory through a clan is titled Our Father (Fig. 18), an adulation for the sacred python, free “to go wherever it chose, even into people's beds” (p. 112). The royal python is sacred and is a symbol of the deity Idemili (Achebe 1964: 41).15 In Odoh's illustration the python pervades the environment from a bird's-eye view. It is an allusion to the overbearing influence it has carved into the psyche and worldview of the people. Its presence is so pervasive one cannot distinguish the python from the road. The houses that line the road are reflected on its scales or perhaps it is at once a snake, the environment, the people, and a deity. So it is reverenced and is as old as time.
In the Land of His Fathers (Fig. 19) is arranged along a conceptual grid of sinusoidal orientation while deftly manipulating positive and negative spaces on the drawing platform. It illustrates Okonkwo's preparation to return to Umuofia in grand fashion and upon arrival “to regain the seven wasted years.” Moving anticlockwise, just beside his right ear is a hut set inside an mbari-inspired lattice with a female figure sweeping and an nsibidi symbol of marriage. This represents Okonkwo's desire to marry and have his daughters married out at Umuofia. Such marriages would announce his arrival in a blaze of glory. Bold wavy lines sweep sinuously into another scene where Okonkwo is addressing his hosts during a feast he has called to thank them. Below them is the site where Obierika is supervising the building of two huts in preparation for Okonkwo's return to Umuofia. Above the feasting is depicted Okonkwo's desire to build his own obi and other components of his compound at Umuofia. A tree's branches and foliage lead the viewer through a duct to show Okonkwo now established at Umuofia, alongside his wives in his compound. The sun-drenched hut at the zenith of the composition represents Okonkwo's ambition to take the penultimate title that would thrust him to the utmost height in Umuofia. This illustration is made effective by the adroit juxtaposition of form and space to achieve balance around Okonkwo's silhouette.
The third part of Things Fall Apart shows and analyzes Okonkwo's return to Umuofia after seven years of exile at Mbanta, his mother's homeland. It discusses his reintegration into Umuofia society and how his rash decision to kill a colonial government official compels him to commit suicide. This segment of my essay analyses how George Odoh reacts to the story as an illustrator and the particular protocols of his visual interpretations.
Crystal of Beauty (Fig. 20) is a three-quarter portrait of Ezinma with her head cast in a profile. She wears a coiffure that looks like a crown of pyramids. Her physiognomy is described with bold lines sweeping from her armpit down her back and buttock, while lighter ones describe the roundness of her abdomen from which waist beads, jigida, roll down towards her pubis. Her physique is composed of organic lattices that merge to solidify into one of the most beautiful girls in Mbanta. Achebe described her as a “crystal of beauty” (p. 122). Ezinma is encased in four almost elliptical bulbs, implanted in a sinusoidal grid inside of which are deployed visual units that serve as a background. To her right are two female figures, possibly Ezinma and her half-sister Obiageli or village damsels. To her left are shadowy male figures, perhaps those who sought her hand in marriage but failed. A bold ribbon curves with a flourish over her hips and a plain bulb that frames her torso is hedged by a bold, ridged margin. It abuts a smaller oblong on her shoulder that encases her head and a prosperous homestead like a halo. On top of this sits an intersection of lines that describe an ovoid, within which an admixture of architecture, murals, and figures evoke wealth and power, qualities that denote the kind of men Okonkwo hoped would ask for his daughters' hands in marriage upon his return to Umuofia.
In the next illustration (Fig. 21) (p. 128), the portraits of Akunna and Brown under a halo seem to simulate a contest between tradition and the new Christian religion and its attendant civilization. All these are compressed into visual codes, which the halo encases. The forces emitted from their violent and disruptive interactions are finally resolved into the oneness of faith and omnipotence. Man is the beneficiary and is lifted up to spirituality above flesh by the crucifixion. Here, mbari motifs and design modes take center stage, brought about by linear dexterity to ask the question, “And Who Is To Tell His Will.”
