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In Façade, Onobrakpeya deepens understanding of painting

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Bruce Obomeyoma Onobrakpeya is considered one of the most successful artists to have emerged from Africa in the 20th century. He fuses his training in Western techniques and materials blended into his background, culture and ingenuity that are irrefutably indigenous, yet exotic. His rich textured works are a blend of native folklores, faith, environmental reflections and supernatural essences.

Since 1966, as an experimental artist, Onobrakpeya has discovered, innovated and perfected several techniques both in printmaking and relief sculpture that are uniquely Nigerian.

He has also included in his portfolio, other techniques including drawings, assemblages and digital art. At the same time, he began to experiment with forms in relation to Nigerian folklore, myths and legends.

The revered artist latest fresh collection of incredible artworks, tagged, Façade: An Exhibition of Paintings by Bruce Onobrakpeya, began on Saturday, December 12, at the Art Twenty One Gallery, and will be on till April 10, next year. The solo features variations of paintings dating back from 1961 till 2020.

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According to the gallery statement on the show, Onobrakpeya is said to set “precedence in innovation as seen in the formulation of bases for his various productions. This is visible in his invention and use of the Triptilinen canvas, upon which imprints of his artistic expression are made.”

Reflections on COVID-19 pandemic, mixed media (337X 275X117 cm)


Over the years, his exhibitions have comprised a mélange of prints (linocuts, metal etchings, serigraphs etc.), sculptures and paintings. The exhibition showcases artworks that trace the artist’s creative metamorphosis. Some of the works, in fact, use stylistic elements and compositions derived from traditional African sculpture and decorative arts.

The canvas, a combination of paper, linen and regular canvas, was developed about 15 years ago and the artist in foresight of his continuous developments of past works, has effectively made it into a permanent base that assures the ease of replicating a motif to be reexamined for its ultimate result and value.

The exhibits have been segmented to cover various periods and thematic exploits of Onobrakpeya’s artistry. It features folklores, folktales and myths; cultural expedition and religion of the people; social unrest, Atasa Series and others.

They explore a diverse scope of subject matters that are peculiar to the messages treated by the artist. This range from social commentary as seen in the statement piece, Ibiero Djidara that decries violence against women as witnessed globally today and how they have become victims of barbaric acts such as, femicide, rape, trafficking and other forms of dehumanisation; to works like Ekugbe (1994/2019), Smoke from the Broken Pipe (2005), Ekuoregbe (2003) and Travail of the Continent Masquerades III (2005) that address the leadership and governance continent.

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“I have been working for over 60 years and it was time to let at least examine what I have been doing; bring out the work and let people see and draw ideas from my creativity over the years,” Onobrakpeya said.

According to Kehinde ‘Kennii’ Ekundayo, who facilitated the entire project, “when I sent a proposal to the gallery on the need to show Onobrakpeya, it turned out that they had wanted to exhibit him for some years but were not successful.”

The guest curator of Façade, added, “the proposal was enough to foster a working relationship.” Ekundayo, an independent art curator based in Lagos, who is specific about modern and contemporary African art, said: “Onobrakpeya is one artist that any African curator must work with. He is a plethora of qualities that fascinates everyone. It is a blessing to have curated two of his shows and more to come.”

The first time she curated Onobrakpeya was between April and May 2019. “It was the first show that that we launched to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the studio practice of Bruce Onobrakpeya.”

Titled, Beauty And The Machine, the show featured — never been exhibited — line of works that make bold statements on the value still present in materials that have been discarded and deemed unusable.

It was a presentation of artworks achieved from abandoned items, all of which were recycled and assembled to become components of artistic productions.

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Through its exhibits, the show lent its voice to the importance of recycling as a means of environmental sanitation, as the incorporation of these erstwhile worthless materials into embodying art, not only improves the environment’s aesthetics but also is beneficial to the revenue growth of the economy and most importantly, a propagation of the art.

