As the activities marking his 60th year in the exhibition circuit trails into a second year, the highly-revered Nigerian artist, Bruce Onobrakpeya, celebrates his 88th birthday anniversary. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
Not much has changed in this cluttered ground-floor recess. At the end of the reception room, the long-familiar installation work still denies visitors access to its hallowed nook. Still shrouded in its old mystique, “Akporode”, as the work is titled, symbolises “the striving towards a higher and richer life”. Produced in 1995, it was first exhibited at London’s Whitechapel Gallery during the Africa ’95 exhibition. It was, subsequently, shown at the littoral Swedish city of Malmo and later in California, USA. Contrived from an assortment of found objects, this assemblage of artworks, the octogenarian artist later explains, proclaims “the grandeur and beauty often associated with traditional religious shrines and architectural decorations of palaces”. Perhaps, this is one work – among countless others – that, metaphorically speaking, best captures the aspirations and the professional accomplishments of the iconic artist Bruce Onobrakpeya.
Professor Onobrakpeya, who marks his 88th birthday on Sunday, August 30, owes much of his renown in the contemporary art scene to sheer diligence. His studio practice, which first came to the public eye with his first-ever exhibition held sometime in 1959, swirls mainly around printmaking, painting and sculpture and has since traipsed through several other mediums of expression. At the time he held that exhibition, he recalls, he was just a second-year student of the Zaria-based Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology – more often known as NCAST – and happened to be in the agrarian town of Ughelli, now in the present-day Delta State, for a vacation job. The exhibition, which featured mostly the paintings, drawings and engravings he had produced as a student, was motivated by the fact that his Zaria Art Society associates – Uche Okeke, Demas Nwoko and Yusuff Grillo – had already had the exposure of art exhibitions.
Talking about the Zaria Art Society, it is to this group – created on Friday, October 9, 1959, and officially disbanded on Friday, June 16, 1961 – that the contemporary Nigerian art owes much of its defining aesthetic credos. This was particularly thanks to the society’s bequest of the “Natural Synthesis” doctrine, which Onobrakpeya says was articulated by its then-president Uche Okeke. The members had envisioned a kind of synthesis, which implied unearthing traditional aesthetic values from their various ethnic backgrounds and placing them on the pedestal of national significance. Its main crux was to cull what was good from the past, dust them up, polish them and make use of them for a better life.
Besides, this philosophy – though not the society’s invention, but an appropriation – chimed well with the zeitgeist in Nigeria, which was basking in the euphoria of independence. The group, which consisted of seven core members alongside a handful of other associates, was primarily deliberated on the nature of Nigerian art. Were they, as the Nigerian artists they were, expected to jettison their rich traditional heritage in favour of the kind of art taught by their lecturers? How would they emboss the imprints of their Nigerian identities in their works? Hence, the need for the artist’s sincerity with himself since people assimilate impressions assailing them differently according to their nature.
Meanwhile, the ambience at the NCAST in those early years used to be conducive enough for its 120 students – 20 of whom were female – to excel in their fields of study. The teachers, some of whom were expatriates, were very dedicated. Yet, art, back then, was not recognised as a worthwhile subject to study. “We were looked down upon,” Onobrakpeya recalls.
But, the artists remained undaunted and courageously waded against the tidal waves of the public’s disdain for their profession. They ignored the curious looks their fellow students casually gave them, as they defiantly did their paintings en plein air. Slowly, but surely, they began to earn their respect, as some among them began to understand the importance of art in the environment. Out in the larger society, some parents began to deem studying art worthwhile enough to sponsor their wards in art schools.
Onobrakpeya blames the widespread apathy for art among students and in the larger society on the colonial influence. “The colonial masters only encouraged the three R’s [reading, writing and arithmetic].”
On the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of his first-ever exhibition, a series of exhibitions and events, meant to spread over three years, have been lined up. Since the last years’ shows at the Freedom Park along Broad Street in Lagos Island and the Wheatbaker Hotel in upscale Ikoyi neighbourhood of Lagos as well as the special retrospective on the Zaria Art Society artists in Victoria Island organised by Arthouse Contemporary Limited, there was also an exhibition featuring one aspect of his art in the Delta State town of Agbarha-Otor earlier this year as part of the annual Harmattan Workshop.
