Ofodunka: Art, Life, Politics – Chika Okeke-Agulu’s blog
The works by Chika Okeke-Agulu included in the AKALA collection are alive with the tension between freedom and imprisonment; the voluptuous form and the emaciated; calm and chaos; the seen and unseen. Contributing most noticeably to this tension are references to events in Nigerian history that confront Okeke-Agulu’s audience with some of his native country’s tragedies.
Several of Okeke-Agulu’s works connect the viewer to modern Nigeria either through words in the title—Biafra, Jos—or on the canvas. For example, a book entitled “Path of Thunder,” seen on the floor in the painting Freedom Room, can serve as a clue for a viewer to discover Christopher Okigbo, a Nigerian poet who worked at the University of Nsukka and died fighting in the Nigerian-Biafran War.
Okeke-Agulu also effectively blends traditional subjects and contemporary Nigerian settings in a way that pushes the viewer to search beyond the canvas. Two of the works in this collection feature Saint Paul imprisoned in Kirikiri and Bama, both Nigerian prisons.
While engaging the artistic institution of illustrating scenes from the lives of saints, Okeke-Agulu’s Saint Paul, simply by being placed in these particular penitentiaries, draws attention to the state of the justice and penal systems in Nigeria. Rembrandt, the famous Dutch artist, also painted Saint Paul in Prison (1627, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Germany), presenting him as an old man who appears comfortably lost in thought inside his cell. Okeke-Agulu’s Paul is more striking, a mere outline of a man, obviously suffering both mentally and physically.
Chika Okeke-Agulu’s work in the AKALA collection might make the viewer uneasy, perhaps, but also newly aware. Consciousness sparks the momentum for discussion and research, and this pursuit is at the heart of Okeke-Agulu’s work.
Jessica Bailey (2011)