By Nii B. Andrews.
The Nsukka art school is predicated on the transformation of traditional uli art into a modernistic visual language thus utilising African indigenous knowledge to impact significantly and positively on global art practice.
Its practitioners utilise natural and man-made objects; they engage with the material and metaphoric impact of these objects; they transform, modify and transmute the objects.
Ozioma Onuzulike is a prolific artist within the Nsukka school; graduated First Class from the Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he is currently Head of Department and professor of ceramic art and African art and design history
“My work is generally inspired by the social histories of the African continent and how such histories impact on the current realities around me, especially in the context of the human condition in my home country Nigeria in which I live and work.
For my current exhibition, THE WAY WE ARE, I offer a selection from three recent bodies of work – the yam project, the ceramic palm kernel shell beads project and the honeycomb project.”
Onuzulike has made millions of palm kernel shells in terracotta, turning many of them into glass beads in a very laborious studio process.
He has woven them into mixed media ceramic structures that resemble Africa’s prestige cloths (such as the Nigerian Akwete and Aso Oke) or imported ones (such as the lace fabric) all of which are highly regarded in Africa as markers of social status.
The irony is that the palm kernel trade was avidly promoted as a viable replacement for the slave trade and today, the former, is still a model for the unbalanced power relations between the West and Africa.
“Palm kernel shells speak about exploitation, how people take the essential content and leave us with shells”, says Onuzulike but he remains undaunted.
His “kernel cloths” reference medieval armor suitable for modern warfare.
Among the Ibo (the artist’s ethnic group), yam was an important socio-economic resource in the traditional system; it was considered sacred. Seed yams were tangible proof of a societal future.
Current climate change and environmental degradation have oftentimes led to devastation of the yam crop.
Onuzulike uses his yam sculpture to provide a trenchant critique of socio-economic conditions in sub Saharan Africa and states in explosive terms,
“When they lie individually, I see in the forms of the yam tubers what look like motionless human bodies encased in body bags.
When sorted and tied together (like in a typical African yam barn), they remind me not only of how African slaves were in the past crammed in slave ships like mere commodities, but also how they are today tightly packed in trucks and boats hazarding the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea with the hope of going to ‘grow’ better in a more conducive environment.
Many have been lost in transit”.
The chief proponents of the Nsuuka school (Chike Aniakor, Obiora Udechukwu, Benjo Igwilo, Chris Echeta, Vincent Ali, Okpan Oyeoku and El Anatsui), are on an exciting journey of seeing, of knowing, of questioning and interrogating established traditions and conventions.
There is a firm intellectual, conceptual and experimental bedrock that anchors the creative ethos of its practitioners who have embarked on an exciting journey that locates the past in the present allowing for the emergence of new visions.
Onuzulike has several volumes of poetry to his credit thus marking him as an acolyte in the artist-poet tradition of certain exemplars of the Nsuuka school – Uche Okeke, Olu Oguibe, Chike Aniakor.
It is therefore not at all surprising that Onuzulike has sounded a somber warning in these perilous times. He does so by utilising terracotta and glass/ glaze for his honeycomb project and explains:
“Life is the greatest natural resource and timeless treasure, and it is as sweet as honey. But the honeycomb, the ‘body’ structure holding the honey, is fragile… the honeycomb as a symbol of the vulnerability of the human body housing our lives – a vulnerability that the Covid-19 episode has greatly amplified”.
The Way We Are; 29 March – 22 April 2021; The New Nsukka School series
kó | 36 Cameron Road, Flat 2, Ikoyi, Lagos
*By Appointment: All visitors must reserve a timed exhibition slot on our online booking form.