[AAS21 Podcast] Episode #5: An Insistence on Not Being Discouraged

April 6, 2017


Podcast Transcript:


00:00 [Music plays]

Eddie: Hello. I'm Eddie Glaude and I'm the chair of the Department of African-American studies here at Princeton University. And welcome to the African-American studies podcast. Today we have a really special guest. My colleague Professor Okeke-Agulu, Chika Okeke-Agulu. Um, he specializes in African and African Diasporic Art, uh, in visual cultures. He's the author of the award winning text, Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth Century Nigeria. And he has a new book out, 'Obiora Udechukwu, uh, Line, Image and Text. Welcome Brother Chika. So excited to talk with you.

Chika: Thanks, Eddie.

Eddie: Did I get that title right?

Chika: Of course. Yes.

Eddie: [Laughs] So, we're so delighted. I mean post-colonial modernism has just been, uh, an extraordinary, uh, gift to the world. I mean it won-- it has won several awards. Uh, I mean you won, you received the College Art Association 2016, Frank Jewett Mather award for distinction in- in art criticism. Uh, and you also, uh, won, uh, the 2016 Melville Jay Herskovitz award for the most important scholarly work in African studies published in English. Um, this is huge. So, how you feel about all of this, man?

Chika: Um, it's great.

Eddie: [Laughs].

Chika: Uh, I- I can't, uh, put it in, you know, differently-- it's wonderful really to, um, to be acknowledged, um, in the highest, uh, rounds in this business. Um, but I also think that it's, uh, it's- it's a befitting, uh, testimony I would say, you know, with, uh, all modesty, um, that this is a work 02:00 of 20 years, you know, and so to- to see that, uh, my peers, uh, have acknowledged it for what it is, is, um, immensely satisfying.

Eddie: Well before we talk about the book. Um, let's-- I mean you're also an independent curator, um, written catalogues and organized. I mean canonical exhibitions in so many ways. Talk a little bit about this other side of you. I mean 'cause you're- you're- you're- you're an extraordinary scholar but you're an artist to the core.

Chika: Yeah. Um, I still actually think of myself first and foremost as an artist. Um, everything else I do, I do, uh, on the basis of that identification. Um, I began as an artist. I, um, as a sculptor and painter. Um, so, I was teaching, drawing and sculpture at the University of Nigeria Nsukka until the late 1990's, when, um, on the- the, um, the force of the military dictatorship, uh, one of these characters that, uh, were drafted into the major university systems, uh, ruin my alma mater, um, University of Nigeria Nsukka and basically forced some of us out of the system. Um, before then, I was, you know, I was an artist. I had exhibitions. Um, but I was also writing art criticism. This was one of the first things I did, uh, right out of college, I was writing for a number of newspapers and news magazines in Lagos. Um, and that basically led me to curating. So, from art criticism in the media to organizing exhibitions, um, from the first Retrospective of Uche Okeke which, by the way, 04:00 was the origin of postcolonial modernism.

Eddie: Exactly. You took-- yeah.

Chika: Um, but because it was research, uh, for that exhibition in 1993, that led me many years later to the subject as a dissertation research topic. So, this was long before I even thought of the idea of becoming an art historian, which happened after I left Nigeria. Um, and then I came to the US with a student visa, um, and decided, well, there was nothing else really that interested me at the time, but this thing called art history. And so, that's- that's how I came into art history from making art as an artist and being an art critic and independent curator.

Eddie: Um, so there's a-- there's- there's the scholarship. Uh, then there's the curatorial work and- and- and your own self conception as an artist. Uh, and then there's just kind of institutionalizing work that you're doing, uh, with the collaborative, uh, uh, relationship that you have with Okwui Enwezor and Salah Hassan. Talk a little bit about that work.

Chika: Well, um, I- I would say that that started in 1993, right about the same time that I organized this Retrospective of Uche Okeke. Um, I got this letter from this guy called Okwui Enwezor. Living in New York, I hadn't heard of him before. Um, but he grew up in Enugu which was not far from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Um, and he basically was asking if I would be interested in this idea that he had. Which was to start a magazine on contemporary African art. He was drafting people he had read about, he had heard about, who he thought might collaborate with him to change the art world as we know it, basically. Um, and of course, I said yes because this was what I was trying to do in 06:00 Nigeria by writing art criticism. It was simply because I didn't read any art criticism that was worthwhile,uh, in my time as a young student and as a recent graduate. And so, this was the beginning of what became Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art.

