Osuanyi Quaicoo Essel & Mahmoud Malik Saako & Ernst Wagner

Uche Okeke, Untitled (named "CHRIST" on the backside), 1961, oil on painting cardboard, 122,3 x 60,5 cm, Iwalewahaus Bayreuth (c)

A Christian, a Muslim, or a traditional work?

One of the renowned Nigerian artists who doubled as a leading member of a famous group which became known in the contemporary artworld of Nigeria as Zaria Rebels, revealed the complexities involved in taking absolute stance without a thorough reflection of internal and external cultural nuances. In one of his paintings done in 1961, Okeke presented a composition that featured a seated human-like figure costumed in what appears to be a white long sleeved flowing garment with tree-shaped objects as background.

  • Osuanyi Quaicoo Essel
    Osuanyi Quaicoo Essel

    The seated human-like figure is centrally placed with the head occupying almost the centre of the entire composition while the hands rest gently on the laps. The head and the face of the human figure is rendered in planes and cubistic orientation, a style reminiscent in precolonial African wooden sculptures. Hands of the figure received similar cubistic treatment with less details as in realistic depiction. Interestingly, there is a deliberate subtle emphasis on the head size of the figure. In African sculptural renditions, the human head is considered as seat of wisdom and, therefore, presented bigger to defile the realistic canonic proportions and connote its Afrocentric symbolic essence. This concept of head re(presentation) is termed as African proportions (Amenuke et al, 1991).


    To create a harmonious contrast of colour and shape, tints of yellow forms an arc-shaped design around the head. This treatment possibly suggests a halo effect characteristic of saintly figural paintings in Western art traditions. It also mimics a turbaned human figure. As an artist who hailed from a predominately Muslim community, this stylistic treatment, perhaps, pays tribute to his religious cultural background. The eyes are presented with dark brown rectangular dabs, with the forehead gently highlighted with bright yellows, a treatment that puts the human figure in a meditative mood and sanctimonious character. Though Uche Okeke presented the work in a portrait orientation, the skilful placement of the human figure, and the peculiar colouration of the head regions creates a triangular effect when imaginary diagonal lines are projected from the bottom corners of the composition to the halo-shaped found on the head. Similarly, the haloed effect on the head and the elongated pharaonic beard creates an imaginary inverted triangle resonating a visual excitement. 


    Symbolically, yellow depicts riches and royalty in African colour scheme. With this schematic colouration, Okeke gave a clue to the kingly characteristics of the human figure. The white looking garment of the figure also adds to the sanctimonious conjecture of the figure as in African colour symbolism. The artist’s use of luminous chromatic reflection of the tint of yellow and dark shades helped in achieving the sense of depth in the garment. Complementing the overall kingly posture of the human figure is its elongated pharaonic beard and bodily language as found in sculptures of ancient Egyptian kings.


    Okeke skilfully deceived viewers of this composition into believing that it is symmetrical per its stylistic tendency, yet an intense observation reveals a psychedelic mutation of the placement of the fingers, padding of the background with tree-shaped figures in rich application of tints and shades of black, yellow and brown to create contrast of colours and shapes. Placement of the trees in colour variations and the sprouting of the branches forms a psychedelic cross and contribute to breaking monotony. The patchy effects of the intense yellow forming the negative spaces adds to creating a perceptual believability that the human figure wears a contemplative mood per the facial looks. There seem to be gentle highlights of the yellow from the shoulders to the halo-shaped object.


    Per the compositional portrayal, Okeke showed a kingly and majestic posture of, perhaps, the Christian religious icon in Africanised bodily posture and cultural praxis. This compositional contextualisation feeds into his personal manifesto that he did not subscribe to borrowing Western artistic accent hook, line and sinker. Neither was he comfortable with resorting his Nigerian indigenous artistic traditions without modification. He emphasised in his manifesto that it is ‘… futile copying our old art heritages, for they stand for our old order. Culture lives by change. Today's social problems are different from yesterday's, and we shall be doing grave disservice to Africa and mankind by living in our fathers' achievements’ (Okeke, n.d). For that reason, he appropriated western artistic accents and fused them with Afrocentric artistic concepts and perspectives to achieve a hybrid artistic language which is not purely African nor Western, but yet circumvent the boundaries of artistic cultural traditions in general. The fusion lends itself to exploring the familiar and the unfamiliar to create a renewed breed of art. He called this effect ‘natural synthesis’. Emanating from Nigerian non-conformist artist group named Zaria Rebels, Okeke sought to reinterpret the Western artistic style of realistic depiction, perspectival detailing, accurate proportions and tonal gradation he was exposed to by the Eurocentric-inspired faculty in the so-called formal education setup in art in Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. As part of the pioneering post-independence artists in Nigeria, Uche Okeke was experimenting for a renewed artistic accent for his creations through the assessment of his Nigerian cultural values and the new artistic training he had been exposed to in order to arrive at the boundary of these two traditions.


