By Anote Ajeluorou
Africa is regarded as ahistoric continent, with outsiders narrators giving it grudging space for whatever history latter day narrators, mostly from the continent, may ascribe to it. Contemporary efforts to accord the continent its proper place in history have therefore met with resistance. But the continent’s historical narrators have wielded all manners of weapons in their arsenal – be they historicism, art or other humanistic endeavours – to unsay what has been negatively said about Africa. The result is that the world is beginning to listen, with a keen ear!
Several prominent names have been spurned amongst the wronged children of the continent who are fighting the ahistoric status of Africa. One such young ones is a visual artist, Onyema Offoedu-Okeke, whose accomplishment as an artist, has been brought into fuller perspective by the publication of a coffee-table book of his works entitled, Contemporary African Art: My Private Collection of Onyema Offoedu-Okeke (Brown Bommel Ltd, Lagos; 2011) by Dr. Okey Anueyiagu.
This kind of defining publication is only recently becoming part of Africa’s art patrimony with the dire awareness that Eurocentric dominance of art discourses at the international scene has been taking place for too long now at the expense of Africa’s huge contribution to world knowledge. This position is affirmed by one of the contributors to the volume, Prof. Sheri Fafunwa-Ndibe, who declaimed the marginal position African art has occupied until very recently when the continent’s scholars, researchers and cultural producers began to mount articulate megaphones in defence of the need to accord it its glorious in world discourse.
As she submits in her piece ‘Global Importance and Impact of Contemporary African Art’, “…some critics have chosen to be stuck in the static discourse. They have succumbed to the temptation to view any African art that employs ‘modern materials’ and technology somehow non-traditional, lacking authenticity and originality. In fact, such art is often deemed illegitimate or corrupted”.
On the other hand, works of Offoedu-Okeke and others of his ilk have become really dominant in recent years in espousing Africa’s cultural philosophy, as Fafunwa-Ndibe states, “In the 21st century, contemporary African art seems to be asserting itself in an extraordinary way. At any rate, it has begun to receive some of the attention and focus it so richly deserves. In the last five years, the world has witnessed an explosion in the contemporary art market”.
This explosion is easily credited to the astounding works of masters artists Ben Enwonwu, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Yusuf Grillo and younger artists like Offoedu-Okeke and many of his peers who are redefining the landscape of artistic performances in ways never before known since colonialism. It is against this backdrop that Offoedu-Okeke’s work can be viewed.
And in putting this book together, Anueyiagu has lent a big hand both in boosting the artistic repertoire of Offoedu-Okeke and raising the profile of African art. In this wise, Offoedu-Okeke’s work shows the necessary continuum between ancient African art so much idolized by the West on account of it having gone into stasis, with colonialism interrupting its flowering, and modern cultural productions that are advancing the frontiers of African art and intellect.
Five eminent, informed commentators, who are art scholars and art historians contributed to the book. They take different narrative approaches to Offoedu-Okeke’s works and explicate his styles, techniques, media and themes. These eminent critics and scholars provide viable lenses through which to view Offoedu-Okeke’s painterly endeavours and the unique place he occupies in contemporary art discourse. While Prof. Chike Aniakor in the foreword examines the ‘Legibility of Art as a Vector of Aesthetic Experience’ of the works of Offoedu-Okeke, the art collector and documentarist, Anuenyiagu provides the introduction; Fafunwa-Ndibe’s piece has been aforementioned.
Also, Dr. Ozioma Onuzulike writes on the ‘Pictorial Scripture and Colourful Lines: The Art of Onyema Offoedu-Okeke’ while Dr. Francis Ugiomo writes on ‘Still in Search of an African Renaissance: Re-mapping the Past in the Contemporary’. Capping off the commentary is a director with Standard Chartered Bank, London, Mr. Richard Howarth. These informed commentators have shared and experienced of the rich banquet that is Offoedu-Okeke’s artistic work and poured their heart in it.
In foreword, Prof. Aniakor sums up Offoedu-Okeke’s works thus, “Undeniably, his works delight in the seamless range of their compositional phrasings, as well as the kinetics of colours, under the effect of ennobling brush work. These I contend serve as ample vectors of aesthetic experience, fore grounded by the fecundity of his creative imagination”.
In this apt summation, Aniakor points out the direction of Offoedu-Okeke’s painterly vision. His works traverse a wide range of issues and subjects as he has lived them in his social discourse; these subjects he has also skillfully narrated in this rare presentation by Anueyiagu. The range of Offoedu-Okeke’s art is astonishing, as he succeeds in bringing together visions of the past, problems of the present and prospects to come. His art traverses ancient art type of masks and other ancestral totems and modern concerns.
This wide-ranging artistic vision thrusts Offoedu-Okeke into the forefront of Africa’s cultural workers seeking to replace old, useless paradigms with new visions of a continent that had long been maligned as capable of shaping its own destiny, with its energetic young talent. Indeed, Offoedu-Okeke’s talent, which became noticeable at an early age, has been deployed to good effect to project both himself and his continent.
Anueyiagu has done contemporary African art great service with this publication. It’s hoped that others art patrons and collectors will emulate him in the march to reposition a much marginalized continent in world’s historical discourse of knowledge production for which Africa is also undeniably renowned with its talented human resource.