Eddie: Right

Chika: It was this convening of like minds. Salah Hassan, that you mentioned. Olu Oguibe, who was, um, a very good friend of mine, uh, that I admired so much when we were back at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. But who at that time had moved to the-- uh, to England, uh, where he did his PhD. So, there were a number of voice that Okwui convinced and we began work on this journal that still exists today as one of the, perhaps, the leading journal, uh, in the field of contemporary African art. So, the-- it was his, uh, intuition, right? That something was wrong with the art world and something needed to be done and what needed to be done is to write about artist that no one was interested in writing about.

Eddie: Yeah. You know, Oguibe- Oguibe is, um, uh, worked on El Anatsui has-- thanks to you, has really transformed to my thinking.

Chika: He is, um, a very fertile mind.

Eddie: [Laughs]

Chika: You know, he is a very astute critic and the work that he and Okwui and Salah and myself and others that we worked with over the years, was basically to say-- because at the time, if you went to any Western institution and said, "Oh, I wanna do a show of some artists cause- Ibrahim el-Salahi," They will ask you first, "Where can we read about the artists?" And if you can't show them any writing on the artists, they would immediately  08:00 assume that that artist is not important. And so, what we decided to do was to produce the writing itself so that the-- they would be on the defense. And that's precisely what has happened over the years. That we've built pretty much a discipline, a sub discipline in art history which is, of course, we have here in Princeton today, um, as the first African, um-- a professor of African Art in Princeton.

Eddie: Right.

Chika: It was simply because of that. And Okwui Enwezor's, well know, has gone on to do so much that we thought were impossible a few years ago--

Eddie: Right.

Chika: -- through his-- through his career. 

Eddie: So, we have the three legs of the stool, right? There is a sense that-- there is the artist that is you, there is the scholarship. And then there's this kind of institutionalizing work that- that evidence is itself in the publication of the magazine and the art criticism, uh, in curation of- of exhibitions in the biennials. I mean all the things that you guys do in order to, uh, to put forward this work. So, uh, it's- it's amazing. It has been amazing for me to witness as a colleague in African-- and as a colleague of yours in African-American studies. And I'm sure it has been amazing for your colleagues in art, uh, uh, in ar-archaeology to see, uh, the work that you've been able to do in these years.

Chika: Yeah. I- I- I think that, um, one of the reasons that, um, all this has happened is the insistence on not being discouraged.

Eddie: Right.

Chika: 'Cause there was a time when you could, um, hardly sneak in an argument for this material, for this work that, you know, I was just reading this morning, that the Sotheby's in London, I will be organizing its' first-- its' inaugural auction on modern and contemporary African art. Now, follow the money, right? Once the big auction 10:00 houses begin to focus on any field, Lafayette has arrived.

Eddie: It has arrived.

Chika: Right? Beyond the fact that we've been graduating, you know, really smart, young scholars, new PhDs, um, in the field. Um, so things have happened and many of these institutions that would not let anyone of us, you know, through the outdoors, well, they are calling, right?

Eddie: And- and you've been-- you've played such an important role in that happening. So--

Chika: Um, i-in my own little way, I would say. Um, because this is an important work that makes the intellectual life worth living.

Eddie: Right.

Chika: 'Cause it's not just simply that, um, you've done, you've won these awards. You- you work in a fantastic place, get well paid. The point at the end of the day is what you leave behind. And if what we leave behind are departments in different universities around the world, young scholars who can tell you with a straight face that they are scholars in modern and contemporary African art, then it's been worthwhile.

Eddie: Exactly. So, let's- let's shift to-- let's shift to this extraordinary book, Postcolonial Modernism--

Chika: Sure.

Eddie: -- Art and Decolonization in Twentieth Century Nigeria. Tell-- talk a little bit about what you mean by the phrase, postcolonial modernism.

