Exhibition Making in Enugu and Nsukka, Nigeria: 1960s-1990s

Figure 1: Olu Byron, Hair Plaiting in Nigeria, pencil, 1965, dimensions unknown


Relying essentially on archival and library research, this article examines the (hi)story of exhibition making in Enugu and Nsukka (the political and educational capitals of Nigeria’s eastern region, respectively), beginning from the immediate postcolonial epoch of the 1960s, through the post-war period of the 1970s to the 1980s-1990s, historical periods when Nigerian artists constructed and consolidated their own perspectives on aesthetic modernism.

We show how exhibitions and their making reveal a lot about the contexts of practice by artists associated with both locales during the period under review.


In about the past one hundred years, Enugu has been the most important administrative centre in the South-East of Nigeria since it rose to prominence with the discovery and subsequent mining of coal. It was the political capital of Eastern Nigeria, and also served as capital of the secessionist state of Biafra (1967-1970) and later East Central State, then Anambra State and currently Enugu State. Enugu used to have a major railway station and, later, an airport through which most dignitaries, senior government officials, business moguls, and diplomats moved in and out of the city, making it an important melting pot for cultural and artistic events east of the Niger River.

About forty minutes north of Enugu is Nsukka, a town developed amidst rolling hills, which became the educational and intellectual capital of Eastern Nigeria with the establishment of the first locally-founded and administered degree-awarding university in Nigeria in 1960. Similarly, the Enwonwu College of Fine Art was opened in 1961 at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and became the first academic institution in Nigeria to award its own degree in fine art. Among the early Nigerian lecturers were Oseloka Osadebe and Emmanuel Odita, two members of the Zaria Art Society, a small collective of art students at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology (located in Zaria, in the North of Nigeria), who sought to decolonise the art curriculum between 1958 and 1961.[1] Other artists of the Zaria fame, especially Uche Okeke, were to join the Nsukka art faculty in 1970 after the Nigerian civil war. Also the College of Music and the Department of English (established in 1961 and 1960, respectively) would later collaborate with the visual artists at the Nsukka campus of the University of Nigeria in many vital creative activities, including art exhibitions, concerts, theatre productions and poetry writing and recitation. Nsukka had become a converging point for many important artists and writers following the 1966 pogrom in Northern Nigeria against people of the Eastern Region. The imminent war, following the massacre of Igbo people in the north, had sparked off their mass return from other parts of the country.[2] Among them were intellectuals and students drawn from educational institutions in Northern and Western Nigeria who were absorbed by the University of Nigeria at Nsukka before and after the civil war (1967-1970). This influx enriched the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

Exhibition Spaces and Cultural Institutions in Enugu

Although the British Council was established in Nigeria in 1934, its influence on visual artists in Eastern Nigeria became more visible when it began collaborations with the Mbari Artists and Writers Club and other cultural groups based in Enugu in the 1960s. Apart from the Eastern Nigeria Festival of the Arts that had been an important annual creative programme organised by the government in Enugu, which included visual art competitions and exhibitions by school pupils and students from mostly post primary schools, the most important professional exhibitions that took place in Enugu began in 1963 at the Mbari Art Centre (the physical structure hosting activities of the Mbari Artists and Writers Club), located on Agbani Road.

The Mbari Artists and Writers Club was inaugurated in March 1963 by the former governor of Eastern Nigeria, Dr. Akanu Ibiam, and was composed of members of the Eastern Nigeria Theatre Group, the Art Club, the Writers’ Club, and the Musical Society led by Lawrence Emeka, Uche Okeke, Gabriel Okara, and John Ekwere, respectively. In 1965, the British Council collaborated with Asele Enugu[3] and the Mbari Artists and Writers Club to run an art educational workshop with Uche Okeke serving as one of the instructors. Uche Okeke had graduated only a few years earlier from the art department of the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology (NCAST), Zaria (now Ahmadu Bello University). He was joined in the Mbari Artists and Writers Club by other emerging professional artists of that era especially Emmanuel Odita, Oseloka Osadebe, Ogbonnaya Nwagbara, and Olusegun Byron.