The toga-wearing figure that describes Enoch, Son of the Snake Priest (Fig. 22) (p. 131) is a drawing of a lone man set in the foreground with the church set in the distance, almost shrouded by the evil forest. He seems to challenge tradition alone and frontally, as if to question why he and fellow converts have been pushed to the margin. The lone church is a symbol of Christianity and the new converts. However, excessive zeal twists Enoch's stance from defender of the faith to outcast, momentarily, as he is marooned neither in the church nor in the clan. Space is used to fix Enoch and to show his estrangement.
And They Had a Long Discussion (Fig. 23) (p. 136) illustrates the discussion between the missionary and the colonial administrator that brought about the arrest of six elders of Umuofia and the collapse of the resistance, in turn leading to the triumph of the new religion over the indigenous one. A depiction of the District Commissioner with Mr. Smith is foregrounded behind a screen of mbari motifs. In the distance is a homestead, the symbol of the new converts, behind which a church establishes its dominance. Odoh symbolizes this triumph by magnifying the church building and clearing the evil forest. The dominant architecture of the church serves as a bulwark that offers protection and promise to the converts and those yet to be proselytized.
The next work illustrates the meeting that men of Umuofia had after the six elders were released from prison. Here, Okika is depicted addressing the assembly at the market place. Umuofia Kwe zuo nu (Fig. 24) (p. 159) is a literal interpretation of this event, with no conceptual or symbolic hint of events leading to it. This does not, however, detract from its success. In contrast, Figure 25 (Okonkwo's body) depicts a scorched landscape, perhaps casting Okonkwo in the mold of a victim: “That man was one of the greatest men in Umuofia. You drove him to kill himself: now he will be buried like a dog …” said Obierika his friend (p. 147). The text also states that the spot where Okonkwo commits suicide is lush with vegetation. “There was a small bush behind Okonkwo's compound …. Then they came to the tree from which Okonkwo's body (Fig. 25) was dangling and they stopped dead” (p. 146). Okonkwo's dangling body and the scorched landscape, both symbols of defeat, seem to pose a question: who is the victim? Okonkwo or Umuofia?
Odoh begins the illustration of this segment, the third part of the novel, on the same conceptual and compelling terrain he used to illustrate the second part. However, he comes down to the conventional and plastic mode in illustrating the remaining chapters. This may have resulted from the author's dissembling of the scaffolds of the story in order to bring about a denouement. Perhaps, now that the very tense knots and situations have been loosened, Odoh begins to relax and doing so whittles his creative stamina. Hence, these concluding drawings—Umuofia Kwe Zuo Nu (Fig. 24) and Okonkwo's Body (Fig. 25)—operate merely on the literal plane, as against the intellectual height of the illustrations of the second part of the novel.
Igbo art is consistently embedded in drawing, which is a universal mode of expression. Contemporary uli drawings, which incorporate nsibidi, omabe, mbari, adinkra, and other influences, are an orchestration of codes embodied in Nigerian society. It is akin to the performer, the artist, coming down the proscenium to mix with his audience. By this, I mean there is an intimate interaction between the artist and his interlocutor in a common language. This does not, however, preclude a noninitiate from intuitively comprehending and enjoying these almost elemental compositions.
I have tried to grapple with the history and theory of uli with respect to drawing and illustration to elicit the mood or spirit that would bring about an understanding of the critical analysis of George Odoh's illustration of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, which Uche Okeke pioneered. This resulted in the interrogation of the Nsukka drawing tradition and legacy by looking at the styles of some of its drawing adepts who no doubt influenced Odoh. His biography was highlighted to see how it abuts with and influenced his illustrations. According to Agnes Morgan: “Finally, we know that words cannot tell what a drawing has to say but we also know that the influence of the writer on the artist has been as constant throughout history as that of the artist on the writer …” (1949: xi).
I would like to conclude by corroborating Simon Ottenberg's insistence that Nsukka art is anchored “on drawing skills and its links to the Igbo past” (1997: 249). This is a platform for interrogating the present and projecting into the future. George Odoh has no doubt reemphasized all these by his illustration of Things Fall Apart.