Chika: Um, well, it's one of those, um, rather, uh, um, were the acts of Justlene that happens right in the scholarship, you know, what terms do you, uh, invent, develop, um, or refine that might capture the- the- the essence of the work that one is doing, um, as 12:00 an art historian. And so, I was-- and am still very much invested in this quest of modernism. But it also happens that, um, many of us came to this business believing because we've been compelled to think so that modernism was something that European artists did at the early 20th century. Later on transferred to, uh, American artists by the mid 20th century and everything after that has nothing to do with modernism. And so, my work has been to contest this. And a few other scholars have, uh, pitched into this. Kobena Mercer, you know, comes up with, you know, Cosmopolitan Modernism. Um, there are other less attractive terms that some have used, alternative modernism. No, I don't think of what the artists and writers that I'm interested in that what they did was alternative. Alternative to what? I always ask. What they did was to articulate through art and literature. Their own experiences of the conditions of political and social modernity in the African-- and I would also argue, African Diasporic Context and much of this has to do with the experience of colonization because it was colonization, um, that brought Africans and Europeans in this intense proximity that affected their lives, their knowledge systems and their visions of time and subjectivity. And so, what colonialism did, 14:00 as some scholars, Ulu [?] [inaudible] will, for instance, have argued was basically, um, to try at every given moment to stop the march, uh, towards progress by African peoples and societies. But at the same time, this, um, process of, um, stopping this movement was met by a resistance on the part of African intellectuals. African intellectual elite, who were, you believe it or not, one of the greatest enemies of- of the colonial regimes wherever you found them. They were the troublemakers. They were the ones who asked questions that was why in British colonial, uh, systems, you weren't allowed to study history or literature or the literary arts because those were troublesome fields. And so, it's not, um, a surprise that it is Africans who went into these very fields that began to articulate, um, the modalities through art and literature of the experience of the modern. And so postcolonial modernism for me, um, was that process adopted by African artists, North, East, South, West, um, um, as a way to find a language. Of course, a visual language that appropriately articulated their conditions of sovereignty in the post-World War period. Post Second World War period. 'Cause this was when on the political realm you had politicians from Nnamdi Azikiwe to Kwame Nkrumah to Jomo Kenyatta, to, 16:00 um, uh, several other, uh, African nationalists. when they began effectively after the Manchester Co-- uh, Pan-African, fifth Pan-African conference, uh, in Manchester in 1945. When they began to demand for political sovereignty. On the part of cultural producers, they were asking themselves, "How might this approaching condition of sovereignty determine the very language with which we speak as writers and artists?" Not necessarily the subject matter. But the language, the form of the language itself. And this is what I- I talk about, I describe as the politics of form.

Eddie: Right.

Chika: 'Cause for them, form was not this empty sign. Form was not this, um, thing that was evacuated of social, political meaning. No. For them, form was in fact, it kind of politics.

Eddie: So, this gives a sense of the scope, um, and the expansive nature of the book. Methodologically, how do you get your mind around that? 'Cause it-- you're doing two things simultaneously, right? So, there's this thick social political history that you have to tell, right? There is a process of decolonization. There is a process of decolonization that's over and against, right, the lingering, uh, effects and consequences of the colonial regime. 

Chika: Yes. 

Eddie: And then there's the attention to the technical-- the technical maneuvers of form. 

Chika: Yes. 

Eddie: So, where you're looking at the art itself, right? So- so- so you wanna pay attention to the histories, the social history, the- the political history, the political economy that- that gives-- uh, that provides the soil, the ground for the emergence of this visual language. 

Chika: Yes. 

Eddie: And then you got to-- then you want to give attention to the actual art itself. So, methodologically, how did you 18:00 get your mind around that?

Chika: Well- well, it's simple. Well, maybe not that simple, right? But I want to say it's simple. When at the very beginning, I began to talk about the work of these artists, whether they are Ibrahim el Salahi or Demas Nwoko or Uche Okeke or Malangatana, uh, from Mozambique and others, that their work was political. I usually got a push back, um, that  basically said, well, how could they be political, the subject matter, they even paint or sculpt Christian themes, biblical, you know, so how can that be political art? That-- in order to answer that question, I had to then go into the socio-political context of the formal experimentation that these artists were engaged in. And so, what you find in the book is this big picture of the ideological consequences of decolonization on cultural production, right? And then to also then look microscopically at how this big picture question is informing the very minute detailed decisions that artists are making as they decide on what material or what kinds of composition, what kinds of design elements, what kinds of, uh, style that they adopt in their work.

