Not even the imminence of Bruce Onobrakpeya’s 90th birthday seems to deter him from exploring new creative terrains, he tells Okechukwu Uwaezuoke

Anguish is vividly expressed on the face, dredged up with other images from the mists of time, even despite its sketchiness. With a mouth forming an “O” – obviously in mourning, possibly also in a muffled scream – it is determinedly looking away from a terrible deed that has just been committed as it faces the reader. And speaking of the horrific deed, it – from what the reader’s blurred memories of Cyprian Ekwensi’s novella, An African Night’s Entertainment, could still retain – borders on the patricidal, even when it is unpremeditated.

As an adult, decades later, the reader would eventually trace that haunting image, conjured up from his early teenage years, to the legendary Bruce Onobrakpeya. Also to the latter’s credit is the illustration of other literary works, which include Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, Adeboye Babalola’s Iwe Ede Yoruba, Apa Kini, Cyprian Ekwens’s Juju Rock, the cover illustration of Nkem Nwankwo’s Tales Out of School, Kola Onadipe’s Sugar Girl and Magic Land of the Shadows, Onuora Nzekwu’s and Michael Crowder’s Eze Goes to School, Rosemary Uwemedimo’s Akpan and the Smugglers, and TNO Quacoopne’s West African Religion. Further additions to this list are: Oladele Taiwo’s The Hunter and the Hen; Barbara Haeger’s On Her Schedule Is Written a Change; Daniel Orowole Fagunwa’s Forest of a Thousand Daemons; Soyinka and Fagunwa’s A Forest of a Thousand Demons; and Clementine Deliss’s Seven Stories About Modern African Art and May Your Kingdom Come (a publication of the Nigerian Episcopal Conference).

An untitled acrylic on canvas by Onobrakpeya

Is it any wonder that it struck a chord with the interviewer when the legendary artist, whose 90th birthday comes up on Wednesday, August 31, waxed philosophical about leaving legacies in the minds of future generations on that sun-drenched Tuesday, August 23, afternoon?

Not so long before the interview, the soon-to-be-nonagenarian 2006 recipient of the UNESCO Living Human Treasure Award was voicing his opinions in a group discussion over the transfer of the late Ulli Beier’s material legacies to Bayreuth, Germany. “My response was that such pioneers left a legacy in people’s minds, not just in material terms,” he said.

Similarly, he’d rather his legacy be seen in the seeds he had over a period spanning more than half a century sown in the hearts of his audience than in the material objects and institutions attributed to him. This, according to him, is because people remain the most important legacy. “What you sow in the minds of people continues,” he further clarified.

If Onobrakpeya earns the diadem as Nigeria’s – if not Africa’s – indisputably most documented artist, it is because he has been intentional about entrenching his precepts in the art community’s collective consciousness. During that early afternoon chat with his interlocutor, he disclosed his long-time habit of making notes about the repository of artwork he produced. “I developed a portfolio of my artwork with explanatory notes.”

Meanwhile, there is an ongoing collection of articles on him under the title Bruce Onobrakpeya: Perspectives, which is now in its eighth volume.

This artist of awesome talent and lustrous pedigree has, not unexpectedly, elicited widespread interest in academia, leading to his becoming the subject of at least four PhD theses and several MA dissertations. 

Ibiebe alphabet

As a complement to the aforementioned efforts, there have also been documentary films on him. Among these are Kindred Spirits: Contemporary Nigerian Artists by Smithsonian World, Washington, D.C. USA; The Magic of Nigeria, produced by Delka/Polystar and directed by Ola Balogun, Lagos, Nigeria; Recalling the Future Art by Joanna Grabski, produced and directed by Claudine Pommier with the executive producer Cheikh Tidiane N’diaye/Arts in Action Society (Vancouver, Canada) in 2002; The Harmattan Workshop Experience: The Journey So Far, a documentary film on 10 years of the Agbarha-Otor Harmattan workshop experience, produced and directed by Onobrakpeya in 2009; and RedHot, produced by Communication for Change, directed by Sandra Obiago, in June 2011. Added to these are two documentaries by the Lagos-based Back Page Productions.

Above all, the artist’s pioneering efforts as a member of the Zaria Art Society during his years at the Zaria-based Nigerian College of Arts, Science, and Technology (more often known as NCAST) have already engraved his name in the annals of contemporary Nigerian art history. It was through this art collective, which was created on Friday, October 9, 1959, and officially disbanded on Friday, June 16, 1961, that the “Natural Synthesis” philosophy became a front-burner issue. The philosophy, or aesthetic credo, which was articulated by its then-president, Uche Okeke, was all about unearthing traditional aesthetic values from their various ethnic backgrounds and placing them on the pedestal of national significance. It pivoted mainly on the precept of taking what was good from the past, dusting it off, polishing it, and using it to make a better life. Though not invented by the Society, its reverberations chimed so well with the independence era zeitgeist.

As one of Onobrakpeya’s endeavours to home in on the practical application of this aesthetic philosophy, his invention of a writing style he called Ibiebe ideograms easily stands out not only for its calligraphic distinction but also for its painterly and sculptural presentation. “The idea,” he explained, “was to put our thoughts and language into symbols. The pieces are artworks in themselves. As symbols of hidden meanings, they convey messages, which can be deciphered only with time and patience. They bring out something that has been locked in the mind as aesthetic and cultural messages.”

Ibiebe, which was inspired by Chinese, Japanese, Ghanaian, and Nigerian calligraphy, ultimately reflects the artist’s deeper appreciation of his Urhobo heritage.

Even his evergreen presence in the local art scene and his trail of an impressive smorgasbord of artistic expressions, which occasionally leach into the works of several habitués of his annual Harmattan workshops, do not seem to deter him from experimenting with new mediums. He is still improving on his manipulation of new materials, he added. New ideas are emerging. And working persistently with such new mediums becomes the open sesame to new ideas.

This explains his recent gravitation towards metaphysics, for which he now deploys his paintings, drawings, etchings, and installations, among his other trademark mediums. The idea is to share his metaphysical ideas with his audience while also making the precepts of Urhobo folklore more accessible to them.

It is not surprising, therefore, that he said, “I definitely don’t feel 90! All of what has occurred thus far seems to have occurred yesterday. I simply ponder the passage of time. Age doesn’t seem to weigh on me. I don’t have an obsession with slowing down because I’m 90.”

Meanwhile, as an icing on the activities commemorating his 90th birthday celebrations, this widely-eulogised artist, who Tunde Odunlade of the Ibadan-based Odunlade Arts and Culture Connexions described as “an astute scholar and a consummate creative guru”, will on Tuesday, September be conferred with his third doctoral award by the Michael and Cecelia Ibru University in celebration of his contributions to ‘’the advancement of knowledge and growth in human capital development at local and international levels.”

This honour will be bestowed upon Onobrakpeya during the university’s convocation ceremony and 6th Memorial Lecture in honour of its founder, Olorogun Michael M. C. Ibru, OFR. Onobrakpeya previously received honorary doctorates from the University of Ibadan in 1989 and Delta State University in 2017.


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