According to Kayoma Josephine Eyinmisan’s account[4], the Mbari Centre’s first exhibition was in March 1963, presenting Oseloka Osadebe and Emmanuel Odita, who were then teaching at the newly established Enwonwu College of Fine Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, as young graduate assistants. The exhibition was among the activities held during the inauguration of the Mbari Artists and Writers Club. Oseloka Osadebe and Okechukwu Odita’s joint exhibition of 1963 was declared open by Dr. Akanu Ibiam, the Governor of Eastern Nigeria. Emmanuel Odita’s solo show was opened by F. O. Ihenacho (at that time Chairman of the Eastern Nigeria Public Service Commission, Enugu). Influential public servants and politicians were usually invited to grace the formal opening of art exhibitions as endorsements of the artists’ intellectual and social worth, and they usually attracted the attention of the press and the general public.

In January 1964, Uche Okeke showed his paintings and drawings in an exhibition at the Mbari Centre opened by Mr N.U. Akpan, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education, Enugu. Okeke’s show opened the floodgate for many others in 1964, including the “Enugu Artists” exhibition, which also marked the first anniversary of the Mbari Artists and Writers Club. There was also the well-received exhibition of drawings and paintings by John Olusegun Byron (popularly called Olu Byron) in September 1965. Byron, who worked as a graphic artist with the Ministry of Information, Enugu, showed many naturalistic works that thrilled the audience (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Olu Byron, Hair Plaiting in Nigeria, pencil, 1965, dimensions unknown

In January and May 1965, other group exhibitions were held at the Centre. The January show comprised of the works by members of the Mbari Club and some other prominent Nigerian artists, including Bruce Onobrakpeya, E. Mukoro and Felix Ekeada. Also included for the first time were the works of two young artists, Chike Bosa and Uzochukwu Ndubuisi (a gifted young man who was a private student of Uche Okeke). The May show was entitled “Some Nigerian Designs” and was organised to coincide with the 1965 Festival of Arts, the annual regional festival of arts, comprising exhibitions of visual arts, music, theatre, writing, dance and masquerade displays. Works on show included those of Yusuf Grillo and Ogbonnaya Nwagbara, both former members of the Zaria Art Society. The exhibition usually brought together the works of more established artists and budding ones as a way of encouraging their growth. The interdisciplinary nature of the festival emphasised the oneness of music, theatre and the visual arts.

The Mbari Centre closed due to the outbreak of the Nigerian civil war in July 1967. Before then, the centre’s programme under the directorship of Uche Okeke brought respectability to the visual art and inspired a number of young talents. Among them were Obiora Udechukwu, Uzo Ndubuisi, Inyang U. Ema and Kevin Echeruo. The post-independence euphoria was still very strong, and the exhibitions were usually well attended by enthusiastic audiences[5]. Artists and their audiences basked in this euphoria, making works that reflected aspects of the people’s modern tastes (as evident in the works by Olu Byron who created paintings of genre figures showing off imported textiles and other modern fashion accessories). All of the exhibitions were organised and curated by the artists themselves, some of whom (especially Uche Okeke) were self-trained writers, critics and art historians. There were no professional curators during that period. Most of the exhibitions were organised by individuals or groups of artists and by organisations such as the Mbari Artists and Writers Club.

Figure 2: The British Council building, Enugu. Photo by Okey Ikenegbu

Beside the Mbari Artists and Writers Club, Enugu, no other cultural establishment supported or promoted art in Enugu as did the British Council (Figure 2), which ran a well-structured exhibition programme including a wide range of the visual artists – painters, sculptors, ceramic artists, printmakers, textile designers and photographers. Some of the exhibitions at the British Council, Enugu in the 1970s include El Anatsui’s Broken Pots (an exhibition of experimental ceramics) and Chukwuanugo S. Okeke’s Printed and Woven Textiles. The government-owned Hotel Presidential Enugu provided one of the other important exhibition venues beginning in the 1960s[6]. There was also the French cultural institute (Alliance Française), Enugu, which began as French Centre and which came to limelight as an alternative venue for exhibitions when it hosted the inaugural exhibition of the AKA Circle of Exhibiting Artists[7] in 1986. Remaining active till date, some of the other important art events hosted by the French Centre include Chris Afuba’s solo show of 1985 and a show of the Visual Orchestra[8] in 1990. There were also The Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) Press Centre, National Museum and Bona Gallery, all of which provided active alternative exhibition spaces up to the 1990s.