Eddie: So, did you see this in- in Uche Okeke's work?

Chika: Precisely. And- and I think this is where being an artist-- 20:00 I think this is where being an artist has helped a lot. How, um, immersing myself in poetry as an undergraduate student at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka which is what many of us ask students, um, benefited from. So, being able to read poetry, write poetry, appreciate what happens with literary language, you know, from prose to poetry.

Eddie: Right.

Chika: Being able to go through art and design classes as an art student. To know how form comes about. How it works. And bringing all these together as an art historian, who is looking at archives, who is looking at texts, reading and interpreting these texts. I think the conjunction of these resources that writing poetry, making art itself, afforded me and being well trained as an art historian, who also prior to this moment, was an art critic, right? I think all these resources came together in the way that I can be very detailed, maybe pages-- long description of what's happening to line in a drawing by Uche Okeke. And being able to maneuver my way out of this back to the big picture so that when you begin in the first chapter, just, you know, think about the colonial context of these contestation between Kenneth Murray and Aina Onabolu. These are big picture issues. And then you go through these networks, um, 22:00 Barry Black office and so forth. And finally at the end of the book, it's back to the painting.

Eddie: Right. 

Chika: Right?

Eddie: Right.

Chika: -- of Uche Okeke's and sculptures of Demas Nwoko and what that had to do with the civil war, on common civil war.

Eddie: Yeah. You know, I- I- I- I brought up, um, the attentiveness to Uche Okeke's work because, you know, again, it was that moment where you were asked to do the Retrospective. And you were very young at the time and you had this treasure trove, this archive. You had the work but you had journals. I mean it sounds, like he wrote detailed accounts. And this is a guy who was-- this is a person who was, um, kind of constituting a cohort of- of geniuses in some ways. Some innovators. And you were seeing this early on, precisely, because of this training, right, in some ways?

Chika: Yes. Um, and I- I- I must also say that, um, I was lucky in doing the research, the many years of research on this book. First of all, getting to know Uche Okeke. Uche Okeke is one of the most meticulous diarists, you know, you could ever encounter.

Eddie: So, he's a treasure trove, right?

Chika: And he trusted me with nearly 10 years of his diaries. Just handed them to me. Um, and so, it was through those diaries that I was able to actually write a history of the Department of Fine Arts at The Ahmadu Bello University because much of that archive was lost. Uh, the little that I could find during my fieldwork, uh, there in Zaria, um, complemented much of the detailed diary 24:00 entries of Uche Okeke, that he produced at the time. Which in fact was quite interesting because many years later, you begin to see how history happens, right? What he was writing about his experience in the 50's and what he would tell you in an interview, right, in the 1990's, that have not been filtered through many years of experience and awareness of history and- and what have you. So, I was able to go back and forth between this fragmented archive that was at The Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria. And this really amazing archive that Uche Okeke himself constituted through his diaries and, um, field notes and- and what have you. But also getting to meet Ulli Beier, who I would always say was the most important figure in modern African literature and art. And having to spend time with Ulli Beier, um, leafing through his own personal archives over the years that I knew him and being able to distill the kinds of information with which I reconstituted a history of this period. That, for me, is one of the most important one that this book does because this history, as I often tell people by the 1990's and early 2000's, this was more like mythological moment 'cause you had artists who are still alive, who had forgotten or had begun to, you know, tell stories that didn't quite jive with what actually took place.

Eddie: Right.

Chika: And there was a very little, uh, there was very little body of work by scholars looking at this period. And so, being able to reconstitute this history, I think this is where the most 26:00important things that, uh, this book does apart from the really detailed analysis of the art and artist's work--

Eddie: So, this is fascinating, right? So, so on the one hand, there is your training as an artist. Uh, um, there is your ability to see the formal innovation in front of you. Um, and then to kind of take that formal innovation, um, and- and contextualize it, to understand it in relation to historical and social forces that might help us better contextualize the formal innovation.

