Igbo Art in Social Context

by Herbert M. Cole
Professor Emeritus, University of California, Santa Barbara

The "signwriter" Augustine Okoye or "Middle Art" in his Onitsha studio workshop, 1992. Photo by Herbert M. Cole.

 

Middle Art, as this commercial artist and sign painter calls himself, represents the world of Igbo arts in transition to modern commercialism. He lives and works in a city, producing art for practical usage and as commodity—signs for restaurants, jewelry stores, barber shops, etc.—as well as portraits and "story paintings." These latter he made originally to show off his skill as a sign painter, but when expatriates began to appreciate and buy them, he began to turn them out in quantity. They are often moralistic fables, such as the "love story" of a loose woman named Rose who befriends and soon impoverishes a young man, Chukwuma, who then hangs himself in despair; meanwhile Rose has already found another lover, another man to exploit. The panel in the upper left implies that the avenging angel will eventually put Rose in her place. The whole is narrated cartoon-style, with ample explanatory text, and the painting style of this self-taught artist is rather naïve, and is of much less quality in this version, painted in 1992, than was the one painted in the 1970s and now in Iwalewa Haus, a museum in Bayreuth, Germany.