Professor Ikem Okoye specializes in the painting, sculpture, and architecture of West Africa, and their linked spaces and landscapes elsewhere: in the art and architecture of other regions of Africa, including Central Africa and the Nile Valley, as well as in the Caribbean, the American South, Imperial Europe, and Brazil. Especially focused on the period from the mid-eighteenth century on, his interests extend to the colonial and contemporary post-imperial outcomes of these proto-global transactions in the arts.
Professor Okoye's current research includes a project on art and slavery, and another on vernacularism and diplomacy in an increasingly transnational world. The first one, well underway, is exploring the history of art, architecture, landscape, and knowledge production in the 18th- and early 19th-century Niger Delta (southern Nigeria) in their relation to both captivity and to slavery. Intrigued by the possibility that we may imagine art itself, later including both film and photography, as a will to capture and fix, he pits African images and spatial indexes against European and American representations.
The second and newer project is concerned with struggles over access and resources, and with how the displacements of this struggle onto art and its organizing cultures produce new content, subject matter, and procedures in art and architecture. He is for instance exploring the meaning of the contradictory yet competitive visual, spatial, and performative messaging relayed both in the modern African state by foreign missions, and by the reverse diasporic transnational 'embassies' established abroad by African immigrants. He views the latter through the lens of their subtly nostalgic reconstitutions of 'tradition,' and the former via vernacularist foreign architecture of new embassy buildings and their cultural activities. Of particular interest, here, has been how these occur from within or in response to the scene of an insistent contemporary representation that has included staged political performance, media, nomadic curatorial practice, and new forms of urbanism. This project's initial arena is the contest in late 18th- and early 19th-century Asante (in present day Ghana), between the Dutch and the English, or in turn the English and the Ottomans, as much as it is the less well-known Kongo embassy in Brazil and Asante embassy to Britain. All seem to trace precursor rivalries to 21st-century phenomena he now observes on the continent. In for instance Nigeria, Ghana, Congo, Ethiopia, and Sudan, one finds American, French, Belgian, British, and German embassy buildings, not to mention their interiors that double as curatorial art spaces addressed to local elites, used in visually loaded and coded contests for local influence. Such rivalry among Europeans in transactions with Africans now increasingly play in relation to fully undeterred Japanese and Chinese ambassadorial architecture and their own performances of welcome. Citizens of these African places, in turn, skirt the rigors of paradoxically antiglobalist immigration regimes, to produce transient 'embassies,' headed the other way, and in which reinventions of contemporary art and culture, sometimes in dialogue with cultural transactions with what was foreign in their places of origin, gets re-presented and displayed as much for the host community (in the United States this of course includes African Americans and adds a fascinating twist) as for the benefit of transnationality as a new form of community. Such displays are, moreover, sometimes liturgical (yam festivals and masquerade in swanky Chicago halls) and sometimes not. They include the practices of professional contemporary artists with a shot at Biennale culture, as they do those circulating alternative spaces with not a clue of such things. Sometimes, as he discovered in Thessaloniki in 2009, both forms of the contemporary can occupy the same city, unaware of each other's existence. Professor Okoye hopes, as his preliminary investigation suggests, to uncover these less visible but more complex forms of diasporic and transnational art, not just in the spaces of New York, Dallas, London, or Paris, but less familiarly in Cairo and Cape Town, Dubai and Mumbai, Tokyo and Seoul.
At stake in both research projects are, thus, the making, ownership, control, migration, and difficulties of art and culture with a certain but often anxious connection to Africa, as well as of the travel of its peoples, resources, and knowledge, including their presence in and availability (or not) to industrial and postindustrial globalist desire.
Honors and Publication:
Professor Okoye's work has been recognized by a membership at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, a fellowship at the Institute for Modern Oriental Studies, Berlin, and the Advanced Study Center at the University of Michigan. He was a Rockefeller Fellow at the Institute for the Advanced Study and Research in the African Humanities at Northwestern University, in whose art history department he taught subsequently for several years. Okoye's work has been published in the United States and abroad, including in: The Art Bulletin, Paideuma - Mitteilungen zur Kulturkunde (Frankfurt), Interventions - Journal of Postcolonial Studies (UK), RES - Journal of Anthropology and Aesthetics, The Harvard Architectural Review, Ijele - eJournal of African and Diaspora art and culture, Nka - Journal of Contemporary African Art, The Art Journal, and Critical Interventions; as well as in several edited books such as Exiles, Diasporas & Strangers (a volume recently edited by Kobena Mercer). Okoye's forthcoming book Hideous Architecture will be published by EJ Brill Academic Publishers.
Professor Okoye is Director of the University of Delaware's African Studies Program. In addition, he holds a joint appointment in the Department of Black American Studies and is affiliated with the Islamic Studies Program. He has served as a board member of the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (JSAH), is currently serving on the editorial board of The Art Bulletin, and is Editor of the first-ever electronic journal of African and diaspora art and culture, Ijele (www.ijele.com). A professional architect (UK) trained at the Bartlett School at University College London years before his doctorate in the history and theory of art and architecture from MIT, Okoye puts this 'first life' to use as a participant in the Delaware Design Institute (DDI) as well as in an occasional practice with Anubis Architecture.
- Citizen, Subject, Traveler, Tourist: White Artists in Africa
- Contesting Nation and Ethnicity: PreDagamian Art of Biafra and Benin (ca. 900-1430 BCE)
- Reading Beyond Primitivism
- Art of the Niger Delta
- Art Congo/Art Kongo
- The Meaning of Slavery in African, European, and American Art
- Freud, Psychoanalysis, Art and Colonialism
- Documentary Film Views of the Fula 'Nomad'
- Immanuel Kant, Judgment, Art, and Africa
- Theories of Representation in Architecture
- Pleasure, Dread, and the Scenes/Seens of Art