Modern Nigeria is an archetypal cauldron, enmeshed with a variety of cultural groups and traditions, nevertheless united by the prospect of forging a unique
independent national identity. Hausa, Fulbe, Yoruba and Igbo are among the largest of those, in the forty -three years since the end of colonial occupation, struggling to maintain their linguistic and cultural affiliations while simultaneously converging t o create a syncretic sense of Nigerianness. Subsequently, as one means of understanding art, in essence, is as a celebration of identity, artwork in the post -independence era manifests this struggle; thus, placing artists at the epicenter of cultural iden tification.
In the 1960s, artist Uche Okeke emerged as an integral figure in the development of Nigerian art, and thus, Nigerian identity. Drawing from his Igbo heritage, Okeke effectively appropriated pre -colonial artistic traditions and applied them in an “art for art’s sake” context. Okeke’s work, however, is not a mere recontextualization and revitalization of “old” forms. Rather, informed by historical situation, Okeke’s artworks are personal testimonies of struggle characterized by a natural synt hesis of traditional and contemporary form and context. As an emblem of identity in post -colonial Nigeria, however, the doctrinal aesthetic of “natural synthesis” promoted by Okeke is not a simple combination of old and new; it’s true nature is multi -tiered and specific to individual interpretation. Evident in Uche Okeke's 1982 etching Ana, Asele and Badunka, “natural synthesis” represents a merger of uli design forms and Igbo cosmology; a synthesis of traditional design and contemporary applications; and a unification of writing and drawing in which themes of individual, community, and national identity are at the forefront.
Though linguistic affinities united vilages in the Igbo -speaking regions in West Africa prior to colonialism, the acephalous natu re of their communities contributed to a dynamic variation in aesthetic traditions. Body and wal painting were not practiced
throughout the whole of Igboland, nor were they solely referred to as uli painting! Where such practices did exist, motifs and in terpretations differed. It was not until the onset of colonialism, therefore, that communities and traditions in this region were classified under the auspices of a Pan -Igbo identity; in which the practices of uli body and wall painting were promoted as c ommon Igbo customs.2 Therefore, what is currently referred to as uli painting represents the synthesis of a variety of traditions and motifs, in which interpretations stil vary from community to community and artist to artist.
Regardless of classificat ion, however, body and wal l painting designs exist on a similar aesthetic plane. Typicaly, uli designs represent a system of pictographs which, when applied to a given surface, serve as a method of beautification and represent a specific aspect of an ind ividual...