And Onobrakpeya wins Nigeria’s ultimate medal
The Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM) was instituted in 1979 to reward cerebral achievement. It was at inception known as the Nigerian National Merit Award (NNMA). Although the nomenclature has changed, the significance and prestige of the award remains unassailable. The biodata on the back cover of Chinua Achebe’s The Trouble with Nigeria describes the award as Nigeria’s “highest accolade for intellectual achievement”. The prize has remained so. Achebe was the first winner in 1979 and many other distinguished Nigerian intellectuals had gone on to win it. A roll call of the winners whether they are from the Humanities or the Sciences points to the reality that it is actually bestowed on Nigeria’s best. And it must be admitted that Nigeria’s best is the world’s best irrespective of the cog in the wheel of our national development and by extension our hobbled education system. Thus the NNOM, even though it is a national award, could be compared to the Nobel Prize superintended by the Swedish academy.
Some Nigerians are as title crazy as Governor Okorocha of Imo State is driven crazy by his vision! There are many contrived awards in Nigeria! From the one bestowed by the president on himself and friends in the name of national honours to the ones thrown around by tertiary institutions and shadowy organizations to whoever could pay, Nigeria brims with awards. Yet, I dare say that the only one with unimpeachable integrity is the NNOM! It is awarded annually and this year’s winner is the master artist Bruce Obomeyoma Onobrakpeya! All the winners from Achebe to Onobrakpeya will top any master class of their discipline anywhere in the world! In truth, whatever modicum of respect Nigeria has earned in the world came through the remarkable achievements of her intellectuals. If the world concedes some measure of respectability to Nigeria, it is because Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo, JP Clark, Bruce Onobrakpeya and their ilk in other fields of knowledge are Nigerians.
When words filtered in that Onobrakpeya won this year’s NNMA many concluded that it was long overdue. The Delta State University, Abraka, under the Vice Chancellorship of Professor Victor Peretomode bestowed its highly regarded honourary doctorate on Onobrakpeya in July this year. Instead of casting the doctorate at the highest bidder, the university chose three worthy Nigerians, the Ohworode of Olomu, the Asagba of Asaba and Onobrakpeya.. The DELSU honour and the NNOM reinforce and justify each other. As university orator, the lot fell on me to do Onobrakpeya’s citation. Part of it reads:
Bruce Onobrakpeya is a living art avatar who shares the same hallowed platform with Picasso, Leonardo da Vinci and Michael Angelo in the universal configuration of artistic influence! He was in the vanguard of the “Zaria rebels” led by Uche Okeke that championed the decolonisation of African visual arts by privileging traditional influences in their practice. Much of the motif of Onobrakpeya’s art is rooted in his Urhobo tradition as he gives visual representation to ethno-philosophy, folklore, politics, environment, religion, modernity… While Urhobo tradition provides his collage, the world remains his canvas.
As a master artist in a class of his own, it didn’t take long for Onobrakpeya’s skilful hands to attract global attention. He became an Artist-in-Residence at Haystack Mountain of Art and Craft in Maine in the United States of America in 1975. He has, since then, held some of the most prestigious Art Residencies and professorships around the world, seven of which were in the United States. He also enjoyed the same rare privilege at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan, and the National Gallery of Zimbabwe which is one of the world’s most notable arts galleries.
In the course of his enchanting career as an artist, Onobrakpeya has held more than one hundred art exhibitions. The first of which took place in Ughelli in 1959. Since then his art works have been standing taller than any other at exhibitions in Lagos, New York, London, Berlin, Moscow, Warsaw, Washington, Bologna, Nairobi, Illinois, Toronto, Bradford, Holland, Zurich, Bonn, Zimbabwe, Abidjan, Dakar, Dubai, etc. I must not forget the one at the Vatican Museum in Rome in 1977. I am sure Pope Paul VI must have told God about the marvel of Onobrakpeya’s art.
In recognition of his sublime art, he has received over fifty awards, honours and prizes from all over the world. He is a winner of the Pope Paul VI Gold Medal. In 1989, the University of Ibadan, awarded him an honorary doctor of letters. He was the second person after Chinua Achebe to win the Nigeria Creativity Award in 2010. Many other prizes came from across the seas; USA, Britain, France, Iraq, Czechoslovakia, etc. The Federal Government of Nigeria conferred the Member of the Order of the Federal Republic (MFR) on him in 2002. Very significantly, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) canonised him as a Living Human Treasure in 2006! Art connoisseurs have long reached a consensus that had there been a Nobel Prize for Visual Arts, Onobrakpeya would have long won it!
Today, Onobrakpeya’s art works can be found in all the continents of the world. Presidents, Prime Ministers, Kings, Nobles, Commoners, all stand before his works in adoration! Onobrakpeya’s astonishing portfolio of achievements is reinforced by ibiebe an Urhobo alphabetic system he invented, fourteen published monographs and fourteen illustrated books. The number of theses written on his works by art cognoscenti is in the realm of the uncountable!
Before us, today, is one of the most significant artists of global resonance for all times. At eighty-five, Onobrakpeya is the youngest among today’s honourees, but he is the oldest known practising artist in Africa now. Whatever he touches becomes art. Art works immortalise the artist. So let it be with Owena Bruce Obomeyoma Onobrakpeya.
• Awhefeada teaches literature at the Delta State University, Abraka.