The intrusion of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the suspension of one or two other serialised shows that had been planned as part of the commemorative events. The phase-by-phase exhibitions of the works of this celebrated figure of the Nigerian art cognoscenti became necessary because their sheer number would have overwhelmed any museum or gallery. “No matter how big the gallery may be, it’s going to be difficult to show the works all at once,” he explains.
This was, of course, not made any easier by the fact that Onobrakpeya has remained prolific even at his age. Among his most recent works, produced this year during the lockdown, was a sculptural piece he titled “Thorax of Antedulivian Insect (Orere)”, which is a mixed-media assemblage, consisting mainly of plastic and metal. Well-known to aficionados are his experimental works with discarded compact discs and electronic parts.
Mind-boggling is his vast range of works dating back to as far back as 1957, many of which adorn both private and public collections within and outside Nigeria. These works have, for the convenience of the art historians, been segmented into periods, the shortest and the first of which is dubbed “Mythical Realism” which coincided with his student years at the NCAST from 1957 to 1962. This was a time that he produced paintings and linocut prints, which depicted folkloric themes and the northern Nigerian landscapes.
Following closely on the heels of this period was the “Sunshine Period”, from 1962 to 1967, during which his workshop experiments and his bronzed lino relief series swim into focus.
Then followed the “Mask and the Cross” period – from 1967 to 1978 when he produced several works based on Christian themes, among which were the lino engraving “Nativity II”, the plastocast “The Last Days of Christ”, the bronzed lino relief “Obara Ishoshi” and the metal foil “Pope John Paul”. It was during this period that he also developed a lot of ideas he had started during his NCAST years with the plastography medium.
Other periods were: the “Symbols of Ancestral Groves” (between 1978 and 1984) when he represented historical vignettes based mainly on the royalty of the Benin Kingdom and developed the “Ibiebe” alphabet; the “Sahelian Masquerades” period (between 1984 and 1988), which featured works that expressed his concern about the destruction of the environment; the “Mask” Series (1990 to 1995) when he developed folklore-inspired images which later inspired his depiction of masks; the “Social Unrest” period (from 1995 to 1999), which captured the dark years under one of Nigeria’s worst military dictatorships with works like “Ekugbe”, “Nude and Protest” as well as “Smoke from the Broken Pipe” and the so-called “Installation Period” (from 1995 to date) when works like “Akporode” were produced.
Even in the most creatively-obtuse environment, Onobrakpeya’s resourcefulness could have remained unrecognised for a long time. Relatively recently, in 2017, he was conferred with an honorary Doctor of Arts degree from the Delta State University. This was 28 years after he was awarded an honorary D. Litt from the University of Ibadan. Beyond the academic world, he was honoured with an honourable mention at the Venice Biennale and became a Fellow of the Society of Nigerian Artists on June 6, 2000. Other recognitions and awards included the Pope John Paul II award for depicting the life of Saint Paul, the Fellowship of Asele Institute, an award from the late Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, the Solidra Circle award and the Fulbright Exchange Scholar award as well as 2006, UNESCO recognition as a Living Human Treasure and the Federal Government of Nigeria’s prestigious Nigerian Creativity Award on September 14, 2010.
To Onobrakpeya, the local art scene owes the invigorating annual Harmattan Workshops in Agbarha-Otor, where he was born on August 30, 1932. This workshop, which has been on since 1998, has drawn artists and scholars from not only within Nigeria but also from outside.
Of course, this Africa’s well-documented artist also owes much of his renown to the many exhibitions he has featured in, the number of his works in both public and private collections with and outside the country and his book illustrations.
Among the films and documentaries he had been featured in 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) 20
The Harmattan Workshop Experience: The Journey So Far, a film and documentary on 10 years the Agbarha-Otor Harmattan workshop Experience, produced and directed by Onobrakpeya, 2009; RedHot, produced by Communication for Change, directed by Sandra Obiago, June 2011, Lagos as well as two documentaries by the Lagos-based Back Page Productions.