    Using this painting in teaching and learning in the context of collective memory could inspire relevant competencies in the learners. Gathering inspiration from the artistic pursuit of Okeke, learners could fuse multiple artistic traditions of the artworld to arrive at their individualised artistic accents. Teachers could engage learners in this manner by asking them to borrow and appropriate a foreign artistic style and fuse it with their nationalistic art making techniques to develop a new breed of art or concept. Teachers could also discuss with learners about the fact that gathering artistic inspiration is multicultural with no boundaries. Furnishing learners with links to the biographical account of the artist for them to understand his cultural nuances remains key in the process. It would also be beneficial to guide learners to explore with their own interpretation of the artwork (figure 1). Teachers could also provide learners with printed copy of the painting and ask them to redraw this religious-centred figure to suit their own religious understanding and cultures.  This approach addresses the competencies of critical thinking and problem solving; creativity and innovation; cultural identity and global citizenship; and personal development.  



    Mahmoud Malik Saako
    Mahmoud Malik Saako

    The image is presented in a form of a male figure in a seated position with long beard, white turban, white robe, long sleeves and a probably waist band. The painting represents fairly the complexion of a male, black bearded and wearing a face mask, with hands resting on the laps possibly in a meditation mood. The Background is probably a wooded environment or garden with tall trees of two colours (black and yellow). The figure seated probably on a staircase or an amphitheater. The sun ray penetrating through the tree created shaded patches reflected on the image.


    An Islamic perspective: I base my interpretation of the painting on Islamic perspective as one of the foreign region that had an early contact in northern Nigeria as early as 15th century long before Christianity and eventual colonization of Nigeria by European power (the British) and its possible independence in the 1960. The emir is mostly male usually dressed with a white robe, long sleeves and a white turban tied around his head to signify his authority. The painting perhaps represents an Emir of the Zaria state at that time sitting in a garden relaxing.


    Using an African mask: The use of an African mask to represent the figure was done deliberately or perhaps to avoid revolution from the Muslim community of disrespecting their leader which the author was much familiar in this volatile society especially, the intolerance nature between Muslims and Christians at this era in the Zaria state. The mask as a tradition signature that ubiquitous across many cultures that can be used to represent the religious discourses by appropriating and manipulating them to produce art forms of the past to produce a mythology for the present.



    1. The image portrays the power of the emir in the Zaria state with a possibly palace and vineyard or gardens where he retires to relax. The seat or staircase/amphitheatre is constructed within the park for relaxation.
    2. It also shows the importance of trees because the natural air and shade provided. It reflects the symbiotic relationship between man and the natural environment or biosphere.
    3. The long beard is a reflection of the age of the figure, combined with the white turban tied around the head which is a symbol of power and authority of the emir within the context of an Islamic state. Again, the white long robe coupled with black beard and the white turban is a reflection of the dress code of the emir within the states dominated by Muslims. The waist band (blue sea colour) is used to tie the robe for easy movement.
    4. The facial representation of the figure doesn’t conform with normal human head based on the eyes, nose and mouth. It is probably a mask of an Egyptian pharaoh to imbibe the spirit of the Pharaoh as a kingly figure that wielded much power. A story that is synonymous in both Islam and Christian doctrines except the West Africa Indigenous Religions that do ascribe this myth. The use of the mask also simmer the tension of using identifiable imagery that would have rise tension in this probably consecutive Muslim state. The use of masks within the Africa context show the spiritual powers embedded in them that the wearer or user is mostly possessed and transfigured a situation that can only be explained by adherences to that particular belief system.
    5. The black and yellow tall trees depict the diverse nature of the ecosystem and the symbiotic relationship mostly exhibited in the environment. This shows the complex nature of the human society with diverse cultural and different colours complexion that need a person with wisdom and patience to rule, like the emir who assumes the position of an Egyptian Pharaoh.
    6. Uche Okeke, was a revolutionary artist who tried to break away from normal art presentation handed to Africa by the white colonial powers. This diversion was to Africanize the art industry in West Africa and Africa at large. This where Okeke decided to use the Pharaoh mask from Egypt that was considered even among Europeans of the cradle of human civilization in the world.
    Ernst Wagner
    Ernst Wagner