Chika: Yes.

Eddie: And then there's-- then there's this other dimension to you, Chika, that's really fascinating. And that's the curatorial sensibility. That is to say you're in the archive. You see all of this. But you're curating it in a way that your reader, once they move from chapter 1 to the end, there is something seen. There's something glean. There's something understood. So, there's this-- there- there- there are these moments where after-- while reading the book, there's a sense in which you- you curate for the reader this interesting process of dissemination and circulation, right? So we get-- we get the story of the art school, of the art society. You get the story of Black Orpheus. You get the story of the Mbari school.

Chika: Yeah.

Eddie: So, there is a sense in which you're telling this institutional history to show how this innovation is disseminated and how it circulates. Say a little more about that for me.

Chika: Yes, well, I never thought about the – this connection between my curating and organizing the material, right, that goes into this book, but I can see now that you mentioned it, ‘cause of course, the work of the curator, right, um and I don't mean the curators as we, you know like everybody is like a curator on TV, you know, curating edition (28:00) things like that, ah but the work of an art curator um has to do with looking at a vast array of importance, interest in material and thinking about how they might make sense in an art exhibition gallery space.

Eddie: Uh-hmm.

Chika: So you're not just talking about, thinking about the art, you're also thinking about the relationship between that art and the space in which it inhabits and that space that you will now how to share with the viewer, right?. So, I think that the sense in which that is something that is also required for research on a book like this, that deals with a long twentieth century –

Eddie: Uh-hmm.

Chika: -- that deals with a diverse array of material and artists and social context and networks of dissemination. I'm trying to create a story out of all this because it can really proliferate and then you have an incoherent ah, text. But I think that what has happened – what happened with this is being able to stay close to what is important, what argument that I was trying to make with this book –

Eddie: Right.

Chika: -- ‘cause it was very important to me to insist on the importance of the work that these artist did, in spite of or then because of the political and social context that produced them and within which they made that work.

Eddie: Uh-hmm.

Chika: And so when you think of the shifts, the relationships that Barry and Black Coffee for instance convened. Um, it's – it's just simply bewildering and by the way, um one of my (30:00) next projects in the next – ah couple of years is actually an art exhibition that takes on the Barry and the postcolonial avant-garde.

Eddie: Wow!

Chika: So right then, as I've done in the book to engage with this question as a text, what might it look like as an exhibition, because when you think of the range of artist that were involved in this from Jacob Lawrence to Ibrahim El-Salahi to [foreign name] from Ethiopia to now Komatsubara, the Japanese print maker and now lives in Canada, you know, an incredible network of writers and dramatists and artists and critics and teachers, being able to think of their project as unified around this production of the postcolonial modern. I think that's – that’s what helps or what helped me keep, you know, the kind of discipline, right, that was required for someone – of someone looking at this incredible material – I'm still trying to tell you a story because I kept asking myself, what is this story –

Eddie: Uh-hmm.

Chika: -- in all of this? And it's simple, as I say it even, that is simple, it's how does form become a form of politics?

Eddie: Wow, how does form can be form of politics?

Chika: Yes and that’s pretty much what's this about.

Eddie: What drives and so –

Chika: And this is what was driving this book from the very beginning.

Eddie: Now, you're – you're really careful, it's really interesting, I mean obviously you're – you're – you're careful um, in – in – in handling the material, but you're careful in – in terms of the generalizable nature of the claim you're making, although I just heard a hint at it. (32:00) There's a sense of what you're talking about twentieth century, the long twentieth century in Nigeria, but you want to make your gesture that is not just Nigeria, and you gesture at this because of the networks, right, the networks, the people who are moving in and out.

Chika: Yes.

Eddie: You want to say that something about the category postcolonial modernism, right, um is applicable broadly –

Chika: Yes.

Eddie: -- in some ways and you see this in the chapter of – ah, where you talk about the American Society of African Culture –

Chika: Yes.

Eddie: -- and at least from the vantage point of those of us in the states, like there's this connection, but – but you're hesitant to make a broad generalization but you show suggestive pathways of how might – so, talk a little bit about that.

