Review: Obiora Udechukwu, Line, Image, Text
Chika Okeke-Agulu, Obiora Udechukwu: Line, Image, Text (Milan: Skira Editore, 2016), 400 pages
Obiora Udechukwu: Line, Image, Text is a book about the drawings of Obiora Udechukwu by a pupil of his, Chika Okeke-Agulu, who is not only an intimate witness but also a disciple of the master’s dedication to studio, demonstrated commitment to scholarship and exemplary personal organisation and self-discipline by which, for example, the over 50 drawing books that inspired the volume have remained intact since the 1960s.
At first encounter, the poetics of line, space, form and texture that characterises Udechukwu’s untitled drawing of 1970, with which the book cover has been elegantly designed, catches the eyes. The organisation of the text that names the book, its author and publisher, takes a cue from Udechukwu’s formal compositions, almost visually becoming a part of the cover drawing itself. This readily invites an aesthetic compulsion to peruse the entire volume – from the front to the back cover designed in fluorescent yellow with a persuasive blurb; from the preliminary pages, through a large album of images, to the index at the rear, altogether covering a total of 400 pages.
As the title of the book goes, it is a critical analysis of both the contexts of practice and the formal tactics of Obiora Udechukwu’s drawings in terms of the artist’s engagement with the three most defining elements characterising his work over the past 50 years – Line, Image and Text. Although Udechukwu has produced a large body of work in painting, the book argues that “his defining work is in drawing” (p.13) and that “if there is a ground line, an armature that has for decades held together the artist’s drawing, it is what one might call the rhetoric of the line – line as graphic mark that can as easily yield mimetic or abstract image as it can form legible or indecipherable text”(p.13).
The book is organised in three sections – “Pictures”, “World” and “Self” – each preceded by some text. The first section carries the author’s critical essay titled “Drawing and the Poetic Imagination” and a recent interview with Udechukwu titled “Drawing, Image, Poetry: A Conversation”. The second is preceded by “Obiora Udechukwu and Modern Uli Art” and “An Interview (1994)”. The third and final section is preceded by a short essay “Self-Portraiture: A Note”.
The critical essay and interview that appear in the first section provide the theoretical framework through which we view Udechukwu’s position on the terrain of “mid-twentieth-century postcolonial modernism in Nigeria and Africa” (p.13). with them, readers are enabled to appreciate the formal and conceptual evolution of Udechukwu’s drawings over the past 50 years, especially his uli-inspired work from 1975 when he held his first exhibition of drawings, entitled Homage to Christopher Okigbo.
In “Obiora Udechukwu and Modern Uli Art” found in the second section, Okeke-Agulu uses a technical and stylistic description of traditional uli art and a detailed analysis of Udechukwu’s drawings to re-visit the emergence in Nsukka of a distinctive art modernism inaugurated by a group of intellectual artists and scholars that converged there in the post-civil war 1970s. He recaps the materials, forms and functions of traditional uli drawings and paintings of Igbo women, which have been the subject of many studies. This recap is strategic for it leads readers of the book who have no background knowledge on uli art into an understanding and appreciation of how it provided the core of Udechukwu’s technical, formal and aesthetic facility in drawing. In doing this, the author relies on a poetic description of the stylistics of traditional uli by Chike Aniakor to summarise its basic formal features as follows:
At its best, uli is the rhythmic temper of line like a melodic note plucked from the thumb piano (Ubo Akwala). In uli, the line dances, spirals into diverse shapes, elongates, attenuates, thickens, swells and slides, thins and fades out from a slick point, leaving an empty space that sustains it with mute echoes by which silence is part of sound (p.286).
The many plates of Udechukwu’s works in colour and in black-and-white that make up the book show that a greater number of the artist’s works, especially since 1975, follow the formal idiom of traditional uli, which Aniakor has so precisely and eloquently described.
In the third and final section, which deals with Udechukwu’s self portraits, Okeke-Agulu uses a short essay to address them as the artist’s “critical self-examination” (p.358) and “a unique if complicated form of crisis art.” Since a good number of the portraits were made during the civil war period when there was “radical uncertainty and precariousness of life”, Okeke-Agulu reads them as an archive “of a life confronted by existential doubts and anxieties during a devastating war, and its immediate aftermath” (p.358). However, while Okeke-Agulu’s thought-provoking theorisation of Udechukwu’s self portraits opens fresh lines of critical thinking, or even intellectual debates, his inclusion of some works in watercolour, and perhaps ink wash, as “drawing” and his repeated reference to the entire body of Udechukwu’s self-portraits, for example, as “drawings”(p.358) is controversial, especially as he offers no rationale for his decision.
It is in its capacity to inspire and provoke further critical debates and intellectual discussions of Udechukwu’s works that lie the success and significance of the book. First, the author has provided critical essays and intellectual discourses that place Udechukwu at the centre of debates surrounding “contemporary art and mid-twentieth-century postcolonial modernism in Nigeria and Africa” (p.13). Second, he has archived in a single volume, “a gallery of drawings” (p.9) that illustrates “not only how far Udechukwu has come since the first uli-influenced work of 1975 but also the extent to which what began as an identification with a formal principle of a specifically Igbo art form has, through the intermediation of Nsibidi signs and Chinese calligraphy and drawing, resulted in a powerfully expressive, multi-referential work” (p.290). Third, the inclusion, just before the book’s index, of a timeline on Udechukwu, written by the art historian and curator Perrine Lathrop, and a detailed bibliography on him compiled by Janet Stanley, an accomplished librarian with the Smithsonian Institution, provide a significant intellectual resource on the life and multi-disciplinary work of Obiora Udechukwu.
What these imply is that the book places the full range of the core of Udechukwu’s eventful career in the public domain. Okeke-Agulu has prepared the ground properly for further intellectual work by scholars, curators and all those interested in postcolonial debates and in the histories and divergent forms of African art modernisms.
September 28, 2020
September 25, 2020