- Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth-Century Nigeria by Chika Okeke-Agulu Durham
Chika Okeke-Agulu's Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth-Century Nigeria examines the emergence of postcolonial modernism following Nigeria's independence from Great Britain. He focuses on the arts discourse within Nigeria from 1957 to 1967. Because any discussion of postcolonial modernism must acknowledge Nigerian sociopolitical and intellectual landscapes, Okeke-Agulu grounds his thesis in historical context. He addresses art historical discourses that have shaped the reception of Nigerian modernism, and he offers new interpretations of the fraught relationships between the educated classes of Nigeria and British colonial administrators while introducing the thread of hope that connects each chapter (p. 2). Nigerians on the cusp of independence hoped for political and economic freedom that would be pan-Nigerian in terms of both representation and governance (p. 19). This hope had all but disappeared within six years of independence and Okeke-Agulu concludes his book by discussing how that euphoria devolved into ethnic regionalism and civil war.
Okeke-Agulu's premise is that Nigeria's artistic modernism should reflect its own origins, rather than those of a hierarchical Western system. He asserts that Nigerian modernism is a conjunction of the art and politics of decolonization and that the term
"postcolonial" should be used not only to identify the literary discourse and practice that came after independence, but also the continuing realities of imperialism (p. 12). The author takes up debates raised by Simon Ottenberg in New Traditions from Nigeria: Seven Artists of the Nsukka Group (1998) and Olu Oguibe in The Culture Game (2004). Okeke-Agulu's particular strengths lie as a first-generation artist and historian of post-independent Nigeria who can explain the lingering effects of paternalistic colonialism upon the Nigerian psyche. He provides new interpretations and in-depth historical and ideological analysis of how Nigerian modernism is intertwined with the sociopolitical landscape of educated Nigerians and expatriate stakeholders. He deftly utilizes the language of the colonizer to demonstrate how prevailing imperial biases became entrenched in discourse about African modernism. This is riveting.
The first half of the book discusses conflicts amongst artists and scholars living in Nigeria. While Okeke-Agulu makes clear the parallels between the intellectual ideals in select countries in Anglophone and Francophone Africa, he dismisses assertions that Nigerian modernity is a clone of imported Western ideologies. The second half of the book examines the Zaria Art Society, abstraction, and the emergence of other advanced-study art programs in Nigeria. The last chapter, "Crisis in the Postcolony," raises questions about the legacy of modernism following Nigeria's civil war.
In chapter 1, Okeke-Agulu draws parallels between early twentieth-century British colonial policies and those of the US after Reconstruction. In providing the complex cultural interplay between the ideas of self-expression in Nigeria and W.E.B. Du Bois's call for self-determination, OkekeAgulu broadens the argument across the Atlantic. He links mimicry, double consciousness, and "Ali Mazuri's idea of a triple heritage" together, but says that all these concepts still do not adequately explain what he calls "the African strategy of becoming" (pp. 10-11). The author argues that because Africans embrace neither Western absolutes nor worldviews, terms such as "hybridity," "homogenization," and "syncretism" are similarly inadequate as explanations of postcolonial Nigerian modernity. Instead, he suggests that the artists create their agency through their use of a "compound consciousness that constantly reconstituted itself by selective incorporation of diverse, oppositional, or complimentary elements" (p. 11).
In chapters 2 and 3, in purposeful references to several other African countries and to India, Okeke-Agulu draws parallels between Nigerian nationalism and [End Page 93] self-identity and the larger pan-African and Negritude movements in Africa's diaspora. According to Okeke-Agulu, Nigerian modernism owes its emergence to a triumvirate of pivotal individuals: Aina Onabolu, Kenneth Murray, and Ben Enwonwu. Onabolu, the first Nigerian to paint in a Western style, was an anticolonialist and held beliefs...