Chika: Well, um – you're right that um I – am careful not to suggest that this is a template that would help us resolve the complexities of modernism by artists in Africa and its diasporas, but I'm also, um interested in making the claim that there was something important and unique that happened in the post second World War period. At the very moment when the Pan-African movement, its main thrust had changed from making a plea for the humanity of African and African Diasporic peoples to one of demanding for political sovereignty on the African continent, this is what happened in 1945 at the Manchester, the Fifth Pan-African Congress. Um and I'm interested in what then happens beyond that which is when in the post war period you had the beginnings of the cold war but also the non-aligned movement and (34:00) the kinds of sympathies that began to emerge among colonized or decolonizing societies around the world from India, Southeast Asia to Africa to Latin America to the Caribbean and you might say the ramblins that would become the civil rights movement in the United States.

Eddie: Uh-hmm.

Chika: There's a part – there's a reason why someone like Jacob Lawrence and I have written about this –

Eddie: Right.

Chika: -- um, wanted so much to go to Nigeria and he did, right? He spent ah nearly a year between 1962 and 1964 and did what I call it as one of his most enigmatic work that, you know, if you have commented on, when he arrives um any [inaudible] and began to make these amazing paintings that he was hoping he would make, he actually wrote about this. And so, the point I'm trying to make is that there was something that happened during this period um, across the world where formerly colonized people were looking to culture as a space for um re-articulation of their subjectivities as human beings but also as political subjects.

And so what I'm suggesting is that postcolonial modernism can apply and I've actually tried to do that to the one of that artists, you know, the progressive artist group in India for instance, to artist in North America, in Morocco, in Egypt, in the Sudan, in West Africa, in central Africa we’re doing – or in the Caribbean. Um, artists who are asking (36:00)  in Jamaica, in Guyana, artists who are asking themselves what do you do about tradition? What do you do about this sort of fraught relationship between the self and the past and the future? And, it was a way of thinking about the present, the future and the past as not antithetical. I think this is really the point of that this book, one of the claims that this book makes. When you think of the model, for instance, that our society adopted, which was what Uche Okeke called the natural synthesis. It was basically to say, we have been told for so long that the past ever didn't exist or but didn't matter or was anti progressive, no, that’s a lie –

Eddie: Right.

Chika: that the past, our heritage, our cultures are as important as the ones that have been imposed on us through the colonial encounter. At the same time, either of the two, both of them are as important in the process of forging a new cultural language, a new artistic language, but also a new subjectivity.

Eddie: Right.

Chika: And so whenever you find these ah class or generation of artists and writers who were self-aware about the relationship between heritage and the present, you’ll find that this model that I've used in this book might indeed apply.

Eddie: So it's not a kind of romantic retrieval of the past, right?

Chika: Absolutely not.

Eddie: Right, exactly.

Chika: In fact, the – the mistake that some scholars have made and I recently wrote about this, um it is to equate what many of these artists were doing again, (38:00) when they look in Caribbean, in Cuba, Jamaica, Guyana or in African countries or in Southeast Asia ah the – the mistake of equating their work with European primitivism.

Eddie: Right.

Chika: Um simply because for the Europeans, the other is the non-self, is the primitive to the civilized European south. For the Africans, the heritage, which is the European order is not an order, it's the south. And so, the process of recuperating that part of the self that had been exiled really or forced into exile by the colonial experience. A reconnection with that, not in the kind of negritude to this to romanticism and I must be very careful about this. Um, but um looking at it as a resource, not a going back, but as a technical, formal resource with which to articulate a resolutely modern subjectivity.

Eddie: If I recall correctly and I'm sure you will correct me if I'm wrong, there's a way in which you're -- you render the idea of the self as standing in relation, a kind of mutuality with other cells, right?

Chika: Yes.

Eddie: Then it's not just simply this autonomous, untethered individuality that the very notion of the self in tales, right, this kind of standing in relation with others and it becomes kind of -- it informs and shapes how you see –

Chika: Yes.

Eddie: Who you take yourself to be and this is not syncretism, it's not reducible to syncretism but it's the various ways in which we take in.

Eddie: Yeah, um I – I think that has a lot to do (40:00) with the way if you look at um studies of different African societies and their philosophies and their religions and --  and so forth, the overwhelming um a lack of what ah, you might call binary thinking.