    I argue in the following text from a special position. Firstly, I was present in Bayreuth on 26.4.2022 when the two co-authors, Osuanyi Quaicoo Essel and Mahmoud Malik Saako, discussed the painting in a larger circle. The representatives of the Iwalewa House clearly expressed their doubts about the (traditional) title of the painting "Christ".[1] Perhaps this brought the question of who was depicted in the painting, Christ or another person, to the fore. This question also shapes my discussion of the painting presented here. It became the guiding theme behind which other topics disappeared, such as the question of the painting's function (what was it created for?), its biography (how did it come to Bayreuth?) the role of oil painting (is it a European import), the context of the debates on modern art during the independence movements in Africa (does the painting belong to a global modernism after the Second World War or does it mark a Nigerian path? [2]) - to name just a few.


    My own interpretation is therefore less an independent approach to the work than a response to the positions presented with the intention of building bridges between the approaches by introducing a meta-level. Whether this is convincing, whether the bridge is sustainable, is for the reader to decide. But more on that below.


    Traps through aesthetic stereotypes that lead to false classifications / interpretations

    And a second preliminary remark: I didn't like this picture at the beginning. It reminded me too much of the religious pictures of the 1950/60s of my childhood. They were popular for death pictures back then: A mixture of a bit of Pre-Raphaelite and icon-inspired imagery, soaked in the formal world of a moderate and esoterically inclined modernism (Franz Marc). The intention was easy to see through: To somehow keep alive that which, in my view, was no longer contemporary at all, and to do so through a bland, unconvincing and even less convincing adaptation (a kind of "modern facing"). This is also why, when I saw the picture hanging at the entrance to the Iwalewa House from the corner of my eye, I immediately saw a Christ.


    Iconography - inclusion of other perspectives

    Uche Okeke intro



    In the discussion mentioned at the beginning, the intervention of Mahmoud Malik Saako was really surprising for me - against the background of this perception, which was shaped by my own stereotypes. The halo (which I saw - see detail) was a turban (which Malik saw). But I could not counter his view. There was no argument for the interpretation as a halo. This is also true now when I read Malik's text (like Osuanyi's). So I first had to recognise my stereotype in perception, which had lured me onto a perhaps (?) wrong track, I had to get rid of this, unlearn something, in order to be able to open up to the other perspective.


    Why I - retrospectively - still speak of "perhaps wrong", a research on Okeke's work has confirmed as meaningful. After all, there are obviously works in his oeuvre that iconographically quite certainly represent Christ or Mary, as an internet search reveals. The auction house (see Fig. 1) states - even if for 1963, two years after our work: "... in 1963 ... the Passion of Christ was a recurring theme for the artist. He had produced the stained-glass designs of the 'Fourteen Stations of the Cross' in Munich earlier in the year. "


    christian motifs web

    Christian motifs in Uche Okeke's Ouevre between 1962 and 1963 found by the author on the internet (May 22, 2022)


    Perhaps this is why the discussion about whether Christ or a Muslim is depicted makes me feel uneasy. In my mind, the question is connected with the attributions or depreciations: To whom / which faith does the work of art belong? Does it belong to the Christians, the Muslims, or the traditional believers in northern Nigeria, if, as Philipp Schramm or Mahmoud Malik Saako suggest, one also discovers a traditional wooden mask?


