“There wasn’t a stage when I decided that I definitely wished to be a poet; there was a stage when I found that I couldn’t be anything else. And I think that the turning point came in December 1958, when I knew that I couldn’t be anything else than a poet. It’s just like somebody who receives a call in the middle of the night to religious service, in order to become a priest in a particular cult, and I didn’t have any choice in the matter. I just had to obey.”
The time was ripe: many young artists at the beginning of the Sixties were looking for a platform to exchange their views and share their various talents. Okigbo and Soyinka were also musicians, performing in jazz clubs. Consequently in 1961 the Mbari Writers and Artists Club were born in Ibadan founded by the German writer and critic Ulli Beier. He invited Christopher Okigbo to be one of the original Mbari committee together with: Georgina Beier, Wole Soyinka, J.P.Clark, Chinua Achebe, Zeke Mpahalele, Amos Tutuola, D.O. Fagunwa, Dennis Willaims, Demas Nwoko, Uche Okeke, Frances Ademola and Janheinz Jahn, the ethnologist. The Mbari Club was a large-scale project with various activities including visual arts exhibitions, theatre, creative workshops and a publishing house. The latter played a decisive role in the birth of modern African literature; in addition to the writing of its members and adherents, it published the South African artist and writer Dennis Brutus and Alex La Guma.
For the visual arts, it presented the pioneers, such as the painters Uche Okeke and Yusuf Grillo, the sculptor and painter Demas Nwoko, and the silk-screen artist, Bruce Onobrakpeya. They all became well-known artists in the country.
The crucial role of the Mbari Club was the creation of a true movement of contemporary African artists, whose ultimate aim was to generate a new artistic culture. They reconciled the continent’s cultural traditions and the technical language imported by the colonialists.
The independence struggle
In the Sixties, Nigeria was the scene of political upheavals, which led to independence in 1960. Seven years later following the massacre of thousands of Igbo in the North, the eastern region which was predominantly Igbo rebelled, claiming the creation of an independent nation of Biafra. Although Christopher Okigbo poetry always retained a personal and mythical record, Path of Thunder (1965-66) sees the turning point towards a more political tone. The denunciation of political oppression and neo-colonial exploitation coincided with the emergence of radical movements in the Sixties.
In 1966 Okigbo won the Langston Hughes award for African poetry at the Festival of Black African Arts in Dakar but he refused it, believing that art cannot be burdened by racial considerations.
Hero of Biafra
When the civil war in Nigeria broke out, Christopher Okigbo moved back to the East and together with his friend Chinua Achebe set up a publishing house called Citadel Press. Alas, the conflict caused him to abandon these and other plans and he consolidated his commitment to his people by enrolling for combat in the Biafran war. Refusing safer positions behind the frontline, he fought with the rank of Major. In September 1967 he was killed in action near Opi junction, Nsukka, during one of the civil war’s first battles.
Posthumously, he was decorated with the National Order of Merit of Biafra. Derek Walcott, the Caribbean poet, who later received the Nobel Prize for Literature, took second place in the competition.
* Okigbo, Christopher, The Passage, in: Labyrinths, 1971, p.3 Judith Sefi Attah was born in Okene, in the north of Nigeria. After completing a post-graduate course in Education at Reading, England, she began her career as a teacher at Illorin, Nigeria. She became Director of Higher Education in the Civil Service, which led her subsequently to take on the functions of Nigerian delegate to UNESCO in the Eighties. She was appointed Ambassador to Rome then Federal Minister for Feminine Affairs and Development. Mrs Attah is also a member of several councils and committees such as the Nigerian delegation to the General Assembly of the United Nations and Human Rights Commission. (Okigbo, Christopher, Collected Poems, 1986, Preface)
For a complete bibliography please go to The Christopher Okigbo Foundation.