Chijioke Onuora’s laid-back disposition, diligence and versatility sum up his creative odyssey so far as a key actor in the Nsukka Art School, says Okechukwu Uwaezuoke
All a first-time visitor to Tuff Studio, back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, needed was just one sweeping glance across its interior to affirm that it aptly described both the artist and his works. The studio used to occupy a room in a squalid tenement building somewhere along the Catering Rest House Road, just outside the University of Nigeria, Nsukka campus walls.
As for the rest of the details about this environment, so much has blurred into the dense mists of time. But it could still be recalled that only two buildings away from it, a modest building, in which the now US-based artist Olu Oguibe used to rent a room he named “House of Hunger” (probably after the title of a novella by the late Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera), used to be a gathering place for such campus versions of des hommes engagés as Ike Okonta and Greg Odo, among others. This same room, as it turned out, would later also be occupied by the now Princeton University, US-based art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu.
Back to Tuff Studio. It was “definitely not a state-of-the-art studio,” Chijioke Onuora, who founded the studio in 1988 as he was beginning his Master of Fine Arts degree programme at the university, corroborated during an interview with his former student and now colleague, Ozioma Onuzulike, shortly before an exhibition in 2014. “We used a bucket to harvest water from our leaking roof during the rainy seasons. We also had to support the ceiling with a wooden pole so that it did not cave in.”
In those heady years as a fun-loving artist, Onuora, who turns 60 on Monday, May 30, used to be an ardent Bob Marley fan. So, while “fooling around” with the name of the late reggae legend’s recording studio, Tuff Gong, he ended up appropriating the word “Tuff” as a name for his studio as well. The name, which was also a corruption of the word “tough,” resonated with his many young acolytes and interns, who started calling themselves the “Tuff Gang.”
As one of these devotees of the studio, Onuzulike – who currently heads the University of Nigeria, Nsukka’s School of African Studies – recalled how, during his internship at this space, Onuora, among other things, used to paint, sculpt, make drawings, and play music. “You produced batik too,” Onuzulike also reminded him. “Your versatility remains both intriguing and ‘infectious’, and many of us benefited from it.”
Indeed, so much that happened in that studio summed up the portrayal of the artist as versatile and industrious. It was here that he designed the posters for the two Broadway-style musicals produced by the late Eni-Jones Umuko: Princess Esilokun in 1989 and The Endless Nightmare in 1990.
Before Onuora relocated the studio to another location at Ekwueme Estate in another part of Nsukka, its doors used to be open 24 hours a day to all manner of people, especially artists who favoured bohemian lifestyles. But after his marriage in the year 2000 and eventual relocation, he had to part ways with the old ways. “As a married man, there was [the] need to adapt to my new status since I was no longer thinking about myself alone,” he told Onuzulike. “I needed to factor my wife, my in-laws, and my children that began to arrive into my programme. So, first of all, I left the Tuff Studio and… I think it was difficult continuing with the kind of life I was living before I got married. Prior to my marriage, I could stay in Tuff Studio for 24 hours and because I was not accountable to anybody, I ‘lived in the studio’.”
An interregnum followed closely on the heels of the closure of the old chapter. And during this interregnum, Onuora seemed to have taken a break from his studio and solo exhibitions, after the one he held in 1999, which he titled Ulukububa. “My art began to suffer. Gradually, I got used to it as laziness set in. Also, my art shifted from producing art for the joy of it to producing in order to sustain my new family. Therefore, I began to do more commissions. I was travelling more often rather than working in my studio and preparing for the next exhibition.”
This was also a period when he enrolled in a PhD degree programme in art history, during which he researched the development of the pyrography technique of sculpture production by such artists of the Nsukka Art School as El Anatsui, Ndidi Dike, Okay Ikenegbu, Gbubemi Amanoritsewor (Amas), Evaristus Obodo, Ik Okenyi, Chike Akabuike, and Uche Onyishi. But no sooner had he concluded the programme in 2012 than the urge to return to the studio became more intense in him. Thus, the solo exhibition Akala Unyi became his comeback show in 2014.
Speaking of the pyrography of the Nsukka School, Onuora said he felt drawn to it because he easily associated it with lines, which he linked with drawings. This is even though he stressed that he never stopped drawing. He was first initiated into formal drawing lessons with soft pencils while at Anglican Grammar School in the Anambra State town of Oraukwu. But it was years later, when he was a student at the College of Education in Awka, that he saw charcoal drawings and Obiora Udechukwu’s pen and ink drawings for the first time. He would later learn how to draw with charcoal from a Ghanaian-born art lecturer when he became an undergraduate student at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka’s Fine and Applied Arts Department.
Picking up the threads of his decades-long work was not hard for Onuora upon the resumption of his neglected studio practice. His themes, for instance, retained their social relevance with their seriousness, albeit rendered with his trademark sense of humour. “This is also the way I relate to people,” he explained during his interview with Onuzulike. “I like to make serious issues manageable by bringing in some humour into their delivery.”
As for his techniques, they hark back to his BA and MFA research of traditional Igbo sculptures, which were found in the shrines of his hometown. These stylised formal expressions assume new life in his illustration of the current events, bordering mostly on politics. Sometimes, they would be handy for his riddles, jokes, proverbs, or even in his quest to investigate beauty. “My responses are not meant to be too serious, he further told Onuzulike. “Instead, they are laden with humour while being critical. So, my images (mostly faces) are mask-like because of the techniques I am using to distil out a lot of details. In other words, the forms and actions are summaries.”
It would, of course, be impossible to dissociate Onuora from the Nsukka Art School tradition. He had, after all, since the 1980s, not only been exposed to its trends and idiosyncrasies but also helped pass on its precepts to the younger generation. His impact on such artists as Ozioma Onuzulike, Okechukwu Nwafor, and Iheanyi Onwuegbucha, among others, remains a monument to his honour as he celebrates his 60th birthday.