Courtesy of the artist and Skoto Gallery
Article written by Holland Cotter
Histories of Modernism are constantly changing as scholars come to realize its global breadth and local particularities. The marketplace is slower on the uptake. Although New York has a few galleries specializing in early-to-mid-20th-century Asian work, Skoto Gallery in Chelsea remains, more than two decades after it opened, the sole full-time outlet for comparable work from Africa. And it gives us some Modernism-merging-into-contemporary basics in a thumbnail survey of works on paper by the influential West African artist Uche Okeke.
Born in Nigeria in 1933, Mr. Okeke was, in the 1950s, a founding member of the Zaria Art Society, a group of academically trained experimental artists who joined Western mediums — oil paint, pastel, pen and ink — and African content. That content, for Mr. Okeke, included a distinctive type of drawing associated with the Igbo people of southern Nigeria. While many of his colleagues emigrated to Europe and the United States, he has spent almost all of his career in Africa, teaching until the late 1980s at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka. The result is art that, without looking specifically ethnic, is thoroughly and consciously African in its references.
It is also inventively restless. In the work at Skoto, much of it consisting of notebook studies beginning in 1958, when he was in art school, Mr. Okeke moves from fleet watercolor landscape sketches, to ink drawings of fantastic creatures derived from folklore, to portraits that incorporate elements of ancient Nigerian Nok sculpture. And interspersed throughout are drawings of curved and jagged abstract patterns that have sources in Igbo body painting and would have thrilled the jazz dancer in Mondrian. Put any of these modest-size drawings in a gallery at the Museum of Modern Art (will we ever see this?) with comparably scaled Western work, and you’ll find both that they fit right in, and that they don’t, which is precisely the tension that makes them, and the larger Modernism, so interesting.
529 West 20th Street, Chelsea
Through Feb. 21