The Zaria Art Society and their Rebellion

Published 13 June 2024 in The Legacy

Uche Okeke Legacy Editorial

The Zaria Art Society, often referred to as the "Zaria Rebels," is a seminal group in the history of modern Nigerian art. Founded in the 1950s at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science, and Technology (NCAST - now Ahmadu Bello University) in Zaria, this group of young artists set the foundation for contemporary Nigerian art as we know it.

Their vision, radical ideas, and innovative practices revolutionized the Nigerian art scene and significantly altered the cultural landscape of post-colonial Africa.

Nigeria's Fight for Independence

Nigeria was on the brink of a monumental transformation in the 1950s. The country was fighting for independence from British colonial rule - a period of intense cultural, political, and social awakening - and wanted to establish a unified society that honoured its deep-rooted heritage rich in ethnic groups, languages, and traditions. The movement for independence, led by prominent figures such as Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, and Ahmadu Bello, championed the cause of self-governance, the end of colonial rule and the reclamation of Nigerian identity.

Western systems and cultural norms were imposed on Nigeria under colonial rule, stifling indigenous traditions and knowledge systems. It affected various aspects of life, including the arts, as the colonial education system largely neglected Nigerian cultural heritage and focused instead on European art forms and techniques. This created a rift between traditional practices and contemporary expression, which many felt needed to be bridged to form the unified national identity they were striving for. This was the backdrop for the establishment of Nigerian College of Arts, Science, and Technology, Zaria, one of the few institutions in Nigeria that offered higher education to Nigerians at a time. 

The college quickly became a melting pot for intellectual and artistic exchange, attracting eager students from diverse backgrounds as a result, and aimed to provide a comprehensive education that included the arts, sciences, and technology. The art department in particular became a focal point for those who wanted to explore Nigerian cultural identity and expression through visual arts, and while the curriculum initially adhered to Western standards and European art education, the broader societal rebirth influenced the students to start question the approach. It was in this dynamic environment that the Zaria Art Society was born. Founded in 1958 by a group of forward-thinking art students who were dissatisfied with the colonial art curriculum, the Zaria Art Society embarked on a mission to synthesize traditional African art forms with contemporary techniques, a philosophy they termed ‘Natural Synthesis’. This approach sought to incorporate traditional themes, techniques and ideologies into their work, creating an art form that was authentically reflective of their own experiences and heritage.

The focus of the Zaria Art Society and the Natural Synthesis movement was not only on the work itself, but on the philosophy, history and knowledge that could be found in the unified technique. They held regular meetings and discussions, sharing ideas, critiquing each other’s works, and studying the richness of their combined roots, and the intricate patterns of Yoruba textiles, symbolic motifs of Uliism, sophisticated sculptures of the Nok, Benin, and Ife cultures and other traditional African art forms were all elements that became a rich source of inspiration, informing their modern creations.

The Founding Members

The founding members of the Zaria Art Society were united by their desire to create a unique Nigerian artistic identity that would reflect the country's rich cultural heritage and contemporary realities. They worked as a unified entity, uplifting, teaching and learning from the other, with no member considering themselves above the other.

The Zaria Art Society founding members

Uche Okeke: The father of this great legacy! Known for his exploration of Igbo cultural themes and symbols, Okeke played a crucial role in the society’s formation. Although he himself regarded everyone in equal standing, he is considered to be the founding father by other members.

Bruce Onobrakpeya: Celebrated particularly for his pioneering work in printmaking, Bruce Onobrakpeya’s works often depict themes from Urhobo folklore, reflecting his deep connection to his cultural heritage and his innovative artistic vision. Onobrakpeya continues to contribute to the development of modern Nigerian art, and has recently held his 26th Harmattan Workshop!

Demas Nwoko: The visionary architect. His architectural projects include the Dominican Institute in Ibadan and the Akenzua Cultural Centre in Benin City, and are prime examples of his synthesis of traditional African architecture with modernist principles. 

Yusuf Grillo: Yusuf Grillo is one of Nigeria’s most acclaimed artists. His works are renowned for their vibrant colours and geometric patterns, which reflect deep Yoruba cultural influences and are testament to his ability to embody the principles of Natural Synthesis.

Simon Okeke: Recognized for his keen eye for detail and exceptional skill in creating realistic portraits and captivating landscape, Simon Okeke’s appreciation for the beauty of the natural world earned him admiration and acclaim both locally and internationally.

Olu Oguibe: A prominent Nigerian artist and writer, Olu Oguibe’s body of work encompasses both visual art and critical writings, with a focus on addressing pressing socio-political issues through his provocative artworks and incisive commentary.

Major Contributions 

The Zaria Art Society’s efforts were not confined to the college and they actively participated in events both within Nigeria and internationally, showcasing their innovative works and releasing articles that challenged the dominance of Western art styles. Revolutionary exhibitions such as the 1959 First National Art Exhibition, Lagos, featuring works by Zaria Art Society members and organized shortly after Nigeria's independence, attracted masses of attention and sparked discussions about the role of art in post-colonial Nigeria, and their significant publications spread the Natural Synthesis ideology to masses of like-minded individuals - all of which continue to this day.