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Living in the Future

Yesterday I was delighted to host 36 secondary school students and their teacher who came on a scheduled excursion to my Oguta studio. They were in a dilemma choosing their future professions, and their school did not have a guidance counselor to help them.

When I was in secondary school at Okigwe, we had a guidance counselor that virtually no one consulted. Most students passed through the school believing that the guidance counselor was there to advise undisciplined students, or something extraordinary that wasn’t meant for us. So there I was that afternoon, at the balcony of my house defending why I became an artist.

This is why I love teaching- as one interacts with the students, it soon seems like a personal reaffirmation of commitment to one’s chosen career path. Speaking with these young students felt like looking back, then delving deep into the future.

Professor Uche Okeke created the foundation for what we know today as the Nsukka School. He died last month after a long and productive life. I was shocked by a recent conversation with a former alumnus of mine who didn’t know who Uche Okeke was! Granted that he never taught my set directly, but I thought the general art history classes must have said something about him. Sadly, I recall that the obsolete curriculum of secondary schools only taught students of such painters as Aina Onabolu, and all the old western masters. Nigeria’s recent masters do not have a place in the antiquated colonial-era inspired history lessons.

A case has been made against the issue of non-inclusiveness of the old African masters who were contemporaries of other western artists in the books narrating the history of Art. Books that claim to relate the history of Art, by default, seem to ignore the fact of artists who lived and worked professionally in the same times as their masters.

African art critics, curators and historians in the past two decades have decried the biased art history stories in books written by western writers.

Maybe one of the most instructive, and essential books on Nigeria’s Art history is the acclaimed Post-Modern Colonialism, by Chika Okeke-Agulu. The book tells the story of the contributions of its artists to the development and growth of the Nigerian nation. Of course the book goes far beyond this. Speaking to the students who came on an excursion to my studio yesterday, I realized that the book is a must-read for students of Nigerian, nay, African art. (I broaden the scope of importance since Africa generally has a shared colonial experience).

Maybe it will be asking too much of the author of the book, but I realized that an abridged edition written for secondary school students would indeed be of great benefit. One also hopes that the tertiary institutions will include it in their curriculum and libraries. Of course, there will be arguments for and against the contents of the book. But the point remains that there should be more scholarly work about African art history.

When I taught at Whitesands School in 2009, I realized that the entire curriculum of the Nigerian educational system needed a major overhaul. Our history lessons are obsolete, warped with a bias, and told ‘from the outside’, in a way irrelevant to our local values and aspirations as a people. For decades, African history has been told by strangers. The stories are more like a stranger’s narration of a foreign culture. History is being made everyday. We must write our stories. No one can tell it better than the people directly involved. Hopefully, recent scholarship will rise to the task of documenting, and translating the stories. That way, we take our place in posterity. Then maybe, most likely, we will not be forgotten so soon. The future is in our hands to see and live in.

I expressed my gratitude to the secondary school pupils for the visit, and then I took a group photograph with them. The picture is important for me. I saw the future there. I wanted to cherish the moment over and over again. I hope the students learnt the things that I reiterated- whatever career path you take, work hard at it like an artist, with an eye for details, creating new solutions to old problems, staying innovative. I think Art should be taught as a general course to new entrants into the university. Art refines the human, totally.

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