This book and exhibition helped disseminate information about the theory and praxis of uli revivalist art around the world. It discusses the work of seven artists: Uche Okeke, Chike Aniakor, Obiora Udechukwu, El Anatsui, Tayo Adenaike, Ada Udechukwu, and Olu Oguibe. Ottenberg's choice of artists, especially Ada Udechukwu, became controversial. See Nzegwu 2000: 61–93 for critical censure of Ottenberg's curatorial decisions.
The novel Things Fall Apart has received critical acclaim and is now considered a classic of world literature. It has been translated into numerous languages and is used to teach African literature around the world. Uche Okeke's illustrations of the novel appeared in a 1964 edition published by William Heinemann, which made them famous. However, they have not been subjected to critical scrutiny.
These were originally stand-alone drawings and had not been exhibited when this article was written in 2014. However, they appeared in an exhibition curated by Krydz Ikwuemesi, In the Heart of Things Fall Apart, held in Nsukka and Lagos, in June and July 2015, and published, along with other works, in the catalogue (Ikwuemesi 2015). Reference of the catalogue: pp. 130.
Obiora Udechukwu developed his drawing ability through rigorous exertion and experimentation and considered drawing an autonomous art mode. Hence, he distinguished himself by experimenting with drawing on the literal and conceptual planes. See Okeke-Agulu 2016 for his drawings and critical exegesis.
While Anatsui did not practice drawing as an autonomous mode, he made prodigious number of working drawings and he taught drawing. He once described drawing as “other people's property” in a conversation with me. He also made prints which are predicated on drawing. See Anatsui 1982 and Akutsu 2010a for some of his drawings.
Chijioke Onuora is a multitalented artist and draughtsman who studied drawing and fountain design and construction privately under Seth Anku. See Aniakor 2014 for critical comments on his drawings.
While some critics have accused Ikwuemesi of aping his teacher, Udechukwu, in his drawings, I believe this was a phase in his creative trajectory. His recent drawings bear his personal imprint. Ikwuemesi has stuck to the uli revivalist paradigm for several years and has explored it more than any of his contemporaries.
The omabe cult and masquerade tradition is practiced in a large portion of Enugu State, Nigeria, and it straddles the Nsukka cultural zone. Raymond Obetta, who is from this area, decided to graft aspects of this visual culture into his drawings and paintings. However, Obetta did not sustain his art practice, leaving to engage in politics. See Aniakor 1976 and 1978b for aspects of the omabe tradition.
Mbari was an art tradition practiced in the Owerri and Mbaise areas of today's Imo State. It was an installation of images built with clay and mud depicting images drawn from Igbo religion and myth, such as Ala the earth goddess and other deities, images of contemporary events, and individuals. It was a religious performance, where the participants were drawn from the citizenry. See Cole 1988 for details.
Tayo Adenaike is a painter and an alumnus of the Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He is also an advertising practitioner and a principal partner in the advertising firm where George Odoh (as a visualizer) and the author (as a copywriter) worked after graduation from the university. See Ottenberg 1997: 181–221 for information on Adenaike. Nnaemeka Egwuibe is now a faculty member of the Fine and Applied Arts Department, University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
George Odoh, interview with author, 2016.
All page numbers referenced in the text are from Achebe 1958.
Even today, when the art of masquerading is on the ebb, a variety of masks still persist in Igbo communities. When an occasion demands the presence of these masquerades, they are invoked into existence. Though the ritual essence of masquerades is waning, the entertainment aspect persists.
In classical uli or traditional mural painting and body decoration practiced by Igbo women, space plays a significant role in their orchestration in the form of extensive negative spaces with very few, strategically deployed motifs at the margins. Hence space provides a place of rest for the eyes and helps to emphasize the few motifs that have been deployed. See Udechukwu 1980: 44 for more on uli design concepts.
The royal python is still a sacred totem with shrines, and the deity is still propitiated in Igboland, especially in towns in Idemili local government area of Anambra State. Achebe's home town, Ogidi, is located there, a few kilometers from Uche Okeke's hometown, Nimo, in Njikoka local government area. See Achebe 1964: 41, 22, 1978: 72.