|A collage portrait of Christopher Okigbo (magazine cutouts, acrylic on canvas, 38x51cm, dated 2022), by Chime Uchenna|
IN art exhibition and poetry contents, as tributes to late Christopher Okigbo (1932-1967) the 2022 edition of Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF), added more energies in celebrating the late literary activist.
Excepts from the catalogue of the exhibition;
(poet, Prophet, prodigal)'
Christopher Okigbo (1932 – 1967) was many things at once and assumed a colossal position in the labyrinths of African poetry. As a poet, Okigbo employed different kinds of paraphernalia to hit the bedrock of his poetic diction and, like the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, did not hesitate to employ the services of people and situations he has lived through to reach the apogee of his creative art. He used this method to achieve the commingling of art and life so noticeable in his poetry.
Many scholars have vehemently maintained that Okigbo's desertion of poetry to fight for Biafra was a miscalculation which denied the world the life of the greatest poet of all times, that was Okigbo, poet, prophet, converted prodigal and myth-maker.
Though not totally a spiritualist and not famous for evoking spiritual situation in his poetry, Okigbo did not hesitate to navigate the worlds harboring both temporal and spiritual existence, meandering through Jadum, Kepkanly and Opandru to comment on the world we seem to know but seem not to appreciate.
Okigbo's encounter with poetry took him to an avalanche of places and situations – from “armpit dazzle of a lioness” in Watermaid through the initiation before Mother Idoto, finally acquiring the thunderous voice that stands him out in the comity of creative art. Okigbo's spiritual journey that led to ultimate initiation enabled him to find appropriate manner to his matter. The positive change in his versification after his encounter with Mother Idioto stands as a testimony to the success of the initiation. It is to the fact of Okigbo's genius that this anthology pays a due homage. -Prof Emeka Nwabueze.
This anthology and the enabling exhibition celebrate the life and creativity of Christopher Nixton Ifekandu Okigbo. The exhibition and publication add to the many efforts at studying and honouring the legendary bard from Ojoto whose life and work continue to fascinate scholars from around the world. I would not go into a discussion of his life and work, as those have been dealt with by experts in many fora, including this volume. I should say that Christopher Okigbo was an electric personality and turns out to be one of the brightest jewels of the 20 century, as far as poetry is th
concerned. Although he had a tragically short life, within that short period he had ensured, unwittingly, that he achieved creative immortality. It is, perhaps, this immortality that was pre-reflected in the Igbo name given to him at birth in August 1932 – Ifekandu (greater than life) – although it was mostly predicated on the mysterious birthmark around his neck when he was born (see Pius Okigbo, this volume).
Along with Achebe, Soyinka, Clark, and a few others, Okigbo was part of God's gift to colonial and post-colonial, even post-war, Nigeria. He remains a classic poet - a “weaverbird” - which further endeared him to many more beyond his generation. Although many of the contributors to this volume – Thomas, Akwanya, Ogunbayo, Okigbo (Pius), Aniakor, Mazrui, Beier, and others – focus on Okigbo's poetry, the essays by Ben Obumselu, as intimate insider, who happened to be a schoolmate of Okigbo's at University of Ibadan, provides added insight into the artist's work and life. A master of fine and cadenced prose, Obumselu vividly connects Okigbo's versification to the events of his life and country and leaves us to wonder how the artist would react to the realities of contemporary Nigeria, if he were to be alive. Would he have towed the critical line of his friends – Achebe, Soyinka, Clark? Perhaps the manner of his death offers enough pointers to what would have been.
As a writer, Okigbo was well aware of the powers of the printed word. But somehow, he also believed that the printed word had its limitations; he believed, like Nkurumah, that revolution and change could be brought about by those who thought like men of action and acted like men of thought. Little wonder he forsook his pen in favour of the gun in the bloom of the so-called civil war in Nigeria. But in doing so, he forgot, as Azikiwe would put it, that revolution could also devour its children. So he died at Opi (some say Ekwegbe) in August or September 1967 in a war which has been variously described as “useless”, “sanguinary”, “genocidal”, “costly”, and even “justified”. Until now, it is not clear whether the Nigerian civil war has ended, as some of the major issues that led to it continue to take a front seat in the nation's political, religious and social schemes. To this extent, there is a sense in which the realities of contemporary Nigeria connects with the vision of Okigbo. Put differently, we seem sandwiched between development and underdevelopment, between “hopes and impediments” and the uncertain in-betweenness may make or mar our corporate aspirations, as Nigeria swings like an enchanted pendulum in a lonely dream. It is not the Nigeria of Christopher's dream; the prevalent values are certainly not the ones for which he and many others sacrificed their lives. However, in contemplating this in-betweenness, we are encouraged to reaffirm in our minds, that death implies rebirth and that the final destiny of man is life. It is in such realization that present collection makes sense and exudes hope and faith that can be solemnly re-connected to the genius and immortal spirit of Christopher Okigbo.