The Nsukka-Enugu Creative Exchanges

Exhibitions usually toured from Nsukka to Enugu but hardly from Enugu to Nsukka. This is because Nsukka is a small university town while Enugu, being the capital of the former Eastern Region of Nigeria, is cosmopolitan and also hosts many foreign cultural missions and citizens who promoted artists. Enugu is to Eastern Nigeria what Lagos is to Nigeria, and every ambitious Nsukka-based artist exhibited in Enugu, and also in Lagos, Port Harcourt and Abuja, but not before showing at home in Nsukka.

Between 1967 and 1970, the Nigerian civil war, which was fought in the Eastern Region, stalled the growth of the visual art in Nsukka and Enugu especially after both towns were captured by the federal troops. Uche Okeke and other artists managed to keep art alive in the secessionist state of Biafra, blockaded from all sides, with a few exhibitions, both within Biafra and in Germany.[9] There were also theatre productions and wartime poetry readings at Ogwa in the present-day Imo State. One of the groups that emerged out of that experiment was called Odunke. Members of the Odunke Group continued to publish documents, including exhibition catalogues, such as Obiora Udechukwu’s Homage to Christopher Okigbo (1975), even after the civil war.

During the Nigerian civil war, many artists worked under the Directorate of Information or had other art related responsibilities while others took up combat duties. Art students and lecturers who survived the war came back to Nsukka with greater artistic zest and creative initiatives grounded in Igbo cultural ideals. In 1970, Chike Aniakor and Uche Okeke joined the academic staff of the Enwonwu College of Fine Arts at Nsukka, which became the Department of Fine and Applied Arts in 1974. There, Aniakor and Okeke helped to reorganise the art curriculum[10]. There was a vigorous reconstruction of Igbo artistic modes enabled by the artists’ research into the extant arts of their people, especially the wall and body paintings called uli. Appropriating the formal and conceptual strategies of traditional uli art, Nsukka artists succeeded in creating a modern art idiom that was to distinguish them from other art schools in Nigeria. Many exhibitions in the 1970s and 1980s became a showcase for the Nsukka art praxis grounded in uli aesthetics, which emphasised spontaneity and brevity of artistic expression using line, texture and enormous space. This rubbed off on the artists trained at the Institute of Management and Technology, Enugu[11].

Although Uche Okeke and Chike Aniakor are generally considered the driving force that fostered the grounding of modern uli aesthetics in Nsukka after the war in 1970, Obiora Udechukwu later became the flagship of its propagation. By the time he graduated in 1972, Udechukwu had already found his voice in the deployment of the uli idiom for serious social commentaries, culminating in what has become a very memorable exhibition of 1981 entitled No Water (Figure 3) in which, according to Chinua Achebe, he “probes one of the best examples of our social ineptitude and obtuseness – our inability, in the midst of plenty, to give our people mere drinking water”[12]. Udechukwu’s breathtaking facility with the line earned him praise as “the poet of the clean and eloquent line”.[13] The artist demonstrated this creative eloquence beginning with his earlier 1975 exhibition entitled Homage to Christopher Okigbo held at the British Council, Enugu, and later in 1976 at the Gong Gallery in Lagos. The show was Udechukwu’s tribute to Christopher Okigbo, one of Nigeria’s brightest poets who was killed at the Nsukka front at the beginning of the civil war in 1967. The show’s invitation card is composed of a drawing by the artist.

Figure 3: Obiora Udechukwu, No Water (Exhibition Catalogue), Nsukka, Nigeria: Odunke Publications, 1981, 40 pages

In the 1970s, Nsukka artists worked vigorously as if to regain the time lost during the war. They seized all available venues or spaces to show their works. As intellectuals, their privileged position was not in doubt. The exhibition spaces readily available for their use were the contemporary art gallery of the Institute of African Studies (Figure 4) and the Continuing Education Centre (popularly called CEC), both located in the Nsukka campus of the University of Nigeria. The Continuing Education Centre (CEC) was one of the facilities built at the inception of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in the early 1960s to serve as a conference centre. Its auditorium, Niger Hall[14], was designed with a large hallway that led into seminar rooms. Flanked by collapsible wooden panels, the hallway had spotlights and provided an impressive space for art exhibitions.