Eddie: Right, you actually mentioned complimentary.

Chika: Yeah, um but instead a sense in which the human, the self is part of a network of relations.

Eddie: Right.

Chika: You know of deities and spirits and ancestors and what have you, um that the southeast constituted by these multiplicities, right, so it's not a – a syncretism that you know um implies these autonomous entities that, you know, have to come together, no, they're not autonomous, they are part of a whole and um I – sort of I'm tempted to think of the debates in around, in the early Christian church about the nature of the Trinity, right –

Eddie: Right, right.

Chika: As – as something that history but won –

Eddie: Right.

Chika: You know, so if – if walk – you wonder what happens to that, you know, um that idea, that then got reduced to a binary thinking later on in Christian, in your theologically imaginary, right? So the – the sense in which the self is part of the network of relations, right?

Eddie: Yeah, yes.

Chika: Is important to how I'm thinking about the abilities of these artists, these writers to relate with the ancestral heritages, but also these western, you know, traditions.

Eddie: Right.

Chika: Some have made the mistake of thinking ah of someone like [foreign name] Sharinka, um his critics, [foreign name](42:01)  who thought of these so far from what they call Hopkins disease because they were sighting, you know, there were many – you know, Hopkins and – and – and – and what have you – no, it's part of this way of thinking about the self as being able and having the rights, in fact, to be can choose, right? And decide on the nature of these relations with all these multiple resources that constitute the south.

Eddie: So, in one sense Chika, the book, well, let me say it differently, on one level the book could easily have led to a kind of declension story that you have the excitement the further around the colonization, the emergence of the excitement around building a nation.

Chika: Yes, the euphoria.

Eddie: The euphoria of independence and in this -- in this context that the question of subjectivity of who has the right to articulate, who we take ourselves to be in and what language emerges but by the time we get to the end of the book, right, there's regionalism, there's war, civil way, fracture, fissures. Um and in some ways, one way to read that is as it a narrative of declension but if you pay attention to form, it seems as if it's a preface –

Chika: Uh-hmm.

Eddie: that the social context, the social and political solution evidences itself, right, in the kind of aesthetic innovation, talk a little bit about where we end up with political modernism, at the end, because it's –

Chika: Well, um, towards the end, in the very last chapter –

Eddie: Yeah.

Chika: -- prices in the post-colony, right, what we see at that moment and the argument that I (44:00) try to make in the book is that um once this assumed political context began to impact the way that artists who are thinking about the art work as individuals but also as this collective that had been established through Barry and Black Coffee and others, you know, the art society, the society of Nigerian Art, the National Council of Art, you know all these networks, once the political context began to make the continuation of these collectivities impossible, it also began to impact the way that artist who are thinking of themselves relative to this idea of the nation because if, and this is my assumption, the idea of a new nation was instrumental and the important questions they were asking about form, what then happens when that nation is in question mark, right? And what I suggest is that and suma/analysis of the work of Uche Okeke, Demas Nwoko and you know, slide glances to Christopher Okigbo’s poetry and that of Wole Soyinka is that along with what you -- would expect is a natural majority in the art, you know, in the control of their arts which you would expect of any artists, right, aside from the political context that something else that happened was – that there um – was a significant, these subtle shifts in the task that is set for the art.
I made the point though that um one should be careful to not push this too much for someone like Wole Soyinka (46:00) because, you know, right from the beginning his work was critical, right, even the new nation.

Eddie: Exactly.

Chika: Right, he’s play for the – ah a Dance of the Forest, right, his play for the independence in 1960, was already critical of the -- the new nation. But across the board what you find it – I argue, especially with a visual artist is that um once this nation state, this new nation began to free, you don't just find a fragment of them, Barry, right, you know, they go off to the east to form  Barry and [inaudible] the collective [inaudible], for instance. Um, but what you find is that the artist began to ask of their work to turn it's critical lenses to the nation, right.? And for me that was very important because what is suggested and what the history now shows is that art is began to assert themselves as critics of this national project, this did not happen in Lot prior to this fragmenting of the nation state, when the nation are the political state began to be in doubt, the fate of this nation, art changed to a large extent, each own let say priorities, right, to one of diagnosing of critiquing and for me that is the beginning of what we now refer to us contemporary art.

