Dr. Chika Okeke-Agulu of Princeton on the art of Biafra

Interview by Grace Ishimwe.

Dr Chika Okeke-Agulu specializes in classical, modern, and contemporary African art history and theory. He will be speaking Thursday, April 20th in a panel discussion on the power and politics of memory. This interview was conducted by Grace Ishimwe.

1) How would you describe your major fields of scholarly interest?

My major field is African Art, specifically modern and contemporary African art. But I also have deep interest in ancient and traditional art and visual cultures of African societies, particularly that of the Igbo. In more recent years I have ventured, in my teaching and scholarship, into African American and African Diaspora art.

2) What got you interested in Biafra?

I was a Biafran baby–one of the lucky children of Biafra that survived the war and starvation. That experience is burned into my memory, despite that I was just three years old at the end of the war. But it was as an art student at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, that I began to study and explore the expressive arts and cultures of Biafra. I have not stopped.

3) What specific topics will you be talking about when you come to the conference?

I will be speaking about the work of Obiora Udechukwu, who was a young art student at the beginning of the war, but who became a leading artist associated with the Nsukka School. I examine his war-time art work and poetry, as well as that of other Biafran artists/poets in the postwar years.

4) What lessons do you believe can be learned from the Nigeria-Biafra war (or the response to the war)?

Nigeria has not learned any lesson from the war. Biafra is a wound covered by a scab, but which still hurts Eastern Nigeria and haunts the nation. But the sheer quality and volume of poetry and art produced during or in response the war year after say something about the role of the imagination in the survival of a people. They say something about the fundamental value of the arts to the human society, despite the now fashionable anti-arts disposition of governments everywhere.

Grace Ishimwe is a staff member of the Institute for African Studies and a senior in the Elliott School concentrating in international development and global public health.