    New approach and reflection on its anchoring

    Hence my attempt to think of the painting in a different way, i.e. not from the artist's point of view and what he or she wanted to represent. In doing so, it is clear to me that I am taking a specifically Western approach to a modernist work (where I now place Okeke's painting) with my new approach. This approach is based on the loss of a binding iconography and a fundamental openness / never-quite-unambiguity of 'autonomous' works of art for a Western-oriented, middle-class audience. In addition, my proposal for interpretation is based on a specific position in the interpretation of images, from production theory to reception theory (in the context of constructivist epistemology). The loss of a binding iconography is accompanied by a greater significance of form (which is now itself charged with content to compensate for the loss). In a next step, I therefore try to examine the image - beyond a positioning in the question of whether it is an "Islamic" or a "Christian image" or a "traditional image" - form-analytically.


    composition web

    Analytical composition with auxiliary lines. (c) the author


    Form analysis

    The dominant, almost penetrating axial symmetry in a very high longitudinal format speaks of high order; the pyramidal structure of the figure also speaks of calm and stability, indeed of sublimity and dignity, of quiet, immovable power. And this dignity is not fed by external insignia or theatrical staging, but by a calm that radiates from within. It is a picture in front of which one can become calm if one trusts the order as a viewer.


    The striking human figure contributes to this effect. Although clearly figurative, it does not represent - to the degree of abstraction - a concrete portrait or a human being that can be grasped by the senses. This is most obvious in the geometricised eye area, which is shaded in various dark zones. This makes the gaze ambiguous: is the figure looking at the viewer, is it looking forward, is it looking inwards (contemplatively, with closed eyes)? Together with the geometric rhythm of the picture's surface (the symmetry, but of course above all the parallels that can denote eyelid, tear sac, eyebrow - or not) support the depiction of a human being in an abstracted ideal form that remains open to itself, as in a mask. The latter is also characterised by the fact that the viewer immediately sees what has been made, what has been assembled, as in the case of the moustache, for example.


    The figure sits quite classically in front of a middle and a background: at the bottom the zone (again - between two-dimensional and spatial effect - strongly abstracted) is divided into horizontal stripes, which become slightly narrower towards the top. They again suggest something familiar (a wooden bench), but this remains ambiguous. In the upper zones, the tree trunks (without leaves) form the liveliest, least symmetrical, most restless element in the painting, even if the alternation of light and dark again shows the abstracting hand of the artist.


    With this spatial layering in clear zones (background, trees, seat, figure), but also the geometric reduction of the forms, the picture looks like a carved relief. The colouring also fits in with this, for example when the "sky" behind the trees as well as the lighter trees have the same colouring as the face, while the beard, eyes and the dark trees form a second colour zone. The lightest zones are formed by the robe and the shape around the head. Despite the large spectrum in the area of light-dark contrast, the picture does not appear colourful, rather like a natural wood relief. An effect that is again particularly evident in one detail: the way the hands are shaped is reminiscent of hands carved out of a piece of wood.


    This character is supported by the way Okeke uses oil painting. He clearly outlines the contours of the surfaces. The objects are each assigned a main colour, applied impasto with broad brushstrokes. The modelling creates plasticity, lightly set with internal structures enliven the colour surfaces.



    The degree of abstraction, the modelling construction of the figurative out of a colourfulness, the strict symmetry of the composition, the tectonics of the pictorial space unfold a tableau that nevertheless - and this is now decisive - creates zones of ambiguity in the figurative. The viewer must fill these with his or her own ideas. The viewer's gaze is directed towards the picture, but the eyes do not look back. In this respect, the painting is suitable for contemplation, meditation, spiritual experience. In seeing the painting, one's own can come to rest. And so the distinction between the Christian halo, the Muslim turban and the ritual mask can also come to rest in the contemplation of the painting.


    This consideration is based on an 'ideal viewer' of the work, i.e. it is reception-aesthetically oriented. If one finally turns it once again to production aesthetics, one could interpret the work as an attempt by the artist in which it experimentally unfolds what a spirituality beyond the distinction traditional - Christian - Muslim could look like.



    [1]              Philipp Schramm's position becomes clear in his text (https://www.bayfink.uni-bayreuth.de/de/Sommerausstellung-2021_-Not-yet/audio-not-yet---welcome/index.html).

    [2]              Perrin Lathrop, "Uche Okeke," in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed May 21, 2022, https://smarthistory.org/uche-okeke/.