The head curator at Galeri ODUMIJE, a research and curatorial outfit she recently established and which operates out of Lagos, Nigeria, Ekundayo said, “Onobrakpeya’s imagination is out of the world. He is just different the way he conceives his concept and how he executes them.”

While acknowledging that working with the venerable artist is a challenge, she said, “you have people who know him and followed you have known and followed his artistry for decades.”

Her professional practice began in March 2017 with a group exhibition of amateur photographers, and has grown to curating key projects involving the likes of Onobrakpeya and Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, in various media ranging from drawings and paintings, to film and photographs, texts and installations, amongst other art forms.

She said, “for most of the exhibitions that I have curated in the last year and half, my dearest Papa Wole Soyinka has made it a ‘duty’ to check in during the process of hanging and installing the exhibits. A subconscious duty. It is what he came to do today at the Art Twenty One Gallery.”

On this exhibition, she said, “it is special. I was able to showcase something new. That’s what working with Onobrakpeya is. The challenge is always how do you put a new style of presentation to convince those who have followed him for long. I’m happy that I have always been able to live up to expectation.”

Ekundayo said: “Onobrakpeya is an institution on his own, he is been around for years and this exhibition is another opportunity for him to reach out to emerging artist once again.”

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She added, “the basis input of my curatorial experience is to educate people who step into the show and people who have followed the artists. Education and reeducation have been my purpose.”

According to Sunshine Alaibe, artist and client relations’ manager at Art Twenty One, the reason for the solo exhibition of Onobrakpeya’s artworks is the desire to re-examine the concept of painting as it concerns African art.

“The title of the show references the flawed notion shared by majority of the public that there are limits to what painting are. In effect, the show delivers a sharp contrast to the viewer’s expectation of what the technique entails, intrinsically conveying the artist’s limitless and eclectic capacity for storytelling,” she explained.

The artist and clients relations manager said: “The exhibition is a collection of his work spanning from the 60s till today and it showcases his experiences; things that he has seen, things that he has dreamed and things that he wants to communicate to the audience.”

According to Alaibe, “the exhibits reveal ideas that have been tested and executed decades ago and in their new nature, now inculcate contemporary fragments. They are a synthesis of fabric, prints and found objects that serve as a base for colour, which is the fundamental element of an Onobrakpeya painting.

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Born August 30, 1932, in Agbarha-Otor, Delta State to Urhobo parents. He spent his formative years in Edo State, and went on to become an arts teacher in Western Boys High School and Ondo Boys High School.

As an undergraduate student, he was one of the key members of the Zaria Art Society, a group of student-artists who came together to jointly repeal the “colonisation” of their artistic identities; this was prevalent given the colonial presence and establishment in the country at the time.

Today, Onobrakpeya stands out as the most researched, reviewed, critiqued and documented artist in Nigeria and arguably, the African continent. This is credited to his penchant for steadily archiving his works as well as practice, which has spanned over six decades. Amongst his recognitions are the UNESCO Living Human Treasure Award he was a recipient of in 2006, and the Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM) conferred on him in 2017.

Prof. Sunny Awhefeada, who teaches literature at the Delta State University, Abraka, noted, “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!”

Awhefeada said, “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.”

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Onobrakpeya created the Bruce Onobrakpeya Foundation, of which he is President, and which organises the yearly Harmattan workshop in his hometown of Agbarha-Otor, Delta State.

The foundation is an artist-led non-governmental organisation formed in 1998. It aims to encourage the growth of art and culture by giving artists opportunities to gain skills, while increasing public awareness of African art and its benefits to society.

Located at the Eko Hotel & Suites, the 600sqm space of Art Twenty One is intended to contribute to and to solidify the growing art scene in Lagos, as well as position this great city as a major force in the international art world.

The aim of the art space is to present and promote local and international contemporary art, as well as contemporary art projects and for the interaction of local and international cultural layers. In particular, the art space will support local and regional contemporary artists, helping them grow g them the tools to position themselves in the local, regional, and international art sphere.

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