Figure 4: Institute of African Studies Museum, University of Nigeria, Nsukka

There was also the Asele Art Gallery located in Uche Okeke’s residence on the Nsukka Campus. Of significance is the Ana Gallery which was established in the Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, by the end of 1977. It was officially inaugurated on January 28, 1978 with an exhibition opened by Justice Okechukwu Adimora. The inaugural exhibition included works by notable Nigerian artists of that era, including Uche Okeke, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Felix Ekeada, and Simon Okeke.

With the two most important art schools in Eastern Nigeria situated in the same state, it naturally fostered creative collaborations and sometimes competitions between artists working in both towns (Nsukka and Enugu). In 1986, some thirteen artists working in Nsukka, Enugu and other towns in the old Anambra State, formed a collective called the “AKA Circle of Exhibiting Artists”.[15] They made and showed innovative works every year and the initiative lasted for thirteen years. AKA became an annual festival in Enugu and Lagos, inspiring a significant outburst of creative energy especially among younger artists. AKA exhibitions also gave rise to the emergence of other collectives led by younger artists, especially Krydz Ikwuemesi who became the driving force in the inauguration and administration of the Visual Orchestra group and the Pan-African Circle of Artists. This development led to the growth of professional art practice in the Nsukka and Enugu axis of south-eastern Nigeria in the 1990s. The new groups were modelled after AKA through which member-artists exhibited regularly and had well documented and produced exhibition catalogues. Introductory essays by leading art historians, critics and commentators, such as Chike Aniakor, Ola Oloidi, Ossie Enekwe, Obiora Udechukwu, and Anene Obianyido, helped to invigorate the practice of art criticism in the country. The exhibition catalogues by the AKA artists were usually well illustrated and documented; becoming models for fledgling artists in the country (Figure 5). The group, however, had no central curator. Rather, each artist chose what to show each year – a model that was also followed by other groups such as the Visual Orchestra.

Figure 5: AKA ’87, 2nd Annual Exhibition Catalogue, 1987, 80 pages.

Before the advent of the AKA Circle of Exhibiting Artists, Uche Okeke who was meticulous with documentation, had mentored many of the artists who held shows in Nsukka and Enugu by his antecedents. It soon became a norm for exhibitions to be accompanied by printed catalogues, usually including introductory essays by fellow artists or art historians.[16] Exhibition catalogues became so significant and almost compulsory that artists used the cheapest means and technology available to produce them. In the 1970s, exhibition catalogues were usually produced by making covers using a combination of screen-printed images and letter-press texts or by lithography, depending on the artist’s budget. The inside pages usually contained a list of works, artist’s biography and introductory essay simply cut in stencils and cyclostyled. These were simply bound up using stapling pins. If colour pages were desired, colour printing sheets were used (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Obiora Udechukwu and Osita Njelita, Nsukka School: A Step Forward (Exhibition Catalogue), Institute of African Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, 1977, 5 pages.

Artists sometimes made invitation cards using a combination of letterpress and screen-printing. The printing technology using stencils and cyclostyling machines could not allow reproduction of images of the artists’ works in the exhibition catalogues, but the publications remain invaluable sources of research information today. The exhibition catalogues can be found in the private collections of the exhibiting artists and their colleagues, patrons, the Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria Library and other institutions like the Smithsonian Institution, New York. With improvement in technology, especially from the mid-1970s, reproductions of images of artists’ works became an important feature of the exhibition catalogues. But the cyclostyling technique continued to be used even in the 1990s by artists who could not afford the cost of lithographic prints. What was significant for the artists was to have the shows documented, a consciousness popularised by the orientation at Nsukka in the 1970s and which became a tradition that was later emulated by artists in other parts of Nigeria.


The story of exhibition making in Enugu and Nsukka between the 1960s and the 1990s parallels the dexterity and patience employed in kindling fire using twigs and dry leaves and coaxing it with sustained fanning until it flares up. This article has identified Uche Okeke, members of the Mbari Artists and Writers Club and scholars from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, as major catalysts in the enduring professionalization as well as promotion of art practice in Enugu and Nsukka in the 1960s and the 1970s while the succeeding generations led by Obiora Udechukwu and others further advanced it in the 1980s and 1990s. The Department of Fine and Applied Arts of the University of Nigeria and the Institute of Management and Technology Enugu produced the most visible artists of the period. While the Institute of African Studies, Continuing Education Centre (CEC), Asele Gallery and Ana Gallery provided exhibition spaces at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, the British Council, the government owned Presidential Hotel, the French Cultural Centre, the Nigerian Union of Journalists’ Press Centre, the National Museum as well as the privately owned Bona Gallery were the prominent exhibition venues in Enugu up till the 1990s. By maintaining the culture of intellectualization of visual art through consistent documentation of exhibition proceedings in catalogues, and promoting the emergence of groups of exhibiting artists, the Nsukka and Enugu artists created an enduring art culture which has been adopted by other art regions of Nigeria.