Although Ali Mazrui flagrantly condemned Christopher Okigbo his famous The Trial of Christopher Okigbo, the poet's death in the civil war, along with the death of many other notable people, remain stubborn bloodstains on our landscape that seem to give meaning to the recent multiple agitation for identity and self-determination, including the 2020 historic nationwide ENDSARS protests triggered by titanic institutionalized corruption and violence. Seen from another angle, the recent agitations and protests by youth in Nigeria betray the lack of role models, as the role models became tigers and baboons that rape and wreck the environment. Even in instances where there are role models, the youth, beleaguered by the harsh conditions of contemporary Nigeria, fail to draw sufficient inspiration from them. Part of the result is the present divorce of the older and younger generations with each holding the other in suspicion. Yet within the obvious contested thin-skinned vulnerable historical space between the generations, the younger generation ought to separate the heroes from the villains for due recognition. It is in this fact that the essence of this exhibition-anthology comes to the fore. It is for thin and vulnerable skin of history in these parts that the question "Who is Christopher Okigbo?" may meet a deafening silence if put to the youth. How can they answer if they do not know history? History and memory, especially of Biafra, have been subtly criminalised in Nigeria, and thus, the personifications of such memory have not been adequately memorialized.
Of course, Okigbo is not an isolated case. Nigeria is a country full of unsung heroes and forgotten epitaphs; it is a place where the dead remain the dead, and the past always the past. Christopher Okigbo studied at University of Ibadan; among other occupations he was once deputy librarian at University of Nigeria; he subsequently became one of the leading voices in African writing, but I am sure there are no monuments to his memory at the universities at Nsukka and Ibadan where, ironically, I am sure, his poems are read by students of English and Literary Studies. Although there has been efforts to honour Okigbo, such as the 1977 exhibition by Obiora Udechukwu, the Okigbo Prize instituted by Wole Soyinka in 1987, the establishment of the Christopher Okigbo Foundation by his daughter Obiageli Okigbo, the documentation of his works and legacy by Chukwuma Azuonye, among other projects, more should be done, not necessarily for Christopher Okigbo alone but for many others who have made worthy contributions to our civilisation.
|Obi Okigbo, daughter of the late poet (left); master printmaker, Dr Bruce Onobrakpeya; one of Nigeria's modernists, Pa Adebanjo Fasuyi; and Chairman, CORA, Kayode Aderinokun, during the opening of the exhibition at Freedom Park, Lagos.|
To this extent, this exhibition is a positive reaction to the above fact; it is a clever re-visit to Songs for Idoto which I co-organized with late Onuora Okeke in 1996/97 in Enugu and Lagos with Bola Ige, Pius Okigbo, Chike Dike, Julius Nyerere, Joop Berkhout, Sefi Atta, Alex Ekwueme, Arthur Nwankwor, Ben Obumselu, Romanus Egudu and many other shining stars in attendance. But unlike the Song for Idoto in which both maestros, including artists of Okigbo's generation, and possible names of tomorrow were juxtaposed, Songs for the Weaverbird showcases mostly artists of a younger generation, as it searches for a connecting consciousness and a possible conversation between the generations. This is the main thesis of the curatorial goal of this exhibition. In addition to celebrating “the poet's poet”, it illuminates some chambers of memory soon forgotten. While some of the images and poems resonate directly with the work of Christopher Okigbo, others celebrate the present realities in Nigeria and Africa as a sop to Okigbo's poetic vision and truncated socio-political aspirations. Even the Caribbean participation in the exhibition finds relevance in the general creative essence of poetry and what Okigbo's work holds as veritable African classics.
All told, Songs for the Weaverbird is a salute to Okigbo's life and creative industry. In a poetic and metaphoric way, it draws attention to the transience of life, the contradictions of the Nigerian project and the futility of all the vanity that defines it. It is, perhaps, a cleansing metaphor and a challenge for the morass in which we are now mired. It promises to kindle further interest in the person and work of Christopher Okigbo, at least in the younger generation, and thus is a pointer to a time when the “prodigal” – “the moon man” – shall emerge from “under the sea” and the “singer” appear from “under the shade”, willing and ripe, to ride on the waves of “Mother Idoto”, through the sacred groves, to a place where we can all begin again.
Heavensgate, Enugu, 2022.