Eddie: And this is – this is his next book –

Chika: And this is what my next book ah contemporary African not in the Age of the Big Man which basically looks at what happens after the emergence of these dictatorships, after the (48:00) civil wars, after the IMF um and World Bank devastation of African economies in the 80s. What happens to art, what kind of relationship does art ah negotiate or established between itself and the state and the nation?

Eddie: I cannot wait to read contemporary Afric—Ameri -- African Art in the Age of the Big Man, oh my goodness. So let's talk about that -- for quick second, let's talk about the new book.

Chika: Um, yes this is ah my latest book, will be around [inaudible] image text. Um, it's – it's a book that I have been wanting to write, it's kind of book that I have been itching to um to write. Um, it's different from my postcolonial modernism book which is a big picture book, this is actually um a honing down, not just on the single artist, but a specific aspect of the work of a single artist and Obiora Udechukwu is one of the most influential ah artists in Nigeria of the 20th century. Um he happened to be my teacher as well in art school, ah an incredible de -- draftsman and an award winning poet. He won the top ah poet – ah poetry prize in Nigeria in the early 1990s and in his work, you see this incredible coming together of drawing and poetry. And so, this book is about the conjunction of drawing and poetry and the drawing of Obiora Udechukwu. And for me, this is another kind of work that (50:00) deserves to be seen, um of work by Nigerian African, African Diasporic artists um through very detailed look at specific bodies of work um while we produce the big picture books because that's how um artistic significance is testified to. Until and unless we begin to see this kind of work on artists in Africa and the African diaspora, um you know, the arrival that we've been anticipating will keep being deferred. And so this is my first pitch for this – or the kind of scholarship that I will be doing for sure in the next ah several years.

Eddie: And what a pitch it is, so last question Chika.

Chika: Sure.

Eddie: This has been an amazing journey for you, do you think about from once you came and why you had to leave?

Chika: Uh-hmm.

Eddie: I mean, you talk about your – your undergraduate days, you could see the glint in your eyes, you could see ah in some ways the act of piety.

Chika: Yes.

Eddie: Ah that -- that is evidenced in your work for the people who made you possible.

Chika: Yes.

Eddie: So you think about young folks who are out there, young scholars who are out there about the take up the work.

Chika: Yeah.

Eddie: What would you have to say to them? What does your journey say to them?

Chika: Well, I went to primary school um in – Fisher Primary School, walked 2 miles often without sandals, we go to school, um and today, I'm teaching in Princeton University, um I was dismissed as a young scholar at the university of Nigeria and some of my senior colleagues at the time thought I had thrown my life away, um, for not, um, obeying the military dictatorship and its [inaudible] in the university. Um, it's been years since um some of us have been told um by institutions and individuals that this thing called modern and contemporary African art um doesn't have much to offer. Today, the story is different, and what it has taken really is just insistence where you identify something that is important, it's your job to insist that it's important, regardless of whatever -- anyone tells you. I think um if one has traveled this far, it's thanks to having the kind of friends that I've had over the years from Olu Oguibe to Okwui Enwezor to Salah Hassa to Obiora Udechukwu himself, El Anatsui, my ah sculpture teacher, these are people that have traveled along with – um, in various capacities over the years and they are still there, right? So, I think that apart from, you know, whatever resources that you have, your God given resources, you need co-travelers, you know, um who also recognize how important your art was, the journey is.

Eddie: Well, I know we are blessed to your African-American studies at Princeton to have you as a co-traveler, chorus of voices –

Chika: Yes, they did.

(54:00) : -- and folks to join,(54:00)  I mean it's amazing. Thank you for joining us for this discussion today, I would like to thank Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu for joining us this week. Additionally a special thanks to Courtney Bryan for providing the music to this broadcast, to the staff of the Department of African-American studies at Princeton University, our office manager, April Peters, our event coordinator, Dionne Worthy, our Social Media Specialist Allison Bland and our Technical Specialist and Audio Engineer, Elio Lleo, remember, you can find this podcast and more by visiting our website aas.princeton.edu, take care

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