Onobrakpeya… Unveiling the visual storyteller of Agbarha-Otor
Master printmaker, Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya is arguably the most documented living legend artist in this part of the world. Adding to the list of books that have, in the past, either celebrated the artist or highlighted his artworks is The Storyteller of Agbarha-Otor: Bruce Onobrakpeya’s Visual Tales, written by Dozie Igweze.
A 228-page hardcover, published by Hourglass Gallery, the book takes off without the regular openers such as ‘foreword’ or ‘introduction,’ but rather goes straight into the incubation of the artist in the art of storytelling. Onobrakpeya, according to the opening topic, Eraguamire, under ‘Meetings and Conferences,’ learned storytelling in verbal form – as a 10 year-old before his visual artistry germinated through formal education. But the book, sub-consciously, sneaks into what the artist’s periods from post-training time look like.
Three and a half decades after listening to storytelling as a young boy, Onobrakpeya depicted the Eraguamire narration in visual rendition with yellow base plastograph.
The contents of story told by Onobrakpeya’s father, Aminogbe, and retold in visual forms dominate the first two chapters of the book, ‘Meetings and Conferences’ and ‘Medium.’ A book on Onobrakpeya without an overview or sniffing for an untold story of the medium for which he is mostly known would be an unfinished business. Igweze probes into the printmaker-identity of the artist and avers that Onobrakpeya is as versatile in any other medium. The printmaking medium as a signature for the artist is a destination, having equally used other media that generated application of linocuts. Like quite a number of documentary on Onobrakpeya’s mastery of printmaking, Igweze also revisits the art workshops influence on the artist’s trajectory, particularly those organised by German expatriate, Uli Beier. But the author notes that Onobrakpeya’s “new prints had a dense, multi-textured quality of uncannily reflected Africa’s brimming exuberance.”
Under ‘Independence and Before,’ the book looks at the energy of creative ebullience that Nigeria’s euphoria for a new beginning had on young persons, particularly artists. It should also be recalled that as one of the young artists of Nigeria’s transitory political era, Onobrakpeya and a few others from National College of Arts Science and Technology (NCAST, (now Ahmadu Bello University), Zaria, showed their works at an exhibition organised to mark the country’s independence.
But much later in his career, the artist did quite some retrospection that represented the mood of the period. Among such, featured in Igweze’s book, are Ominira (Independence), 1991, Studies of Nigerian Musical Instruments, 1975, and also in the same year, Ekuorogbe (Unity in Diversity), all in deep etching. These set of artworks seemed to represent the artist’s contribution to challenges ahead of the country within the political perspectives of post-Independence. Included in the chapter, among several views of the author, is the colonial legacy of two sides to a coin that African countries had to contend with.
Onobrakpeya is among iconic names in the creative world whose art has strengthened institutions, culture and philosophy. This much is highlighted in the book, for examples, on his role in promoting the artistic identity of ABU as one of Nigeria’s leading art schools, under ‘Zaria Identity,’ and in ‘Urhoboland – Myths and Legends’ highlights his art as a fulcrum in lifting Urhobo cultural values beyond its Delta State base.
Apart from using his art to promote Urhobo culture, Onobrakpeya has quite a volume of artworks dedicated to Benin City, so suggests a chapter in the book that reflects such focus. Much of the artworks under this section highlight native royalty values. In fact, a piece titled Oranmiyan I (metal foil, 1981), confirms the ancient tradition of Benin City that had its kings emerging from Ile-Ife in Yorubaland.
AN artist whose diversity of themes cuts across textures is beamed in ‘Adire Fantasy’, a chapter that deals with Onobrakpeya’s fascination to adire (tie-and-dye) textile art of the Yoruba people. But in thematic expressions, quite a chunk of the artworks rendered in the adire design forms express the artist’s perspective of his native Urhobo mythology. Still deep into the textile culture of native Yoruba comes a 1975 plastograph titled Oyo Weavers, which is a revisit of ancient method of loom in textile productions.
Whoever is interested in knowing how and when Onobrakpeya stumbled on his wood technique, Igweze, under ‘Wood Stories’ suggests that the artist’s period in the medium started a few years after graduating from Zaria.
Outside of political treachery, perception and blackmail that led to the Nigerian Civil War, Onobrakpeya must have done quite a lot of post-war pieces that focus on life after the battle. Quite a number of such features under ‘War And Loss.’
If anyone is wondering how Onobrakpeya’s deep knowledge in native African values cohabits with his Christian beliefs, Igweze analyses such under ‘An African Jesus and Other Epiphanies.’
In documenting the art of Onobrakpeya’s class, particularly treating his periods as read in The Storyteller Of Agbarha-Otor: Bruce Onobrakpeya’s Visual Tales, it would perhaps take the profound knowledge of an art gallery owner. With this book, Igweze has expanded the scope of documenting the master printmaker’s periods.