Ozioma Onuzulike and Chijioke Onuora
Department of Fine and applied Arts,
University of Nigeria, Nsukka


[1] See Chike Okeke-Agulu, “Nationalism and the Rhetoric of Modernism in Nigeria: The Art of Uche Okeke and Demas Nwoko, 1960-1968” African Arts, Vol. 39, No. 1 (Spring, 2006), pp. 26-37, 92-93. See also Simon Ottenberg (ed.) The Nsukka Artists and Nigerian Contemporary Art (Seattle: Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, 2002).

[2] See Toyin Falola and Ogechukwu Ezekwem (eds), Writing the Nigeria-Biafra War, New York: James Currey, 2016

[3] This refers to the cultural resource centre set up in Enugu by Uche Okeke in the early 1960s. It housed works collected by the artist and his associates over the years and a library of books of various interests and exhibition catalogues.

[4] See Kayoma Josephine Eyinmisan, “Mbari – An Artists’ and Writers’ Club in Enugu”, Unpublished B.A. Thesis, Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka (June 1980).

[5] Eyinmisan, “Mbari – An Artists’ and Writers’ Club in Enugu”.

[6] The Hotel Presidential was regarded as prestigious space that attracted wealthy art collectors up until its closure in the 2000s. Sponsored by the British Council, Uche Okeke exhibited there in 1965 and followed up with another exhibition at the British Council facilities in Enugu in 1967.

[7] AKA was a platform for some outstanding visual art professionals working in institutions around Enugu and Nsukka to exhibit their works every year for greater visibility and exposure of the individual members.

[8] This was a collective of young artists in eastern Nigeria.

[9] The exhibition in Germany refers to the show of artworks and crafts of Biafran artists and craftsmen to sensitize the German citizens on the plight of the Biafran people. This exhibition toured the German towns of Cologne, Bonn, Essen, Dortmund, Dusseldorf, Tier and Munich in 1969. See Simon Ikpakronyi “Uche Okeke in The Growth of Modern Nigerian Art” in Dike, P.C. and Oyelola, P. (eds.) Nku Di Na Mba, Uche Okeke and Modern Nigerian Art, (Lagos: National Gallery of Art, 2003), p.115.

[10] The post civil war curriculum was built on a strong theoretical base where the local art tradition was given prominence. It was in this programme that Uche Okeke tried out the “Natural Synthesis” ideology which he and the members of Zaria Art Society proposed between 1958 and 1961.

[11] In the early 1970s, Okeke was also influential in the writing of the curriculum for the Department of Fine and Applied Arts, Institute of Management and Technology (IMT), Enugu. The IMT, Enugu became reputable for its very strong sculpture tradition. Its sculpture garden has been famous since the 1980s, leading to commissions by the state government for the installation of a selection of the sculptures in important open-air spaces across Enugu capital city.

[12] See Chinua Achebe, “Foreword” in No Water by Obiora Udechukwu, (Nsukka, Nigeria: Odunke Publications, 1981), p.3

[13] Achebe, “Foreword”.

[14] That wing of the building was recently lost to a fire incident.

[15] The artists were: Obiora Udechukwu, El Anatsui, Chike Aniakor, Chris Afuba, Chris Echeta, Ifedioranma Dike, Chike Ebebe, Samson Uchendu, Bona Ezeudu, Obiora Anidi, Nsikak Essien, Boniface Okafor and Tayo Adenaike.

[16] In the case of Nsukka, most artists were (and still are) also art critics and historians largely due to the academic orientation there beginning with the pedagogical approach of Uche Okeke and Chike Aniakor, and later Obiora Udechukwu and Ola Oloidi, especially in the 1970s and 1980s.

Ozioma Onuzulike
Dr. and Lecturer. at Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts at University of Nigeria, Nsukka | Ozioma.onuzulike@unn.edu.ng | Website

Ozioma Onuzulike and Chijioke Onuora
Department of Fine and applied Arts,
University of Nigeria, Nsukka