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Onobrakpeya… Second national medal for mastery in visual culture

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Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya

As the recipient of Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM) 2017, Dr. Bruce Onobrakpeya has increased his list of medals, as a professional in the business of visual culture. In 2010, he was given Nigerian Creativity Award, and became the second recipient after the late author, Chinua Achebe.

Onobrakpeya’s latest medal boosts the list of visual artists who have been so honoured with Nigeria’s highest award of excellence. Among such artists are Kolade Oshinowo (Productivity Order of Merit Award 2004) and late Fred Archibong, 2009. In other fields of the arts, past recipients include Prof Tanure Ojaide, also Urhobo from Delta State, won in 2016. Professor J. P. Clark had won the prize, too.

For being continuously recognised, home and abroad, as a distinguished artist, Onobrakpeya (born 1932), owes his resplendent career to quite a number of innovations he has introduced into the visual arts profession, specifically in the print genre. Most profound among his pioneering innovations are the plastograph family of print techniques that originated from his Papa Ajao, Lagos, studio, which have become widely accepted both in formal and informal training environments across Nigeria. For example, the plastograph technique emerged from Onobrakpeya’s experimental works, which started in the late 1960s. It’s a process of etching or engraving on a relief surface, leading to printmaking finishing.

Apart from establishing his mastery of prints, across techniques and generating new visual arts vocabularies, Onobrakpeya has institutionalised informal training in his pet project, Harmattan Workshop at Agbar-Otor, Delta State. Currently in its 19th edition, Harmattan Workshop, is arguably, the longest running informal art gathering for both academia and full time studio artists every year, from within and outside Nigeria.

In Africa where active art content has suffered huge loss as a result of centuries’ old deficit in documentation, Onobrakpeya is known to have changed the narrative. The former art teacher at St Gregory College, Obalende, Lagos, has been recognised, as the most documented artist of modern and contemporary Nigerian art. Strangely, most of Onobrakpeya’s works, in the past five decades, were not documented by art historians and critiques. Nearly all books published on his works, techniques and Harmattan Workshops were self-documentation by the artist himself. These publications have no doubt lifted his profile above other professionals of his generation.

However, what historians may consider as one of the richest non-Onobrakpeya books on his work is Masks of the Flaming Arrow, edited by Prof. dele jegede, with supported from Ford Foundation, as well as Development Alternatives and Resource Centre; the 399 pages hard cover book was published by 5-Continents in 2012.

In the early pages – after Preface, Foreword, Artist’s Notes and Introduction – under the heading ‘Rumination on Onobrakpeya; Bruce Onobrakpeya: the Legacy,’ jegede argues that patronages energise artists as well as enhance a nation’s history. He cites the examples of ancient and pre-Nigeria art such as the Nok, Ife, Benin and Igbo Ukwu objects, as some of the windows from which the people’s history is better viewed and blossom beyond the period when the works were created. The scholar, however, warns that “patronage is vibrant only when there is a coterie of individuals or entities whose unbridled love for the arts is matched by the wherewithal and determination to exert an affecting presence.”

The much-celebrated or controversial sobriquet ‘Zaria Rebels’ given to a group, who were among the early sets of pioneer art students of Nigerian College of Art, Science and Technology (NCAST), Zaria, expectedly, resurfaces in jegede’s writing. Recall that Onobrakpeya was one of the members of the Zaria Arts Society and students that graduated at NCAST in 1962. Despite volumes of works written by critics and art scholars, over the decades, on the Zaria rebels’ subject, jegede appears dissatisfied with the directions of most writers. Something has been missing, he writes, “we have not adequately contextualised Zaria,” noting that the Zaria group demonstrated an allergy to neo-colonialism.”

In fact, jegede notes, for example, how the young artists were not impressed with the star artist of that period, Ben Enwonwu’s thematic direction. The young Zaria students, according to jegede, were not impressed by Nwonwu’s “coolness with colonial officialdom and felt that he was not a strong advocate of indigenising the arts.’

Members of the Zaria Arts Society included Uche Okeke, Yusuf Grillo, Onobrakpeya, Demas Nwoko, Simon Okeke and Odechukwu Odita. Perhaps, the events that celebrated Onobrakpeya at 80 in 2012 would remain profound in the history of the Lagos-based master printmaker. Interestingly, the exhibition aspect of the event celebrated the artist’s 50th year-career. The exhibition titled Ore Idjubili (Jubilee Festival), shown at Nike Art Gallery, Lekki, Lagos, brought to the fore several periods in his career as well as the depth of retrospection.

More importantly, the exhibition was the artist’s first solo since 1992. Onobrakpeya’s periods in focus at Ore Idjubili (Jubilee Festival) included Mythical Realism, 1957-1962; Sunshine, 1962-1967; The Mask and Cross, 1967-1978; Symbols of Royalty, 1978-1984; Sahelian Masquerades, 1984-1988; The Mask, 1990-1995; Social Unrest, 1995-1999; and Installation (1995 till date).

However, Ore Indjubili refreshes memories on the concept behind some of his works, as well as exposes seeming competitive edges, which the artist’s application of materials and technique has over philosophy. For example, his aggressive use of either found objects or native, but traditional religious-like materials shows how the philosophy powering the entire composite struggles for attention.

Indeed, materials and technique – taken for granted in art parlance – should drive the themes or philosophy, but for Onobrakpeya’s subsisting Installation Period, which started 17 years ago, norms need not be lionised. In fact, his installations such as Golden Jubilee Dance, first presented at the last Dak’Art and Hunters in the Rainbow Forest, though deodorised in shrine-like fragrant, would readily compete with material-craze concepts raging on the scene.

In the brochure of the exhibition, an excerpt from a 1972-piece, written by Jean Kennedy, describes Onobrakpeya as an artist whose “outward reserve is misleading. It conceals a resolute intent and an impressive record as a creative artist.”

In July this year, Onobrakpeya added another feather to his list of honours. He and two first class monarchs were honoured with doctorate degrees by Delta State University. The recipients included Ovie Richard, Layeguen Ogbon, Ohworode of Olomu Kingdom and Asagba of Asaba, Professor Joseph Edozien.

He is a recipient of Pope John Paul II’s award for painting the life of Saint Paul; a Fellow of Society of Nigerian Artists (SNA) in 2006; Fellow of Asele Institute award; Fulbright Exchange Scholar award; honourary D. Litt. from the University of Ibadan (UI) in 1989.



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